Street vendors in Santo Domingo usually eke out a living selling pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters to motorists caught in the notorious traffic jams of this bustling Caribbean capital. But these days, the motorists are the ones seeking out the vendors. "This porno is all people want," says Wilfredo Ortiz, 22, who has sold DVDs on the streets here for five years. "It's so popular. I've never seen anything like it. This is bigger than that Paris Hilton." But the star of the homemade movie that Ortiz is referring to is no American socialite. He's the Dominican Republic's most wanted man. Known as "Junior Capsula," "Angel Rosa" and a slew of other aliases and nicknames, José Figueroa-Agosto is more aptly described as the Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean, an alleged drug trafficker whose network is extensive and whose rule is lethal.
At least that was the case until last month, when Figueroa-Agosto, 46, was captured while driving through a Puerto Rican neighborhood wearing a wig as a disguise. Living up to his brash reputation, Figueroa-Agosto, when asked by the arresting officers for his identity, said, "You all know who I am," before attempting to run off. His arrest has only served to heighten his status in the Dominican Republic, where a tell-all book was released last week written by no less than the press secretary of the country's President, Leonel Fernández. The Power of Narco by Rafael Nuñez is an in-depth tale of the hunt for Figueroa-Agosto.
The book and the sex footage which came into circulation after it was allegedly confiscated during a raid on his Santo Domingo apartment last year have become something of a comic sideshow to what officials and analysts say is a major step in combating a deadly scourge. "The significance of this arrest can't be overstated. He was the head of a major drug-trafficking organization," says Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, provost of York College at the City University of New York and an adviser for Caribbean governments on how to combat drug trafficking. "This arrest shows that the bad guys can be brought to justice."
Authorities say Figueroa-Agosto, a Puerto Rican, worked as a drug-boat driver until 1993, when he carried out a hit on a truck driver who allegedly stole a shipment of Colombian cocaine. Puerto Rican courts convicted him of the murder and sentenced him to 209 years in prison. But in 1999, he walked out of the prison's front gates after presenting the guards with a falsified release order. He was on the run for the next 11 years, leading his criminal organization while living what U.S. Marshals described as a luxury lifestyle in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He allegedly bought homes and cars under false identities. At one point, Figueroa-Agosto or a man claiming to be him called a popular Dominican morning radio show and offered an $800,000 reward for the murder of either of the country's two top police officials.
Puerto Rican and Dominican anti-narcotics units tell TIME that his organization controlled as much as 90% of the drugs that were run from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. The FBI says Puerto Rico is the Caribbean's most sought-after drug territory because much of the cargo from there does not have to clear customs before entering the eastern U.S. seaboard. Considering his alleged criminal network's size and influence, Figueroa-Agosto faces shockingly thin charges: the feds have filed a single passport fraud charge that dates to 1999 (he has pleaded not guilty to the charge). But he has already been convicted in Puerto Rico of charges for which he will have to serve 205 years in prison. Agencies are mounting a drug-trafficking case against him and declined to answer questions about the reach of Figueroa-Agosto's organization.
Puerto Rico's Attorney General, Guillermo Somoza-Colombiani, and other sources tell TIME that two of Figueroa-Agosto's partners have been arrested and charged. One is his alleged right-hand man, Elvin Torres Estrada better known as "El Muñecón" who was arrested in Puerto Rico in June. According to court documents, Torres supplied a Puerto Rican drug gang called "the Combo of the 70s," which operated out of a fortress-like base in public-housing complexes in Bayamon, just south of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. From there, the gang supplied "narcotics to drug traffickers throughout Puerto Rico, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida," an April federal indictment against Torres and 64 other alleged members of the organization states. The organization made millions off the distribution. According to the indictment, they threw a free annual Christmas concert with performances by some of the biggest names in Puerto Rican reggaeton for residents. They reportedly built recording studios and gyms. And they traveled to the U.S. to buy cars to compete in drag-racing events, according to the indictment.
Allegedly feeding it all was Figueroa-Agosto's trafficking ring, receiving shipments from at least three South American routes. According to federal charges filed against the second of Figueroa-Agosto's alleged accomplices, Ramon Antonio Del Rosario-Puente, better known as "Toño Leña," the organization transported South American cocaine and heroin from three routes. A small airplane would drop bundles in the Dominican Republic, where they'd be collected, repackaged and moved to Puerto Rico or the U.S. (Torres, who is in jail awaiting trial, has not entered a plea. Neither has Del Rosario-Puente, who in custody in the Dominican Republic. The U.S. Attorney's office in Puerto Rico has asked for his extradition.)
The racket apparently made Figueroa-Agosto a millionaire. When Dominican authorities raided his Santo Domingo apartment and other residences last year, they confiscated the equivalent of $4.6 million hidden in an armored Mercedes-Benz, eight other vehicles including two Ferraris and the animals of a small petting zoo he'd set up in a countryside home. Figueroa-Agosto, however, escaped. A man claiming to be him later told a popular morning radio show that he paid police $1 million to evade the arrest. President Fernández has said there would be no "sacred cows" in routing out the corrupt officials with ties to the case. Last week, 13 police and military officers were removed for their alleged involvement.
Yet similar corruption throughout the region has some questioning the focus of the Obama Administration's major regional anti-drug effort, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. Launched last year with $37 million divided among 15 countries, the initiative was needed to mop up the "spillover" from the Colombian and Mexican drug wars, officials say. This year, the Administration has requested $72.6 million, distributed to areas such as military and narcotics control. "The initiative needs to go further in strengthening the local institutions," says Colin Frederick, a Trinidad and Tobagoborn research associate with the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Frederick says the Caribbean has long been a way station for drug shipments to the U.S. and Europe, but lately drug traffickers are seeking out more routes in the region. "These are small countries that lack border and maritime security ... And these days, traffickers are looking for alternatives to Central America and Mexico." Many Caribbean countries, including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, have linked increasing murder rates to the drug trade. Analysts expect a new wave of violence to follow Figueroa-Agosto's arrest as rival cartels battle for control of the lucrative route. "He'll be replaced by someone else. They'll fight for control," Frederick says.
Figueroa-Agosto's career as a drug trafficker may have come to an end, but back on the streets of Santo Domingo, it seems his cinematic life is just getting started. Police arrested dozens of DVD vendors, but that did little to cut demand. A week after the video first hit the streets, Ortiz says he tripled his asking price for it. "They're selling like hot bread," he says.