One of the largest sugar suppliers to the U.S., Central Romana in the Dominican Republic, is coming under government scrutiny for labor practices.
ON A WARM, muggy morning in February 2021, masked men arrived at a dilapidated wooden shack in a remote Dominican Republic work camp without light or running water. Armed with 9-mm pistols and 12-gauge shotguns, and wearing masks to cover their faces, they were part of a private security force assembled by one of the largest exporters of sugar to the United States.
The armed force dismounted from their motorcycles and approached the tin-roof dwelling. It was the home of Flexi Bele, a Haitian sugarcane worker who had lived with his family in this distant corner of this Caribbean nation for decades. Now, he was facing a peril that many of his fellow cane cutters dreaded: The masked men, employed by the billion-dollar Central Romana Corporation, pounded on his door.
“They kicked me out of the batey,” said Bele, using the term for a sugarcane work camp in the Dominican Republic. After 40 years as a Central Romana cane cutter, Bele, 66 years old, had been told there was no more work for him. He was being laid off. “I worked, and worked, and worked, I gave them so much work.”
Bele lived in a camp known as Batey Lima, company housing owned by Central Romana. The armed men standing at his door had come to evict him.
“After they kicked me out of my job, they kicked me out of the batey,” said Bele, whose story was corroborated by a fellow cane worker who lived nearby.
“They were armed,” Bele said. “They are always armed. I didn’t argue with them.”
Instead, he gathered some belongings and climbed into the back of a Central Romana truck, to be driven off the plantation. He never received a pension.
The eviction at Batey Lima is part of a series of incidents involving Central Romana’s special security force: an elite, Colombian-trained motorcycle force, with their identities cloaked, often in the pre-dawn hours. The Intercept chronicled similar evictions with nearly identical descriptions of the special forces—masked; wearing dark blue-black uniforms; armed with shotguns and 9-mm pistols; conveying a fearsome presence to local residents—in more than 15 interviews over the last six months.
Many of the residents in the bateyes hail from Haiti, the impoverished nation on the other side of the island of Hispaniola. These cane workers, most without Dominican citizenship, and often undocumented, are left vulnerable to wage theft and other labor abuses. An estimated 200,000 stateless Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many of them facing racial and national discrimination.
The special sugarcane force, known to cane workers as “LINCE,” was formed in recent years by the billion-dollar company, according to multiple on-site observers, including two regular security guards. The force’s ostensible purpose was to protect sugarcane and the company’s livestock across its sprawling properties of a quarter million acres in the eastern Dominican Republic. According to sugarcane workers, the current Central Romana security guards and one former member of the regular security force, a former Dominican military officer, and legal experts, the special force’s mandate since its formation is actually about power over sugarcane workers.
The motorcycle-mounted guards are part of Central Romana’s “repressive team of paramilitaries,” said attorney Mario Jacobs, who is representing more than a dozen former Central Romana employees in wrongful-termination cases. The force’s real purpose, he said, is to “intimidate and control the workers.”
“I think to protect cows, they should not wear a mask, right? They want to maintain control so that the cañeros will always work for them.”
A Central Romana spokesperson, Jorge Sturla, confirmed the existence of the special police detail, including its nocturnal nature. He said it was “false” that the unit is called LINCE, the name that many of the company’s employees use. Sturla said the unit is part of the company’s larger security force, known as the Guardiacampestre, or Country Guards. He acknowledged that the special force wears darker uniforms “to make them less visible to outsiders who might aim to harm them” and masks “to cover their eyes from the dust and debris on the dirt roads.” Sturla insisted that the “sole purpose” of Central Romana’s security forces “is to protect the company’s property,” including its sugarcane and cattle operations.
Many of the company’s own employees, however, including members of the wider Guardiacampestre, are skeptical.
“I think to protect cows, they should not wear a mask, right?” a former Central Romana security guard wondered in an interview. Like others in this story, he asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Rather, he said, the main aim of the force is to instill fear in the impoverished workers, whose wages, as recently as 2021, were as low as $4 per day. “They want to maintain control so that the cañeros will always work for them,” the ex-guard said. “So that they may be like slaves.”
The ex-guard and a current member of the Guardiacampestre both said the purpose of the special force is to create “terror.” The current guard has accompanied the elite squad on night raids. “They see the people as dogs,” he said. The weapons, the head-to-toe blue-black uniforms, and the full facial masks, he said, create an atmosphere of intimidation so that the cane cutters and their families “always live in fear.”
In an email, Sturla, the Central Romana spokesperson, wrote that “[W]e have never received a report of a Guardiacampestre member intentionally intimidating any of our employees.” Rather, he indicated, the company’s patrols aim to catch cattle rustlers and landless peasants. “It is unfortunately a common occurrence in our country for land squatters to invade and illegally settle in private property, and there are many livestock thieves,” Sturla said, adding that the patrols are necessary due to Central Romana’s “vast and open areas.”
CENTRAL ROMANA IS often compared to a state within a state, a government unto itself, where local or federal law enforcement officials are rarely seen. The massive plantation is larger than all of New York City, with its own private roads, its network of bateyes, endless acres of cane, an international airport, a five-star tourist resort, and a port from which it ships its main product to the United States.
The company exported more than 240 million pounds of raw sugar from its sprawling plantation to the U.S. last year, much of it poured into bags of Domino Sugar or folded into Hershey bars and other U.S. confections. The 110-year-old company was bought by a team of investors led by Florida sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul in 1984. In recent years, Fanjul family members are executives at both their own company and its subsidiary, Central Romana, according to official documents.
In the last year, U.S. Congress and American federal agencies have expressed alarm, largely as the result of reporting in Mother Jones and Reveal that exposed appalling living and working conditions. The House Ways and Means Committee asked the Biden administration to investigate evidence of forced labor by Dominican sugar companies.
Central Romana holds nearly two-thirds of the Dominican Republic’s coveted sugar export quota to the U.S., especially lucrative due to the inflated price each pound of sugar fetches on the U.S. market. But those exports, and tens of millions in annual profits provided by the price supports, could be halted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection if the agency finds “reasonable suspicion” of forced labor in the Dominican cane fields.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., chair of the trade subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, called the reports of the paramilitary-style force “very disturbing.” Blumenauer said, “The notion that we don’t know who they are—disguised identity—is exceedingly troubling. And if these folks are in the employ of the company, that raises red flags. It’s just a signal that something is wrong.”
In January, Blumenauer and 14 other members of the House committee called on three federal agencies—the Department of Labor, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and Customs and Border Protection—to investigate reports of forced labor in the Dominican cane fields. Since then, numerous U.S. delegations, some also including State Department officials, traveled to Central Romana’s plantation to talk with workers and company officials. Blumenauer himself was part of a delegation in early July. The reports of the militarized security force, Blumenauer said, “raises questions of a different degree” regarding forced labor.
“These people feel powerless. These people are basically stateless and they feel trapped,” Blumenauer said—a condition that is only made more dire due to “intimidation by masked, armed paramilitary security officers for the company.”
“These people feel powerless. These people are basically stateless and they feel trapped.”
Labor and human rights advocates monitoring company compliance, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, look for potential violations of the International Labor Organization’s 11 indicators of forced labor—in this case, “intimidation and threats.”
“The behavior of Central Romana’s private security is relevant to determining whether forced labor exists in the sugar bateyes,” said Charity Ryerson, founder and executive director of Corporate Accountability Lab, a Chicago-based labor rights watchdog group.
“The relevant question is: How are these private security forces perceived by workers?” Ryerson said. If the intimidation is such that “a reasonable worker would fear leaving the bateyes, or speaking out about living or working conditions, or organizing with their fellow cane cutters,” she said, then these security forces may present a “menace of penalty”—a defining feature of forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization.
Other possible International Labor Organization indicators at play in Central Romana’s cane fields, Ryerson said, include isolation, abusive living and working conditions, and “abuse of vulnerability.” Another indicator, physical violence, is more difficult to document.
Sturla, Central Romana’s spokesperson, did not respond to specific questions about possible violations of International Labor Organization indicators of forced labor, declaring categorically that “there is no forced labor” on its cane fields, “as proven by the numerous sustainability audits performed yearly, by respected third-party international auditors.”
In 2020, one respected sugar trade group, Bonsucro, rejected Central Romana’s application for admission, in part over concerns of possible forced labor, according to an email from the trade group. And a September 13 Labor Department report “identified several potential indicators of forced labor” on Dominican cane fields. The report found that “[p]recarious legal status and a lack of documentation limit workers’ movement and have led to their isolation, fear of dismissal or deportation for complaining about unlawful labor conditions, and fear of deportation or denouncement to authorities for ceasing work or leaving the bateyes.”
CENTRAL ROMANA’S special security force was formed under the direction of Marcos Tulio Reynoso Ramirez, director of security for Central Romana, according to multiple sources who asked for anonymity to avoid retribution. According to a decree by then-Dominican President Leonel Fernández, Reynoso Ramirez was hired by the private corporation a year after he stepped down as brigadier general in the Dominican military.
The high-level government approval, both of the general’s retirement and of his hiring by Central Romana, is one example among many of the revolving door between the powerful sugar company and senior government ministries. The former president of Central Romana, for example, later served as the nation’s vice president, foreign minister, and ambassador to the United States. Central Romana did not respond to repeated questions about Reynoso Ramirez, or why it was necessary to hire a top military official to oversee an agricultural security force.
The hiring of a former general to run security for a private sugar company underscores that, in the Dominican Republic, sugar is still king. “Sugar is considered a national security issue,” a former high-ranking American official, who asked for anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, told us. “They will do anything in their power to protect it.”
In interviews, Central Romana employees familiar with the group they call LINCE said they understood the force’s stated mandate as benign, mostly to protect the cane, equipment, and the company’s livestock. This however does not explain the extensive weapons and other training that is conducted by Colombian security experts, according to four sources familiar with the training.
“Every year when the harvest ends, they bring a group from Colombia to do the training,” said a former Central Romana security employee, who went through part of the seven-week training and asked for anonymity to avoid reprisals. He said the training was conducted by Colombians overseen by Central Romana security chiefs, including Reynoso Ramirez and ex-Dominican military officer Pedro Medrano, and conducted on the site of the company’s 7,000-acre luxury resort, Casa de Campo. (Central Romana did not respond to questions about the military-style training.)
“They teach you how to use all kinds of weapons,” said the former employee, adding that he was personally trained on 12-gauge shotguns and 9-mm Browning semi-automatic handguns. “They teach you how to shoot from the motorcycles.” Eventually, the former employee said, he left the training course, disillusioned by its purpose. “The more I saw of what they did, the more I asked myself, ‘How can I be part of this?’” This sentiment deepened, he said, when he witnessed an eviction of a terminated cane worker in a nearby batey.
“The more I saw of what they did, the more I asked myself, ‘How can I be part of this?’”
“Everything was thrown in the street,” he recalled. “They ripped off their door, threw all their things away.” He said the cane worker’s wife kept crying. “They left those people without knowing where they were going.”
Other members of Central Romana’s regular Guardiacampestre expressed similar misgivings after accompanying the elite force on nocturnal operations. There existed a pattern of intimidation by masked forces who arrive to evict people who have been fired, fallen out of favor with the company, or are deemed to be squatting on lands the company claims to own, according to interviews with the guards and evicted workers.
“I have witnessed a lot of outrages,” said the current security guard, of his time alongside the nocturnal forces. In a 2019 incident, he saw some 40 men with the special force, accompanied by an equal number of regular security officers, raid a ramshackle collection of about 25 houses, known as Villa Guerrero. It was 4 in the morning. The settlement was quiet; most residents were asleep in their homes. Suddenly, the elite guards began pounding on the doors, evicting all of the families. “They had to leave their houses with all of the things,” said the security guard.
“And they broke everything,” said the guard, describing what he witnessed in the morning raid. “Every house that was there. All the mothers with their children, crying. At that moment—imagine! I felt powerless. I couldn’t do anything.”
The guard noted that he had to follow orders, but nonetheless resented what he was being asked to do. “I didn’t feel good about it,” the guard said. “Why do they treat them that way? Why? It hurt me.”
For those who lost their homes, or were evicted, it hurt more.
Angel Calis García, the cane worker and neighbor who witnessed Flexi Bele’s eviction in Batey Lima, said he complained to his bosses about the way Bele, his wife, and young children were treated. García had watched as Bele’s daughter clung to her father’s leg during the family’s eviction. “He is a very dear person,” García said, explaining why he fought for his neighbor. “He would do anything for you.”
In the bateyes, however, trying to hold the Central Romana’s special security forces to account can come with costs. In March 2021, the month after García made his complaint, the masked men returned to Batey Lima. Eight guards rolled in, two to a motorcycle. They dismounted and promptly ordered García to vacate his home. The darkly dressed, masked security guards, García recalled, fired three shots in the air as García’s wife and daughter looked on. One guard grabbed him roughly by the arm. “They were very aggressive,” García recalled. “They treated me as if I were a drug trafficker.”
Soon, the family’s possessions were in the back of a pickup truck, and García, after 15 years in the cane fields, rode away with no home and no job.
This reporting was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.