Trained by U.S. Marines in 1918 and elevated to commander in chief of the National Army by 1927, General Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961) assumed control of the Dominican Republic in 1930. While successful in reducing foreign debt and fostering greater economic prosperity for the Dominican people, Trujillo and his heinous human rights abuses—including the murder of thousands of civilians—managed to escape rebuke from the international community for decades. Although his reputation became tarnished after reports of a massacre against an estimated 20,000 Haitians became public in 1937, it wasn’t until his failed assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt in 1960 that the Organization of American States finally voted to sever relations with the brutal dictator. A year later, Trujillo was killed by a group of rebels determined to topple his regime.
Rafael Trujillo’s Early Years
Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was the third of 11 children, born to lower-middle-class parents in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, on October 24, 1891. After receiving an elementary education, he worked as a telegraph operator and a guard on a sugar plantation.
During the United States’ occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, Trujillo joined the Constabulary Guard and was trained by U.S. Marines. His military career quickly progressed and by 1927 he was named commander in chief of the National Army.
Trujillo’s Absolute Power
In 1930, a group of rebels under the leadership of Rafael Estrella Urena planned to overthrow Dominican President Horacio Vasquez for disregarding the constitution by extending his presidential term. General Trujillo, with whom Urena had previously made an arrangement, held his troops back as the revolution unfolded, maintaining his neutrality. With Vasquez in exile and the power of government up for grabs, Trujillo eliminated his political rivals through intimidation or force and won the next presidential election unchallenged, ushering in the “Era of Trujillo.”
Within months of taking over the presidency, the capital city of Santo Domingo was virtually destroyed and 2,000 people were killed by a hurricane that ripped through the Dominican Republic in early September. Trujillo responded by placing the country under martial law and quickly began to clear the debris and rebuild the city. Six years later he renamed the capital Cuidad Trujillo in his honor, along with thousands of other streets, monuments, and landmarks throughout the country.
During his oppressive dictatorship Trujillo was credited with improving sanitation, constructing new roads, schools and hospitals, and increasing the general standard of living for the Dominican people. But his practice of securing kickbacks on all public works contracts and monopolizing a vast array of lucrative industries ensured that the increased economic prosperity was disproportionately distributed to his family, supporters and military personnel.
Trujillo’s Brutal Regime
Despite the fact that he technically ceded the presidency to his brother Hector in 1952 and 1957 and installed Joaquin Balaguer in 1960, Trujillo retained ultimate control over the Dominican Republic for 31 years. The secret police force he established included a widespread network of spies that was used to censor the press and to threaten, expel, torture or kill dissenters in orchestrated accidents or “suicides.”
Before a definitive border had been established in 1936, disputes between the Dominican Republic and neighboring country of Haiti had persisted for centuries. Trujillo feared the “darkening” of Dominican people and publicly promoted anti-Haitian sentiments. In October 1937, amid reports of Haitians stealing cattle and crops from Dominicans along the northwest border, Trujillo ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Haitians. Punishment for the atrocity amounted to an agreement in which a paltry US$525,000 was paid to the Haitian government.
The Era of Trujillo Comes to an End
Years later, after discovering that the Venezuelan government led by President Romulo Betancourt had sponsored a plot to oust him, Trujillo retaliated by sending agents to assassinate Betancourt in Caracas on June 24, 1960. News of the failed assassination attempt infuriated world leaders and prompted the Organization of American States (OAS) to dissolve diplomatic ties and impose economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, underground resistance movements had arisen in opposition to the dictator since the 1940s, but they were often swiftly suppressed, as was the case with the three revolutionary Mirabal sisters who were notoriously killed by Trujillo’s henchmen in a purported car accident in 1960. On May 30, 1961, however, Rafael Trujillo was ambushed while traveling home in his car and gunned down by seven assassins, some of whom were members of his own armed forces.