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Dr. Jose Abel Gonzalez was settling in to watch the Chicago Cubs take on the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball when he got a call from his clinic. It was 9:33 p.m. on June 9, and a patient had just arrived with a gunshot wound. Gonzalez knew it was serious. His clinic was one of the most expensive in the Dominican Republic, the kind that catered to the rich and powerful. It wasn’t the kind of place gunshot victims in Santo Domingo typically got sent.
A second call followed. The voice on the line told him the name of the victim: David Ortiz. Gonzalez hurried to his car, his mind racing: How could this happen? Who would shoot David Ortiz?
When he pulled up to the clinic, Gonzalez saw the Rolls-Royce SUV that had ferried Ortiz from Santo Domingo’s Dial Bar and Lounge, where the slugger had been shot in the back minutes earlier. Inside the facility, Ortiz was lying on a gurney, being interviewed by the police. He was in pain and kept asking for the surgery to begin. The doctor and his team would operate for 4 1/2 hours, removing his gallbladder, a segment of his liver and large intestine, and repairing his small intestine.
The clinic turned chaotic during the operation. It filled with friends, family, media and well-wishers, all wondering why someone would shoot so beloved a figure. A video would later emerge of a woman getting into a screaming match in the lobby, leading to rumors of a love triangle. There were even concerns that the shooter might show up to finish the job. Gonzalez, though, knew not to ask out loud the questions that had been running through his mind. “I learned really fast that the less you know as a doctor of a patient’s situation, the better,” he said.
In the aftermath of the shooting, no one seemed to know much—and yet stories about what happened proliferated. Rumors flowed, with tales of women, money and assorted improprieties filling social media and then leaking into print. One infamous narcotrafficker would be rumored to be responsible and then suddenly another. Theories were easy to come by, answers less so.
The national police arrested new suspects every few days, but the more progress authorities claimed to make, the murkier the situation became. When they took the alleged gunman into custody three days after the shooting, prosecutors and police practically mocked him for saying he targeted Ortiz in a case of mistaken identity—only for authorities to turn around a week later and try to convince a skeptical nation that this was, in fact, exactly what happened.
I spent 10 days in late June traveling throughout the country, looking for answers. To put it bluntly, I did not crack the case. But I did find something fascinating: Nearly every person I spoke with—from high-ranking newspaper editors to corner drug dealers—expressed a deep skepticism that anyone would, or even could, definitively solve the riddle of why Ortiz was shot. Whatever story the government produced, who would believe it?
Though the Dominican Republic is a country of a wide variety of natural resources, a robust tourism industry, a proud history and a plethora of cultural contributions, two of its exports seem to grab the most headlines: a disproportionate number of extremely talented baseball players, and cocaine. In recent years—as the drug trade has led to government corruption—the country has, to no small extent, been shaped by demand from the United States for both.
Those forces now seemed to have intersected with devastating consequences. As I moved from barrio to barrio, I found that the story of Ortiz is much bigger than simply determining why he was shot. His saga reveals the most consequential fault lines in Dominican society today.
One of my first stops was Ortiz’s childhood neighborhood, Barrio Invi, in the town of Haina just outside Santo Domingo. “We were poor, and our neighborhood was teeming with violence and crime,” he wrote in his 2017 book, Papi: My Story. He told of stabbings, shootings and drugs, of his parents showing him a bag of cocaine at a young age and warning him about it. In a 2015 Players Tribune video, Ortiz detailed how his father would make him practice baseball in the backyard, because it was too dangerous out front. In his autobiography, Ortiz recounted seeing someone killed when he was a child. “I saw things that no one should see, especially a kid,” he wrote. In numerous interviews, Ortiz comes across as scarred, yet proud of where he came from and that he was able to make it out.
On the drive in, nicely paved roads bordered by factories lead to narrower potholed streets, where young men zip by on small 150cc motorcycles and vendors hawk fried pork at small stands. When I arrive at a town square a block away from where Ortiz grew up, the neighborhood looks anything but dangerous. It’s a festive scene, complete with loud Latin trap music booming from a speaker set up on top of a car, children romping in a nearby playground and a crowd seated on folding chairs downing Presidente beer.
The neighborhood’s central base is Colita Peluqueria, a one-seat barbershop that doubles as a bar. Inside Anna Vazquez sits at the counter, sipping from a bottle. “There’s no way to describe David Ortiz. And what happened to him, there’s no words to describe that either,” she says. At this moment, Ortiz is hospitalized in Boston, but his presence in the town is palpable. Vazquez says she lived next door to David when he was growing up, and that she cooked for him and helped sew his clothes. She was there when he signed his first contract. He was never in trouble and was known as a good kid who was friends with everyone.
In the barrio there are mixed opinions on what has become the government’s official story. A day earlier, Attorney General Jean Alain Rodriguez had declared in a press conference that the shooter’s true target was not Ortiz, but his friend David Sixto Fernandez, who happened to be with the slugger that night. The attorney general said that a drug trafficker named Victor Hugo Gomez Vasquez believed that, eight years ago, his cousin Sixto provided information to narcotics investigators about him. That caused Gomez, who maintains his innocence, to assemble a hit team—a ragtag crew of men with nicknames like The Bone, The Surgeon and Carlos Nike. Initially prosecutors said the job cost a mere $7,800, though the number would balloon to $30,000 within a week.
The cause of the mistaken identity, authorities said, was a grainy photo snapped on the night of the shooting by one of the men surveilling Sixto, which made it appear as though Ortiz’s much smaller friend was wearing white pants. When the gunman arrived at the club, he saw Ortiz—dressed in white pants—sitting at a table with Sixto, the reggaeton artist Secreto and Jhoel Lopez, a television host, who hours before the shooting posted a photo with Ortiz captioned, “You know we are from the street.”
As widely shared security footage shows, the shooter, allegedly confused, approached the table and shot the most recognizable man in the Dominican Republic in the back at point-blank range before fleeing. Police say the team that attacked Ortiz included two getaway cars and a motorcycle (an enraged crowd caught the motorcyclist and, in a widely seen video, beat him to a pulp).
Inside the bar cum barbershop, Vazquez says she believes the police are telling the truth, because why would anyone want to hurt David? Ortiz’s lawyer had put out a statement declaring his client “innocent in what happened” and denying he had any illicit or unsavory connections—that is good enough for Vazquez. Jose Pinales, the barber and proprietor of the establishment, agrees. He shows off a photo of David in the shop from more than a decade ago. “He’s like an idol here. Not just for the neighborhood, but for the country, as an example to follow,” he says.
Sitting outside the shop in a plastic green lawn chair with a cigarette and beer in hand, Kendy Correa is more skeptical. He says David was a low profile guy who loved to go to parties. In the neighborhood nobody trusts the police, Correa says. He thinks Ortiz was the target, and it was someone who was jealous or hated him. “It felt like a part of the family got shot,” he says. “For the poor kids here, he did so much. So many people who needed help would go to his foundations.”
My fixer, a Dominican journalist, speculates that we’re witnessing an ongoing battle between people’s distrust of the authorities and their wanting to protect Ortiz’s reputation.
Later in the week Nathaniel Perez, a senior sportswriter with the newspaper Diario Libre, will explain the love affair to me. “David Ortiz wasn’t better than Sammy Sosa. He didn’t hit 600 home runs. His games weren’t as popular as Pedro Martinez’s,” Perez says. “He didn’t have a complete career like [Albert] Pujols. But no other Dominican player has been as popular here as David Ortiz.”
Perez tells me how Ortiz was known for being a man of the people, someone who could go to the roughest neighborhoods without a worry, someone who did so without a trace of arrogance. Other players might go visit the barrio they grew up in, but Ortiz would go to all the barrios. He was constantly raising money and, through his foundation, regularly provided life-saving surgeries for needy children. In 2006, he raised $200,000 to start the first pediatric cardiovascular unit in the Dominican Republic. “No other baseball player or athlete has done more for Dominican children,” says Perez.
“He has stolen the hearts of Dominicans, Perez adds. “Dominicans see him as someone who has never forgotten the place he comes from.”
In the end, that might have been what led to him lying on that operating room table.
“The reason that he was attacked in that place is that he has never forgotten about those places,” says Perez. “When he wants to socialize, he goes to the barrios.”
Ortiz has always seemed acutely aware of the thin line between a life of baseball riches and one of poverty. Leaving his old neighborhood, I head to the nearby barrio of Manresa, where my fixer tells me he’s well-connected and I meet someone who ended up on the other side: a drug dealer who appears to be in his early 30s but goes by El Viejo, or The Old Man. When I ask him whether he fears for his own safety in his line of work, he tells me he doesn’t because it’s him that does “bad things” to people. He’s slight, wearing a tank top and flip flops, with a nose ring and a Yankees hat.
Cars are triple parked and music is blasting. Children swim in the dirty beach water, and the sand is littered with plastic bags and bottles. It’s a decidedly rougher area than Haina. El Viejo tells me three major leaguers have come from nearby: Cleveland All-Star Carlos Santana, plus former bit players Eddy Garabito and Rafael Perez.
El Viejo, too, wanted to be a baseball player when he was younger. A buscon—a scout who trains young players in exchange for a slice of future earnings—came to the neighborhood and told all the kids to get into a circle and do some exercises. He chose a few from the group but told El Viejo that he was too small. He eventually turned to drug dealing. “We search for jobs, we look, we look, we look, but drugs? It’s always easy to find someone who has drugs to sell,” he says. “We don’t choose the world we’re living in.” He knows parents who don’t send their children to school because they can’t afford it. “The easiest way out is to sell drugs. That’s the way to get out,” he adds. “Baseball can save kids from having to live this life.”
El Viejo doesn’t know what to believe about the Ortiz shooting, but he definitely doesn’t trust the police. For many Dominicans, the notion that anyone in the country would have trouble recognizing David Ortiz is absurd. Sixto and Ortiz look nothing alike. A photo of the two together is plastered everywhere. Sixto is light-skinned and dwarfed by the darker-skinned Big Papi. Others point to the video of the shooting, noting how one of the members of the alleged seven-person hit team was captured in the background barely reacting after Ortiz gets shot, instead just casually grabbing his beer. If the wrong target was hit, wouldn’t he show some level of surprise?
Even a recent presidential candidate, Luis Abinader, tweets out that no one he spoke to believes the official account, and that an independent investigation needs to be commissioned.
“The lack of institutional trust is a real problem. The people don’t trust in the justice system,” Guillermo Peña, a project coordinator for Participation Ciudadana, a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice and human rights, would later explain to me. Peña says the country is dealing with huge issues of corruption, poor policing and impunity for the powerful. “There’s a vulnerability in the system for the biggest cases.”
That corruption and vulnerability is a consequence of the country’s rising status as a bridge for transnational cocaine smuggling. As authorities have cracked down on the corridor through Central America and Mexico, narcos moving drugs out of Venezuela and Colombia have increasingly used the Dominican Republic as a transit point to Europe and the United States, according to the Latin American crime-focused research and journalism foundation InSight Crime. A high-level Dominican police source told InSight Crime that about 15% of cocaine produced globally passes through the country.