A Mirror writer hoping to escape Montreal’s brutal winters found himself sharing a tropical resort with local criminals—and witnessing their unlikely takedown at the hands of the Dominican Republic’s notorious cops.
Up until last spring, when an international posse of cops possibly slowed down the Quebec Hells Angels’ various rackets as a result of a multi-year investigation labelled Operation SharQc, anyone obsessed with the biker gang’s various chapters need only head to Cabarete, on the impossibly beautiful North Coast of the Dominican Republic, to get up close and maybe even personal with their outlaw heroes. For years, the bikers have been coming to the D.R. to hide out and/or hang for a few weeks to chill in the sun with their families on vacation. It’s been a great country for them: the gang and their endless supply of blood money have been welcomed with open arms. The local authorities, mostly criminals in their own right, were so impressed by our Angels, they even named the street where their new bunker resides after them—Calle 81 (the “8” standing for the letter “H” and the “1” standing for “A”).
That they could ever be rounded up and carted off to jail by their Dominican benefactors just seemed too remote a possibility to even consider, yet, on the morning of April 15, 2009, that’s exactly what happened—sort of.
Sex sells, everyone buys
Contrary to how it’s often portrayed in tourist guides, Cabarete is hardly just the quaint little surfer/tourist town they love to claim it is. Oh sure, compared to Sosua, some 20 minutes or so west of here on the road to Puerto Plata, why, it’s downright sleepy, but that’s not saying much.
Sosua, with its endless array of sleazy watering holes, bargain prostitutes, toothless Dominican pimps and the fat old German expats and tourists who keep them all in business, has long been one of the world’s foremost sex tourism destinations—catering to both men and, increasingly, women.
Nobody who’s spent any time here bats an eye upon coming across some stinky white-haired Euro-stud mauling their latest 15-year-old “girlfriend.” Nor does anyone give it a second thought when spotting teenage “sanky pankies”—these ripped, criminally good-looking ebony kite surfer dudes who generally work the resort beat—playing tonsil-hockey on the beach with somebody’s saggy-titted, liver-spotted grandma. It’s just an accepted part of the scenery, like palm trees and garbage-strewn streets.
As with most, if not all, third world sex tourism hot spots, prostitution, much like the drug biz, thrives here because, well, there’s simply not a whole lot of career choices open to the largely uneducated, dirt-poor masses who inhabit the Dominican countryside. Outside of the major cities, Santo Domingo and Santiago, the poor rural people who make up the bulk of the population spend their days lounging outside their one-room wood and tin shacks getting pissed on cheap rum, watching chickens chase each other around, shitting in their backyards, betting on birds at their friendly neighbourhood cock-fighting ring and constantly enjoying that most inexpensive of activities affordable to all with functioning, disease-free genitals: fucking their brains out.
If there’s anything absolutely indisputable about the D.R., it’s that they share one hell of a highly sexualized culture in this most delightful part of the tropics. As the expat gringos in these parts are fond of saying, welcome to paradise.
The devil finds work…
But as idyllic as the life of a Dominican campesino most certainly sounds, there’s also no shortage of misery in this country. Putting it bluntly, they have more than their fair share of desperate people here, especially among the Haitian community, the Dominican Republic sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and Haiti being, of course, the grand old dame of fucked up nations. The North Shore, where Cabarete is located, is chock full of mostly illegal Haitian immigrants.
So perhaps nobody should be all that surprised to learn there’s also quite a bit of violent crime here, although, like everywhere else in the world, most of the gun violence takes place among the various criminal outfits who run the local drug and prostitution rackets. While it does happen on occasion, your average sun-seeking tourist isn’t all that likely to get killed, unless, of course, he/she tries to fuck over the local underworld or foolishly decides it’d be cool to get rip-roaring, pass-out drunk and go down to the barrio at 4 a.m. with a wad full of money taped to their foreheads looking to score blow or companionship. Still, everyone who can afford them has guns here, and few think twice about using them when the situation calls for it.
A Tiny problem
So on that fateful morning of April 15, 2009, when I stepped out the door of my rented condo unit at 5 a.m. to investigate what all the commotion in the hallway below me was about, I wasn’t as shocked as I might have been to discover a six-man posse of masked machine-gun-toting maniacs readying to break down the door of my downstairs neighbour, Steve “Tiny” Rainville. After all, only a few days earlier, I’d witnessed some poor Haitian dude getting blown to bits in broad daylight while I sat on a lovely shaded terrasse enjoying a quiet steak dinner with my wife, and, well, after enough exposure to this sort of violence, you kind of get used to it. The real shocker that morning was the fact that these guys were coming after my man Tiny.
Tiny, you see, must weigh about 350 pounds and possesses a demeanour that cries “I KILL PEOPLE!” When he, I and the neighbourhood children would all be frolicking at our complex’s swimming pool together—Tiny inevitably with some smokin’ hot new Haitian chick at his side—I couldn’t get over how much the guy bore a resemblance to a giant, foul-mouthed manatee, except not quite as cute as the ones you find in the ocean, given that this manatee could easily, if provoked, kill me in a heartbeat without giving it a second thought.
Outside of being a looker, Tiny also happens to be a full-patch member of the Hells Angels, fun-lovin’ Québécois fellas who even the dimmest Dominican criminal knows not to fuck with. For that matter, even the police, by far the biggest, baddest criminals on the island, knew better than to fuck with them. These guys had power, man.
Bad men make good neighbours
Cita del Sol, the condo complex where I’ve been wintering these past few years, used to be owned—or at least, operated—by the Quebec Hells Angels. And while the bikers and their families still regularly stay here on vacation (You’ve got to wonder sometimes just how much vacation time these guys get every year anyway. Two weeks? Three? Do they get stress leave after killing somebody?), your average Cita del Sol dweller ranges from wealthy American windsurf-loving millionaires who’d rather hang among regular people than their snooty uptight colleagues, to bargain hunters like me, who are in Cabarete because it’s as inexpensive a Caribbean winter destination as you’re ever going to find.
Cita del Sol is a pretty safe place to live by Dominican standards, not only because of the shotgun-toting security guards stationed outside in the parking lot 24/7, but because all the petty criminals in the area are terrified of the complex’s rep as “the Hells Angels house” and don’t want to make the mistake of possibly burgling a biker’s apartment to consequently get hunted down and killed for their efforts.
To most Cabarete gringos, in a land where the cops usually want to know how much money you’re prepared to give them before deciding whether to come to your aid or not, having influential thugs like the Hells Angels in town hasn’t been much of an inconvenience. They’ve never been known to beat on anybody just for the sake of it and, for the most part, are pretty respectful to their neighbours. Many a courteous Angel has politely held the gates to Cita del Sol open for my wife and me when we’ve passed by, not necessarily smiling at us, but at least grunting our way in a friendly, non-threatening manner. The whores in town, along with every bar/restaurant staff along the North Coast, love them because they’re always throwing their considerable loot around.
And for those few who were down with them on a personal level—the Angels generally stick to themselves—a phone call to their bunker could well save your ass should you find yourself caught up in the Dominican justice system.
BUSTED: Aurèle Brouillette, Marc Readman, Steve “Tiny” Rainville
Even though the majority of the bikers hanging in Cabarete were/are older, semi-retired crooks, the accepted wisdom is that they initially set up shop in the D.R. to filter Colombian drugs back to Canada. Whatever the case, they certainly had plenty of influence with the local police. It wasn’t uncommon to see Tiny, or fugitive Aurèle Brouillette, the influential father of alleged Quebec Hells Angel head honcho Mario Brouillette, or my very favourite Angel, the Tickler, a little guy with a fierce reputation and a face that’s a dead ringer for Leonard Cohen circa 1971, drinking champagne in Sosua with the local chief of police. The cops are so corrupt around here, they’re not particularly concerned about being spotted in public hanging out with the same fugitives they’re theoretically supposed to be arresting and deporting back to Canada. Like, what’s anybody going to do about it?
Which is what made seeing all those masked gunmen at Tiny’s door that morning last April all the more bizarre. Could these guys really be, like… cops? How could such a thing even be possible? Yet before I ducked back into the relative safety of my apartment, I could have sworn these guys were wearing uniforms, and sure enough, I was to find out later, they were. The guys coming to get Tiny were a Dominican SWAT team, masked only to conceal their identities lest Tiny’s associates figure out who they were someday and come back to take revenge on them and their families.
The word around town was that the bikers must have refused to pay bribe money, or enough bribe money, to some government bigwig in Santo Domingo in order to have finally been rounded up and deported to Canada the way they were. Tiny’s bust was just one part of Operation SharQc’s mass arrests in the D.R., France and Quebec, which saw some 156 Quebec bikers rounded up and carted off to jail to await trials that are just now getting underway. But the feeling among Cabarete townspeople was one of absolute disbelief.
For those familiar with Dominican justice, the idea of these rich, powerful criminals being forcibly expelled from their bunker on Calle 81, their zillion-dollar fleet of Harleys and Range Rovers all seized, of Tiny and his heretofore omnipotent Aurèle Brouillette pal actually getting carted off to prison, well, it was nothing short of incredible. The end of an era. But of course it wasn’t.
Back to business
The word on the street last spring was that the Dominican police/Armed Forces had rounded up every last Canadian biker on the island, were laying claim to all their considerable personal property and shipping every last one of them back to Canada. Yet that’s not quite how it’s played out.
Outside the Cabarete police station on the day of the bust, you could count dozens of recently seized Harleys all chained up in the parking lot and you couldn’t even get close to their bunker on Calle 81 for all the SWAT team action going down. Yet to date, after all the activity that transpired that morning, only three bikers were actually arrested and deported to Canada: Tiny, Aurèle and Marc Readman, whom I’d never seen before—hardly the entire D.R. HA operation.
After keeping a relatively low profile in town over the spring and summer, the bikers have a presence in Cabarete again. There’s new activity in their bunker (which, if it was ever properly seized in the first place, has been returned to them), the local prostitutes are suddenly flush and the bar they recently opened behind the HA-affiliated “Bozo beverage house” saw some 200 bikers stopping by to initiate its grand opening a couple weeks ago.
So while Tiny and Aurèle sit in Canadian jails waiting to face murder and various other charges stemming back to the biker wars of the 1990s, it appears to be only a matter of time until life returns to normal in Cabarete, with our very own Québécois outlaws once again ruling the roost in their adopted homeland of the sunny Dominican Republic. As they like to say around here, welcome to paradise.
Originally posted in the Montreal Mirror, 2009