When we think of a prototypical Latin American dictator, leftwing or rightwing, images of a man with carefully coifed facial hair wearing a uniform with plenty of medals and possibly a nice pair of aviator sunglasses come to mind. Pinochet, who we’ve already met, and Castro, who we’ll meet later, more or less conformed to that image.
But the originator of that image, the archetype if you will, was Dominican Republic dictator President Rafael Trujillo, otherwise known as “El Jefe,” or “the Boss.”
In addition to being the first true modern Latin American dictator, Trujillo was one of the longest-serving dictators on our list, ruling the Dominican Republic from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961. During that long rule, Trujillo tortured and killed thousands of his countrymen, engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Haitians that many consider genocide, and even had many of his enemies assassinated in foreign countries.
And in true dictator fashion, Trujillo developed a cult of personality through in-depth propaganda, which included monuments of El Jefe scattered throughout the Dominican Republic and films that portrayed him as a benevolent leader. He was even credited with coining the slogan: “God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth.”
In Trujillo’s case, it wasn’t just one crazy thing that led to his demise but really a whole series of events and actions. Trujillo was a man who believed in living by the sword and it was that crazy belief that ended with him dying by the sword.
A Ph.D. in Thuggery
Trujillo was born Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina (these names are ordered according to Latin American naming tradition) on October 24, 1891, in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic to Jose and Silveria Trujillo. He was raised in a middle-class family but became involved in criminal activity at a young age. Young Rafael wasn’t afraid to mix it up in fights with older kids and adults and thought nothing of stealing or robbing from people at knifepoint.
Rafael worked his way up quickly in the local criminal hierarchy, although his recognition on the streets also brought him to the attention of local law enforcement, landing him in prison for several months.
By the time Trujillo was in his mid-twenties, he looked like just another throw-away Dominican kid. With no real marketable skills other than thuggery, it looked as though he’d probably have longer and longer stretches in prison to look forward to and more than likely an early death.
But then the Yankees came in 1916.
The Marines landed in the Dominican Republic that year to make the government pay debts it owed and to “restore order,” which meant installing a pro-American government. To do that, the Americans had to establish a military that was tough yet compliant with their goals.
The Yankees were willing to train anyone, as long as the applicants weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
Rafael Trujillo was cut out perfectly for the job!
After earning his Ph.D. in thuggery on the streets of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo applied those ideas and tactics to the new Dominican military, moving up quickly in the ranks. By 1930, he was the commander-in-chief of the entire Dominican armed forces and played a major role in the coup d’état that toppled the existing government.
Trujillo was “elected” president in an election in 1930 and re-elected in 1938. He was also president from 1942 to 1952, but between and after those terms, Trujillo was the true power in the Dominican Republic, and everyone knew it.
He organized many of the street gangs into pro-government paramilitary forces and he introduced the idea of death squads, which became much more common in Latin American in the 1970s and ‘80s. Trujillo ruled by decree and if any visible opposition to his rule cropped up, he had the offenders murdered, arrested, or “disappeared.”
In 1937, he had between 20,000 to 30,000 ethnic Haitian civilians killed in a border conflict known the “Parsley Massacre.”
When Castro and the communists came to power in nearby Cuba in 1959, another enemy was added to Trujillo’s list.
By 1961, Trujillo had been doing crazy stuff for more than 30 years—violent repression, corruption, and amassing a mile-long enemies list—so it wasn’t a shock to many when his roosters finally came home to roost.
Take a Number Please
When Rafael Trujillo was assassinated on May 30, 1961, not many people around the world were very surprised. The fact that he was shot to death in broad daylight as his motorcade drove through the capital city of Santo Domingo should have been jarring, to say the least. However, since Trujillo was such a lightning rod and made so many enemies, no one really flinched.
Perhaps that was the final crazy thing Trujillo did—being so careless with his security and not realizing that he had an especially long enemies list.
But it may not have mattered anyway.
It was immediately revealed that Trujillo’s murder was part of a conspiracy by the upper ranks of the military, which was not so surprising, but it was also determined that the CIA played an active role as well. It seems that the CIA just got tired of Trujillo’s crazy behavior and decided to do away with him and give the job to someone more to their liking.
Did You Know?
- Besides killing and imprisoning thousands, Trujillo also used his country’s treasury as a personal piggy bank to make him and his family very wealthy.
- Trujillo publicly professed to be a Roman Catholic as part of his image, but he was married three times and had many mistresses, which he often flaunted in the open. El Jeffe also had at least seven children.
- Although the world knew well of Trujillo’s brutality, the Dominican Republic joined the United Nations during his rule.
- In addition to helping Trujillo come to power, the American Marines also brought baseball to the Dominican Republic, which today is the country’s most popular sport by far.
- Trujillo was said to carry a list of names of those he wanted killed throughout the world. He would offer high rewards to successful assassins.