19 arrested in $347M Dominican graft case

FILE - Presidential primary candidate Gonzalo Castillo, of with the Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana political party, arrives to vote during primary elections in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Oct. 6, 2019. Authorities in the Dominican Republic have arrested 19 people in a sweeping corruption investigation that targeted Castillo and three ex government officials accused of illegal campaign financing. (AP Photo/Tatiana Fernandez, File)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Authorities in the Dominican Republic have arrested 19 people in a sweeping corruption case that accuses a well-known former presidential candidate and three former officials of embezzling nearly $350 million and illegal campaign financing.

The arrests are the latest in a string of investigations that officials have launched in the past two years as part of a crackdown on rampant government corruption in the Caribbean country.

Among those detained Saturday night is Gonzalo Castillo, a former public works minister who won 37% of the vote when he ran as presidential candidate for the Dominican Liberation Party in the 2020 general elections won by current President Luis Abinader.

Also arrested is a former treasury minister, Donald Guerrero; former comptroller general, Daniel Omar Caamano; and former administrative minister to the presidency, Jose Ramon Peralta.

Prosecutors said they are accused of paying bribes, laundering assets and illegally financing the previous electoral campaign on an "unprecedented" scale after embezzling $347 million of government funds.

The suspects were charged after authorities launched 40 raids targeting their properties and businesses in the capital of Santo Domingo and beyond.

Hundreds of Castillo supporters gathered Monday outside the Justice Palace to protest his arrest as they waved the party's purple-and-yellow flag and tried to damage the building before police scattered the crowd with tear gas. Meanwhile, officials with the Dominican Liberation Party questioned the impartiality of prosecutors and accused them of only investigating and arresting former government officials and not looking into corruption allegations against Abinader's current administration.

"It is clear that behind these actions, there are markedly political and reelection interests," said Charlie Mariotti, the party's secretary-general.

Police on Saturday also arrested the former director of the State Sugar Council, Luis Miguel Piccirilo; former director of the National Cadastre, Claudio Silva Pena; and the former directors of Casinos and Gambling, Oscar Chalas Guerrero and Julian Omar Fernandez.

Defense attorneys for the accused could not be immediately reached for comment. The suspects were expected to appear in court Monday.