By Ezra Fieser
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The homicide rate in the Dominican Republic plunged to an 11-year low in 2013 as the government used the military to back up the National Police, bucking the trend in the Caribbean where increased drug trafficking has brought more violence.
The number of homicides fell by 12.5 percent last year to 1,975, compared with 2,258 in 2012, according to statistics supplied to Reuters by the attorney general's office.
That brought the homicide rate in the Caribbean country of 9.8 million to 20 murders per 100,000 residents, the lowest since 2002 when the rate was 14 per 100,000.
The administration of Dominican President Danilo Medina tightened security last year by calling in the military to patrol alongside the National Police.
When the troops were first sent into the streets, Medina was criticized for militarizing policing. Residents complained about the unsettling presence of machine gun-wielding soldiers walking streets and building makeshift camps in city parks.
But after witnessing a marked drop in crime, the government last month extended the order to keep soldiers in the street.
"In each operation that we carry out, we're coordinating with different departments, including intelligence and counter-narcotics offices," said National Police Colonel Jacobo Moquete. "We've been able to improve our operational capacity and we're conducting more efficient operations."
Other large islands in the Caribbean did not share the Dominican Republic's success. Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, which perennially appear near the top of world rankings for murder rates, both saw homicides increase last year.
Better known internationally for white sand beaches and turquoise waters, the Caribbean is one of the world's most violent regions, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
General John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said on Wednesday that there has been an increase in drug shipments through the Caribbean as an alternative to the Central America-Mexico route, which remains the preferred route for cocaine smuggling.
"We've seen now is an increase in the flow up the West Indies onward to two locations, one being the Dominican Republic," he said in a briefing at the Pentagon.
The Dominican Republic has been called the principal transshipment point in the Caribbean. Dominican officials agree that international criminal organizations are increasingly using the country as a point to move drugs to Puerto Rico, the mainland United States and Europe.
Criminal organizations, largely led by Mexican drug cartels, last year used the Caribbean to smuggle some 14 percent of the cocaine that was brought into the United States, double the percentage from a year earlier, according to estimates from the U.S. government.
Kelly said despite the increase in smuggling through the Caribbean, he has limited ability to stop it due to a lack of funding and Naval ships.
"I can see the flow. I just don't have the end-game assets to stop it," he said.
Outside of the Dominican Republic, the increase in drug smuggling has resulted in more crime.
In Jamaica, where murder had been on the decline, homicides increased by 9 percent from 2012-2013, according to the Ministry of National Security. The country recorded 1,197 murders, or roughly 43 per 100,000.
Trinidad & Tobago, where murders had also been falling after peaking in 2008, killings increased 12 percent, for a homicide rate of around 30 per 100,000, according to statistics from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service.
(Editing by David Adams and Leslie Adler)