Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1891-1961), commonly called Trujillo and nicknamed El Jefe (The Boss), ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Though only officially president from 1930 to 1938 and from 1942 to 1952, he maintained absolute power as a caudillo, or military strongman, with puppet presidents drawn from his circle of family and close friends.
Trujillo first gained prominence when he rose through the ranks of the U.S. constabulary army established to occupy the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924 and prevent the D.R. from defaulting on foreign debts. When the U.S. Marines left the island in 1924, Trujillo was named a top military commander. In February of 1930, Trujillo cooperated with a coup to overthrow then-President Horacio Vásquez. Trujillo then ran for president with the newly formed Dominican Party and won on May 16 with 95% of the vote, an absurd figure later proved to be fraudulent. He was 38 years old when he took office on August 16, wearing a sash with the motto "Dios y Trujillo" ("God and Trujillo"). He requested the congress to declare his term the "Trujillo Era" and immediately assumed dictatorial powers. In 1931, he made the Dominican Party the sole legal political party, although it was already known that those who did not join the Party risked reprisals. Anyone without a Party membership card could be charged with vagrancy, and opponents of the regime were mysteriously killed or disappeared. Trujillo encouraged a cult of personality surrounding him, including changing the capital's name from Santiago to Ciudad Trujillo in 1936, and popularizing the slogan "Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra" ("God in Heaven, Trujillo on earth.")
In 1958, Johnny Abbes García became head of the newly created Military Intelligence Service (SIM), a secret police notorious for murders at home and assassination attempts abroad. Most notably, the SIM twice tried to assassinate the Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt, and it was strongly condemned by the Organization of American States (OAS). The 1960 murder of the Mirabal sisters, active opponents of the regime, is the subject of Julia Alvarez's novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994).
Trujillo exercised an open-door policy that favored Caucasian immigrants including Jewish refugees during WWII and Spanish immigrants after the Spanish Civil War. However, he developed a particular, virulent breed of racism, anti-Haitianism, directed against the Dominican Republic's darker-skinned neighbors who share the island of Hispaniola. Suppressing his own partial Haitian descent, Trujillo accused Haiti of harboring his opponents and ordered a massacre on the Haitian border. The Parsley Massacre of October 1937 left an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians dead. In How the García Girls Lost their Accents, the de la Torres have a Haitian maid, Chucha, who arrives at their doorstep seeking asylum after having survived the massacre. Trujillo wanted a war with Haiti, hoping to defeat them and gain control of the entire island of Hispaniola, but Haiti responded by requesting an international investigation. Eventually, the Dominican Republic was required to pay a paltry sum in reparations to the victims' families, most of which was embezzled by corrupt Haitian officials.
On May 30, 1961, Trujillo was fatally shot in an assassination plot carried out by Dominican conspirators. There is strong evidence that the CIA was involved in planning and executing the plot. Trujillo's rule left the Dominican Republic with a vast infrastructure and more stability and prosperity than most living Dominicans had previously known. However, this economic advancement came at a huge cost to civil liberties and human rights.