'It Was a Confusion': The Shooting of David Ortiz

The attack on the MLB legend in the Dominican not only shocked his family and fans but also shed a light on Big Papi's relationship to his home and put him at the center of a wider national crisis.
Daniel CastroContributor IOctober 1, 2019

On the morning of June 9, Jhoel Lopez met up with his good friend David Ortiz at a barbershop in Santo Domingo, to give him back his sunglasses. Lopez, a well-known television host in the Dominican Republic, had interviewed the Red Sox legend on his show a few days before, and Ortiz had left them behind. It was a Sunday, and Ortiz planned on returning to the United States, where he lives most of the year, the next day. Lopez ended up spending the entire day with him. They had lunch and took Ortiz's kids to ride go-karts. That evening, they decided to go out for a drink, and Ortiz chose the Dial Bar and Lounge, which they visited whenever he was in town.

The chief draw of the Dial (pronounced "Dee-ahl"), located in a working-class residential area of Santo Domingo, is its terrace. It is a place where the capital's elite go to be seen. Baseball players, actors and reggaetoneros mingle with bankers and government officials at reserved tables. But that Sunday evening, the bar was abuzz when Lopez arrived with Big Papi, arguably the most famous man in the country. As suggested on a widely reported surveillance video, they sat at a table with four other men at the edge of the packed terrace, along the sidewalk. People stopped by again and again to greet them and take selfies. They had been at the Dial for about two hours when a man walked toward them from the sidewalk, stopped a few feet away and fired a single gunshot into Ortiz's back. It cut through him and hit Lopez in the thigh. The shooter tried to fire again, but the gun jammed. Ortiz fell to the ground, and the crowd on the terrace scattered.

Ortiz was rushed to a clinic by Eliezer Salvador, a businessman who was also at the Dial. Lopez was later taken to the same clinic. The bullet had just barely missed his femoral artery, but after treatment, he recovered more quickly than Ortiz, who had to have his gallbladder removed and part of his intestines repaired. Ortiz was then flown to Boston in an air ambulance provided by the Red Sox and underwent multiple surgeries at Massachusetts General Hospital. Over a month after the shooting, on July 27, he was released from the hospital. He returns to TV as a baseball analyst for Fox this week.

In late July, I traveled to the Dominican Republic to better understand Ortiz and the story behind the shooting. Few wanted to discuss it on the record, either out of respect for Ortiz or fear of those behind the attack. Some of my friends on the island were hesitant to meet with me. "I have kids," one said, in apology. But I found that the narrative of the shooting had become entwined not only with the country's international image, but how it saw itself.

Why would anyone want to shoot Big Papi, perhaps the country's most adored sports figure, a man some would describe to me as "bigger than the president"? How did it come to pass that the possible Hall of Famer found himself on the floor of a bar in his homeland, bleeding from a gunshot wound? In the aftermath of the shooting, it soon became clear that Ortiz's life in the Dominican had intersected with people who were part of a world in which the slightest misstep could put someone at risk.

Most Dominicans got their initial information about the shooting from social media, and in the weeks that followed, rumors about the possible motive caught fire.

A video of a shouting match between two women at the clinic where Ortiz was being treated went viral, and in a culture in which successful men are often expected to be tigueres (literally, tigers—figuratively, playboy-hustlers, a la Porfirio Rubirosa), a love triangle became the leading theory for the motive behind the shooting. Ortiz, who is married, had been seen in public with one of the women, Dominican model Maria Yeribell Martinez Garcia, and the Daily Mail reported Ortiz had bought her a Lexus. The ownership papers for the car in her name were published, as was a check signed by Ortiz. The papers, from a dealership called Delta Comercial, were dated June 8, a day before Ortiz was shot. The check, dated June 10, was made out to the same dealership, with a memo that translates to "vehicle purchase." Ortiz's spokesman later acknowledged Ortiz had been friends with the woman for several years but denied the alleged affair and the purchase of the car. In an interview with a Dominican media outlet, a person identifying herself as Martinez Garcia denied having a relationship with Ortiz but confirmed they were friends.

The third person in the alleged love triangle with Martinez and Ortiz was Cesar Emilio Peralta, aka Cesar El Abusador, a man identified by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a major drug trafficker in the Dominican, one of the top transit nations for cocaine shipments to the United States. He allegedly owned several of the most popular nightclubs in Santo Domingo, and he and Ortiz had once owned apartments in the same luxury apartment building. While one report citing anonymous law enforcement sources speculated that a drug kingpin had ordered the hit on Ortiz, another report stated it was Peralta who had targeted Ortiz over his involvement with Martinez. A video also showed Peralta visiting the clinic the night of the shooting.

The Dial Bar in Santo Domingo, where David Ortiz was shot in June while sitting near the sidewalk.
The Dial Bar in Santo Domingo, where David Ortiz was shot in June while sitting near the sidewalk.Luis Gomez/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The authorities' shifting versions of what happened only intensified the speculation. At first, police confirmed Ortiz was the intended target. When the suspected shooter, Rolfi Ferreira Cruz, was apprehended three days later, though, he told reporters he'd meant to shoot someone else. A spokesman for the prosecutor's office responded to Ferreira Cruz's admission by telling CNN he was skeptical that any Dominican would not be able to recognize Ortiz, adding that he felt Ferreira Cruz was fabricating a "story" to avoid being "lynched" in jail. But a few days later the attorney general announced at a press conference that, indeed, Ferreira Cruz was telling the truth about mistaking Ortiz for someone else. He described an elaborate murder-for-hire plot involving up to 15 people that had instead targeted Ortiz's friend, Sixto David Fernandez, who was sharing a table with him at the Dial that night. Ferreira Cruz had reportedly received only a blurry photo of Fernandez taken minutes before the shooting in which Fernandez's clothes appeared to look similar to Ortiz's that night. Fernandez was not harmed in the shooting.

In the Dominican, where the nightmarish regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo bred a deep distrust of authorities that has recently been fueled by highly publicized accusations of government corruption, many found it hard to buy that someone could mistake the 6'3", 250-pound Ortiz for Fernandez, who is much smaller and has lighter skin.

The shooting had come at a sensitive time for the country. President Danilo Medina (who threw out the first pitch at Ortiz's last regular-season game in 2016, in Boston) was seeking to amend the constitution to allow a run for a third term, prompting a phone call from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a judge in the Dominican Republic would soon send six Dominican officials to trial for allegedly accepting millions in bribes for public works contracts in the massive Odebrecht scandal. An earlier spate of American tourist deaths and assaults at some resorts had thrown the tourism industry, which contributes 8 percent of the country's gross domestic product and employs over 300,000 people, into crisis. The Ortiz shooting was, Lopez said, "the straw that broke the camel's back" for the country and its image abroad.

The turbulent summer would culminate in a law enforcement dragnet that targeted Peralta and his network and was described as "the largest operation against organized crime ever in the country," according to officials quoted in a Washington Post report. The timing of the crackdown raised the question of whether the operation was somehow set in motion by the attack on Ortiz.

Regardless of the answer, the negative press was already having calamitous effects on the country's bottom line. Lopez was pressured by some after his release from the hospital to convince Ortiz, who at the time was still in treatment in the U.S., to give a statement affirming that the Dominican was a safe country. He declined, since his friend had not yet recovered. But Lopez posted an impassioned patriotic statement of his own on Instagram, promising "not to lose faith in our people, our country, our beloved Dominican blessed by God."

Lopez, who is friendly with President Medina and met with him after recovering, expressed confidence in the authorities. He said he was hurt by all the gossip about Ortiz and couldn't understand why anyone would want to sully the reputation of a man who had done so much to make their country proud. "I've taken this for what it is," Lopez told me. "We were victims of an incident that has nothing to do with us. We were at the place on the wrong day." When people around the city asked if he believed the authorities when they said his friend had not been targeted that night, he said: "Yes, because it's the official version. Do you have another?"

That depends on who you ask, and maybe more importantly, where you ask it.

"You know we are from the street," reads the caption of a photo Lopez posted with Ortiz on Instagram hours before the shooting. Ortiz is usually associated with Haina, a town outside Santo Domingo where he signed his first MLB contract, with the Mariners. But he spent a formative part of his childhood in Gualey, a poorer, more dangerous area in the heart of the capital, on a hill overlooking the Ozama River.

A view from the Francisco del Rosario Sanchez Bridge of the Gualey district in Santo Domingo, where Ortiz grew up for a time.
A view from the Francisco del Rosario Sanchez Bridge of the Gualey district in Santo Domingo, where Ortiz grew up for a time.Cole Barash for B/R

In the late 1980s, the barrio was wracked by political violence and protests over the regime of President Joaquin Balaguer, a Trujillo era holdover, who was known as the hemisphere's "last caudillo," or strongman. It also became a hotspot for the drug trade. In The Players' Tribune in 2015, Ortiz said that there were shootings "every single day" and that he saw people killed.

To this day, it remains a neighborhood that Uber drivers often refuse to enter. When I visited, to meet a few of Ortiz's childhood neighbors in the La Famosa sector, my driver left me far from my destination. But as I walked through the neighborhood, on a Sunday afternoon, what I found was a party. It was Father's Day in the Dominican Republic, and families sat in chairs on the street, sharing food and playing dominoes outside brightly painted cinder-block homes with barred windows. Bachata music blasted from speakers in the colmados, blends of bars and corner stores. Men sipped Presidentes in the summer heat.

At the home of Patricio Flores, Ortiz's former neighbors described how the star's father, Leo, a mechanic whom they all respected, had always tried to keep his son out of trouble. "His dad didn't like to see him on the street," said Flores, a welder in his 40s.

Ortiz's nickname back then was Puntu, on account of his large, pointy head, which, according to Flores, would regularly break through his baseball caps. When they played vitilla, the Dominican version of stickball—with a broomstick for a bat and the cap of a water jug for a ball—people from all over the barrio would come to watch Ortiz hit. But if he heard what sounded like his dad's motorbike coming up the hill, he would immediately run home. Leo wanted his son to practice, Flores said, but only in the backyard.

They remembered Ortiz as a sensitive, generous boy who cried easily and would often buy them breakfast at the local bakery. They couldn't recall a single time he got into trouble. But he was competitive and would win at everything, even marbles. Many in their circle had dreamed of baseball stardom, but in their early teens, Ortiz was the one who began to separate from the pack. Flores had also been talented—he proudly proclaims he still gets calls to play on weekends—but, unlike Ortiz, his parents didn't sign him up for the local league. "[Ortiz] was luckier than you," said Ramon Martinez, an older man nicknamed Pijama who was friends with Ortiz's mother and had watched him grow up.

After the shooting, Flores said he couldn't sleep. Among their old crew, he had been the closest to Ortiz (he'd fondly recalled Papi, in his Twins days, bringing him one of Paul Molitor's bats), but they had fallen out of touch, and Flores didn't know how to reach him. Edickson Navarro, another of Ortiz's old friends, said he was still angry about the attack. "David is part of us," Ramon Martinez added. "It hurt us." When I asked his old neighbors what they thought had happened, Navarro initially replied, "It was out of envy," before correcting himself and saying, "or, as the authorities said, it was a confusion." They rejected all the whispers that Ortiz could be involved in something scandalous. "A person at that level isn't going to get mixed up in trouble," Navarro said. "He doesn't need to."

We took a walk and stopped in front of Ortiz's childhood home, a modest white duplex around the corner. The last time anyone around here had seen him was in 2013, when he came to give out toys to the children of Gualey. He stood in the middle of the street, chatting and posing for pictures with the crowd that formed around him. "Why do I need security here?" Flores said Ortiz told him. "Look how people treat me."

Ortiz's childhood home in Gualey, Santo Domingo, carries memories of the Ortiz family for some neighbors who still live there.
Ortiz's childhood home in Gualey, Santo Domingo, carries memories of the Ortiz family for some neighbors who still live there.Cole Barash for B/R

Haina, the seaside town where Ortiz's family moved when he was an adolescent, is a world away from Gualey. The streets are wider, many residents own their homes and there is far less crime. The pastel-colored houses double as storefronts with painted signs for salons, colmados, even lingerie shops.

When I reached the heart of Invi Cea, Ortiz's old neighborhood, children were playing in a tree-lined plaza. Nearby, Jose Pinales sat outside his barbershop, Colita Peluqueria, which faces the plaza and is a popular gathering spot. Pinales told me he has known Ortiz for more than 25 years and had spoken to Ortiz's sister often since the attack. His replies were clipped, especially in reference to the shooting. "It was a confusion," he said.

David is part of us. [His shooting] hurt us.
— Former Ortiz family neighbor Ramon Martinez

He expressed admiration for Ortiz and said the baseball star was a great representative of the country, but he didn't hesitate when I asked if Papi visited the neighborhood often. "No," he said. "To be honest, no." He said he understood that Ortiz's life had changed. "He'd like to come and hang out more, but his life doesn't permit it. And I understand that perfectly."

Papi's charisma, considerable charitable efforts (through his foundation, he helped open the country's first pediatric cardiovascular unit) and accessibility have given him a special place in the hearts of Dominicans, more so than other baseball legends. "Even at his level, you could find him on the street, interacting with people," Navarro had told me in Gualey. It was a refrain heard often in his native city: Ortiz, who has racked up a reported $160 million in MLB earnings, felt most comfortable in the barrios, with his people, and that's why it was no surprise he'd been sitting at a sidewalk table without security that night at the Dial.

Yet while those in Gualey and Haina revere him, they also admit he rarely visits.

Ortiz lives mostly in Miami, and the luxury apartment he owned in Naco Blue Tower, the same building where Peralta lived, was in one of the most exclusive areas of Santo Domingo. There's no question he's given back tremendously, but his ties to the barrios he'd grown up in didn't seem especially strong.

Still, out of all the Dominicans I spoke to, the only ones who said they believed the authorities, aside from Jhoel Lopez, were Ortiz's former neighbors. To most, it wasn't merely the outlandishness of someone not recognizing Papi (an official I spoke to at the prosecutor's office argued Ferreira Cruz was possibly on drugs, but the police had shown no evidence of this, and a man who'd seen him minutes after the shooting told me Ferreira Cruz seemed terrified but sober); it was also Dominicans' lack of trust in the authorities, whom they viewed as corrupt. The attorney general has been accused by critics of shielding political allies from prosecution in the Odebrecht case. The national police commissioner had once been sanctioned for an illegal raid that had resulted in a death and the disappearance of over $1 million. And now these same officials were the public faces of an explanation of the attack that, for many, didn't add up.

In addition to Ferreira Cruz, 13 other people were taken into custody in connection with the shooting, and the reported total for the cost of the job was $30,000. The man allegedly behind the plot, according to Dominican authorities, was not Peralta, but a drug trafficker wanted by the DEA named Victor Hugo Gomez Vasquez. He supposedly targeted Fernandez, his cousin, because he suspected Fernandez provided information to police that led to Gomez Vasquez's arrest in 2011. Further tangling the web, it was later reported in the Dominican press that Fernandez had been on the payroll of the national police since 2015.

Fourteen people were arrested in connection with the Ortiz shooting, though many in Santo Domingo were skeptical of the authorities' version of what happened.
Fourteen people were arrested in connection with the Ortiz shooting, though many in Santo Domingo were skeptical of the authorities' version of what happened.Tatiana Fernandez/Associated Press

The conclusion that Fernandez was the target had failed to convince Daniel Pou, a security expert who had trained Dominican police officers for 15 years. Pou said the investigation, which lasted less than two weeks before the attorney general announced Fernandez was the target, had not been sufficiently deep and effective. "The [authorities'] explanation is too simple and cheap for the possible complexity of the causes behind the attempt," he explained. Pou mentioned there were photos of Ortiz circulating on social media that showed him hanging out with people linked to organized crime, and said investigators had not fully probed those relationships, possibly under pressure to protect Ortiz's image.

In a video on social media that was later deleted, Peralta, the drug trafficker, called Ortiz a friend. Pou acknowledged that people like Peralta often seek out celebrities to promote lawful businesses and make those involved in criminal activity seem like legitimate businessmen. But even if Ortiz had not been close to Peralta, Pou explained that in the drug traffickers' world, even minimal contact could lead to danger. "This is going to raise a lot of questions about Ortiz," he said.

For Fabian Melo, the former head of anti-narcotics at the Santo Domingo DA's office and a respected law professor, the authorities' version went against all criminal logic. He wondered why Gomez Vasquez would target his cousin so many years later, in such a public way. Fernandez was not a hard man to locate. He owned an auto repair shop, and if someone wanted to kill him, they could've found him there, with much less fanfare, any day of the week.

The Dial, on the other hand, was not only popular but also relatively secure. Government officials who frequented the bar were often accompanied by their bodyguards, who, on the night of the shooting, included active military members. He said criminals always send a message and that the spectacle of the crime had to be considered. "My perception as to the motive is a bit different," he said. "This was directed at David Ortiz."

Due to the high-profile nature of the case, the authorities were under pressure to produce a hypothesis, Melo said; society was clamoring for it. "Now, if it's a conscious act by the authorities to change A to B to satisfy society, then this is something serious," Melo said. "If they have proof that it was targeting Ortiz, then it's something very sensitive."

The [authorities'] explanation is too simple and cheap for the possible complexity of the causes behind the attempt.
— Daniel Pou, security expert

I asked him, if that were the case, why would the state risk creating an even bigger scandal by offering a false narrative of the shooting? He said there were several elements to consider. There was a Hall of Fame bid in play. But more importantly, there was the damage a crime like this could inflict on the "vulnerable areas of tourism." If a man as beloved as Big Papi could be the target of a murder attempt in the Dominican, it would seem that anyone could. And any negative press would be another blow to the country's image, especially in the eyes of Americans—both the sportswriters who vote on Hall of Fame ballots and the tourists who make up nearly 65 percent of its visitors. The idea that the shooting was a mistake, that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, was more palatable.

Even though recent homicide rates in the Dominican Republic are lower than other popular vacation destinations, such as Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, flights from the U.S. mainland were down by 74 percent in July and August compared to last year. Tourism is so important to the country that the tourism minister suggested to the New York Times that the bad press could be a conspiracy to destabilize the president's ruling party. Given the stakes for the country's image, I asked Melo, who spent seven years as a government prosecutor, if he thought law enforcement officials were truly capable of a cover-up. "I see it as a real possibility," he said.

Colonel Frank Felix Duran Mejia, the spokesman of the Dominican National Police, said the investigation of the shooting was quick but transparent, and that it is among the investigations he has felt most confident in defending to the public. He said all the suspects in custody had, to some degree, admitted their culpability, and that the evidence would be revealed during their trials. In August, the Boston Globe reported that Colonel Duran Mejia is one of three high-ranking Dominican officials on MLB's payroll as a resident security agent, reporting to commissioner Rob Manfred and responsible for the safety of MLB players, scouts and prospects in the Dominican, but the report found no evidence that MLB had improperly influenced Duran Mejia on the Ortiz investigation.

But why would Ortiz be a target in the first place? Those who believed he had been said it was more about where he hung out and who he interacted with. Melo said many former baseball stars in the Dominican Republic have trouble finding their place in society. He suspected that the same quality others praised in Ortiz—his propensity to interact with people of all kinds in various social settings—had led to his rubbing shoulders with a dangerous crowd. He cited Ortiz's opening of a nightclub, Forty Forty (Jay-Z, who had opened the 40/40 Club in Manhattan not long before, later sued Ortiz over the name, and they settled out of court in 2011), in the Herrera district, an area west of Santo Domingo where narcos were known to operate. "Everyone here knows that there are areas that criminal groups have taken control over," he told me. "You have to know them in order to navigate them." Often, Melo said, nightclubs are used by drug traffickers as fronts for money laundering, and no matter how legitimate any club is, to get involved in that commercial niche in a place like Herrera would likely mean competing with criminal groups for business or, at the very least, asking for their permission to operate.

The facade of the Forty Four club that Ortiz owned in Santo Domingo for two years.
The facade of the Forty Four club that Ortiz owned in Santo Domingo for two years.Cole Barash for B/R

A few days later, I visited Herrera with a man I'll call Mateo, to protect his identity, who grew up there and was familiar with the nation's booming cocaine trade. He spent three years in prison on a drug charge himself, though he said it was a misunderstanding. We drove slowly through the narrow back streets of the Las Palmas neighborhood, not far from the club, which Ortiz sold three years ago. Coincidentally, five of the suspects police had arrested in connection with the shooting came from Guajimia, a barrio nearby. On a street of modest homes with aluminum roofs, Mateo pointed out a conspicuously large house with a sprawling balcony. It had belonged to Edwin Omar Cabrera Gonzalez, aka El Muerto de Herrera, a drug kingpin who was known throughout the country. El Muerto was gunned down in 2013, but he and his family—one picture in a Dominican newspaper, Listin Diario, showed his grandmother, in an apron and sunglasses, holding two pistols in the air—had near total control of the area in the years Ortiz owned the club.

After exiting Buenos Aires, a nearby neighborhood that is also known as a market for drugs, we turned left. A block away, tucked behind a gas station that Ortiz had also owned, was the club. The hulking, sleek building, surrounded by palm trees, stood in stark contrast to the body shops and used-tire lots otherwise lining the avenue. Still popular, the club has been renamed Forty Four, probably thanks to Jay-Z. Mateo recalled when it was being constructed.

"It was a monstrosity," he told me. "It was beautiful." A fever took over the neighborhood when people heard Ortiz was involved. Opening night was extravagant as celebrities descended on the area, and on the weekends that followed, locals would walk to the parking lot just to take pictures of the sports cars.

Many soon found out that while Ortiz was from the barrios, the club was out of reach for those who lived in them. "They looked at how you were dressed," Mateo said. "Poor people couldn't go in." As for himself, he could afford a few overpriced beers back then and partied at the club sometimes. He liked the vibe but never hung around for long. "I would end up in another club," he said, laughing. "Because it was too expensive to stay there." He saw Ortiz there on multiple occasions, especially in the winter, and even spoke to him once. To his recollection, the club was full of baseball players, entertainers and drug traffickers. "The narcos, the famous capos … who sell their stuff, to be seen makes it easier. To make themselves known at the club, to show that they owned the neighborhood."

Mateo acknowledged that narcos party all over Santo Domingo, and just because they frequented a certain club doesn't necessarily imply a connection with its owner. Yet he still found it hard to understand why Ortiz would even consider opening a club like that in an area like Herrera. "It was strange … in a barrio, a club that expensive." When I asked him what he really thought about Ortiz, he acknowledged he wasn't that into baseball, but he was a big fan of Papi's. "For me, he's the best." He had a friend whose daughter had received treatment through Ortiz's foundation. "You can see he's not a person who does bad things." But there was a lot he didn't understand, he said. "He was around people who are not so great."

The former home of Edwin Omar Cabrera Gonzalez, a drug kingpin who controlled much of the Herrera neighborhood before he was killed in 2013.
The former home of Edwin Omar Cabrera Gonzalez, a drug kingpin who controlled much of the Herrera neighborhood before he was killed in 2013.Cole Barash for B/R

Ortiz was not available for an interview with Bleacher Report, but Joe Baerlein, his spokesman, told me Ortiz had initially bought the gas station as an investment, and it was his father's and sister's idea to build a club on the property. Since Ortiz spent most of the year playing baseball, they were in charge of running it, but Ortiz could not recall any conflicts related to the club's operation, which lasted only two years. Baerlein also explained that for Ortiz, Herrera didn't seem like an excessively violent or unfamiliar place to open a nightclub, since he had grown up around "bullets and drugs." Baerlein added that when Ortiz achieved fame and fortune, many people in the Dominican tried to get close to him, and because of his friendly nature, he may have crossed paths with some who sought his friendship for the wrong reasons. "I don't do an investigation of people that come up to me," Baerlein said Ortiz told him.

In his first interview since recovering from the shooting, with Univision, Ortiz said he has no enemies but acknowledged that Peralta, the drug trafficker, had been his neighbor and that he'd met him a few times. "For Cesar, I was an idol," he said. He added that the Dominican Republic was a beautiful country with incredible opportunities for tourism and that he didn't blame the country for what had happened to him.

Ortiz has hired former Boston police commissioner, and now-private detective, Ed Davis and his team to investigate the shooting and provide personal security. Baerlein didn't say if Davis' hiring was an indication that Ortiz disbelieved the Dominican authorities, stating only that Ortiz was anxious to find out who was behind the shooting and why, and that he wanted to gather as much information as possible in addition to whatever the Dominican authorities have found. Since the investigation is ongoing, Baerlein didn't provide details of Davis' findings but said that, going forward, the arrest of Luis Alfredo Rivas Clase, aka The Surgeon—the only suspect who has not been caught—could shed further light on the case.

I don't do an investigation of people that come up to me.
—David Ortiz to his spokesperson Joe Baerlein

In late August, Dominican law enforcement conducted a massive operation targeting Peralta and suspected members of his drug-trafficking and money-laundering network, including two former MLB players, Octavio Dotel and Luis Castillo, who were cleared of charges. Police raided restaurants, malls and several nightclubs connected to Peralta. They also raided his building, Naco Blue Tower, where Ortiz previously had an apartment. Officials from the DEA and FBI participated in the investigation.

In all, 19 people reportedly were implicated in the drug sting, according to the Dominican attorney general, though Peralta remains at large. Pou, the security expert, believed that whether or not Peralta was involved in the Ortiz shooting, all the media attention directed toward him had played a role in the operation against the kingpin. To allow Peralta to continue to operate, Pou added, may have made it seem that Peralta had the tacit approval of the Dominican authorities.

Before the shooting, Peralta had run his empire with impunity. "Dominican authorities were totally indifferent to Cesar Emilio Peralta's operations and perhaps even consented," Pou said. Peralta had been arrested twice before on drug trafficking charges, but neither case made it to the prosecutor’s office. Pou believed the decision to move on Peralta's network was one made not by the Dominicans, but by U.S. authorities after the Ortiz shooting. Though there was nothing explicit linking the shooting to the raid, the timing fed the suspicion that the attack had somehow accelerated the investigation leading to the raid.

"You'd have to be very naive to disconnect one thing from the other," Melo, the former prosecutor, said.

One of the alleged members of Peralta's drug ring, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is a man named Natanael Castro Cordero. On his Instagram feed, photos showed him and Ortiz posing together at a beach resort, a luxury tower and even hanging backstage with reggaeton artist Bad Bunny. Through his spokesman, Ortiz responded to the photos by saying that Castro Cordero, whose name he was previously unaware of, was in charge of security at several clubs and often posted photos with celebrities on Instagram. Beyond loose connections like these, no one can point to any hard evidence that Ortiz had relationships with members of organized crime or the drug trade. Yet the photos helped explain the perception I encountered, even from fans such as Mateo in Herrera, that Papi wasn't just casually familiar with narcos like Peralta, but in their orbit, part of their world.

Around the same time Peralta's network was being targeted, Ortiz began appearing in public again. He dropped his daughter off at college and traveled to France with his wife, Tiffany, and John Henry, a Red Sox owner, and his wife, Linda. On September 9, visibly slimmer than before the shooting and after multiple operations, Ortiz threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park before the series finale between the Red Sox and Yankees. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and the brief speech he made afterward drew further applause. "I want to thank God for giving me a second opportunity in my life to be here with all of you," he said.

After undergoing multiple surgeries this summer after being shot in June, Ortiz returned to Fenway Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in early September.
After undergoing multiple surgeries this summer after being shot in June, Ortiz returned to Fenway Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in early September.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Similarly, back in Gualey, the love for Papi seemed only to have grown since the shooting. His former neighbor Patricio Flores told me that the last time Ortiz visited the barrio, in 2013, he promised to return soon, play vitilla with the kids and maybe cook a big batch of chicken and rice for the whole block. Flores still hoped it would happen. He told me he wanted to help train Ortiz's son in baseball and asked if I could relay the message. "David es mio," he said. Castro Cordero, the alleged drug trafficker, had captioned one of his photos with Ortiz with the same phrase. Lopez, the TV host, had also used it, as a caption for the selfie he'd taken with Papi the night of the shooting. He's mine. In the Dominican, though, it's closer to, "I carry him with me," or, as Flores meant it, touching his chest, "He's in my heart."

Some of his countrymen believe it will take decades to uncover the real story behind the shooting. Others don't think the full truth will ever be revealed, either about the perpetrators or about Ortiz and his relationships, because there are too many powerful people involved. Whatever the outcome of the trials, which will begin sometime next year, it doesn't seem like he'll return to Gualey—or the Dominican—anytime soon. His annual golf tournament on the island, which supports the pediatric cardiovascular unit he funded, has been moved to Miami. "He is going to be much more careful in his life moving forward," his spokesman said. 


Daniel Castro is a writer based in Mexico City. His work has been published in Harper's, Salon, and the Miami Herald.