Guns & Haiti

When your country is bristling with weapons, peace and democracy begin to look like targets, not dreams

On Saturday, March 6, the day before the shootings, another journalist, a photographer, and I had found a man who -- for a fee -- agreed to take us into Cité Soleil, the infamous Port-au-Prince slum that is home to some 200,000 of the hemisphere's poorest people, in order to meet the chimères.

We knew better than to use that derogatory term in their presence. The word itself comes from Haitian folklore, meaning shape-shifting demons. But for most people it had simply come to mean thug, and was applied broadly to the ghost armies of the country's ghettos, mainly those in Port-au-Prince -- La Saline, Bel-Air, and especially Cité Soleil.

At this point Cité Soleil was considered enemy territory. Haitian police and U.S. Marines could not enter safely, but for weeks journalists had been visiting the area. The Aristide militants, considered by many to be nothing more than criminal gangs, seemed willing to talk, sensing it was important to relay their message. They were in a weakened position: Their patron had fled.

Wary young men stationed at Cité Soleil's street 
Carlos Villalon
Wary young men stationed at Cité Soleil's street corners

We picked up Demat, our fixer, on a street corner outside the slum. He was a friendly man in his forties who spoke decent English. At Cité Soleil's border he waved to a group of young men in white tank tops and basketball jerseys, speaking to them in Kreyol. This would happen every few blocks, and it became clear these were checkpoints. If the men on the corner didn't know you, you weren't passing. "In Cité Soleil they are not worried about the police," Demat explained. "Here most everyone has a gun. Police don't play with us."

When we exited the car people gathered around us. They had something to say and it usually began with "Cinq ans!" Five years -- the term of Aristide's presidency (if he hadn't left) and the rallying cry among his supporters. They unfurled shade umbrellas bearing the president's picture. "Aristide say he was going to die with the people," one young man said. "We wait for Aristide."

As we made our way deeper into the neighborhoods, past crude concrete-block hovels with tin roofs that I was told flooded so badly during the rains that some families had to sleep on tables, we came to an impasse, a section where cobblestones had been pried off and underlying iron rebar pulled up to form a barrier. Again Demat talked with someone and children ran out to lay down wooden crates for us to drive over.

Our dirt road abruptly became a broad, well-paved boulevard that ran by a park with yellow, blue, and red kiosks. We passed a newly built schoolhouse. This was Aristide's pork-barrel imprimatur, tangible evidence that he could improve living conditions. The asphalt didn't hold for long, though. Soon we were back on the muddy tracks amid the shacks. That's where we came upon a new Ford Explorer. Standing next to it was a young man wearing a red floppy hat and white T-shirt. He carried an M-14 assault rifle. In this impoverished universe, the car and gun were ostentatious displays of wealth and power.

Demat rolled down his window but the gun-toting man only glared at us. Another man approached. He wore a black-brimmed hat and black shirt unbuttoned down the front. His face was smooth with youth save for a scar at the corner of his mouth. He smiled, told us he was busy right then, but if we returned around 3:00 p.m., he might talk to us. His name was Winston and he controlled a group he referred to as "an organization."

The armed gangs that control the ghettos are the legacy, most acknowledge, of Jean-Bertrand Aristide himself. "They did not exist ten years ago. He created them, he gave them guns," says Dany Toussaint, former interim chief of the Haitian National Police force under Aristide and a former pro-Aristide senator. During periods of exile, Toussaint lived and worked in Miami.

Aristide, of course, rose to power on the force of his razor-sharp oratory criticizing the business and political elites. From his pulpit at St. Jean Bosco Catholic Church in the La Saline slums, Aristide's Sunday sermons were a mix of scripture and fiery demands for social justice. Following the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, Aristide was persuaded to become politically active. He formed the Lavalas political party, ran for president in 1990, and was elected by an overwhelming majority of voters, the first democratic election in the country's history. But the next year he was ousted in a military coup led by Gen. Raul Cedras. In 1994 President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to restore him to power. Upon his return to the National Palace, Aristide immediately dismantled the military, which in his absence had waged pogroms against his followers, especially in the slums of Port-au-Prince and the northern port city of Gonaives.

But this was a new Aristide, wary and perhaps paranoid. He didn't trust his national police force either. (Rebel leader Guy Philippe, the former police chief of Cap Haitien, was forced into exile after an attempted coup in 2000.) So Aristide created groups called organisations populaire, or OPs, in the neighborhoods where he had the strongest support.

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