Guns & Haiti

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

Ostensibly the OPs were intended to do community work and act as outreach for Lavalas. But many members were allegedly tasked with silencing Lavalas critics. They disrupted marches protesting Aristide, harassed journalists, and were linked to several killings. Although Aristide has never acknowledged it, current and former OP members like Butteur Metayer readily admit that Lavalas armed them. Metayer belonged to an OP in Gonaives that eventually turned on the president. "Aristide, he give us these guns and we use them to take him from power," Metayer told me.

Dany Toussaint says his successors in the police force armed the gangs. "They got the guns from the National Palace," he asserts. "There were middlemen who worked with the guys at the bottom, the gang leaders. They were given money every Friday. [Lavalas] sent them ammunition. They sent them guns. And when there was trouble in the country, the gangs would get guns from the police stations."

In arming the OPs, Aristide was doing what Haitian rulers have always done -- use extra-governmental gangs to do their midnight work, such as the Tonton Macoutes under Duvalier (father and son), and the Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH) under Cedras. In the past, guns had been the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots; the victims of the Macoutes and FRAPH were mostly the unarmed poor. Aristide armed them, and guns became their empowerment.

Carlos Villalon
U.S. Marines escort anti-Aristide marchers on 
February 7
Tristram Korten
U.S. Marines escort anti-Aristide marchers on February 7

It was the brutality of the OPs, along with accusations of fraudulent elections in 2000 and a series of unfulfilled promises, that led to many people's disillusionment with Aristide and set the stage for the insurrection against him. Even former ally Toussaint defected from the party last year, after he came to believe that Aristide no longer was a force for democracy.

At 3:00 p.m. we returned to Cité Soleil with Demat. While waiting for Winston on a street corner, we found no shortage of young men who wanted to talk. "If Aristide doesn't come back, we'll burn the houses and cut a lot of heads off," said one tough named Nassun as a small crowd gathered around us. "It will be a civil war." Then he lifted his sleeveless T-shirt to display the handle of a handgun. The young men pressed in. "Cinq ans!" they chanted. Another lifted his shirt to reveal the butt of a revolver. A young man in a bandanna and wrap-around shades blew marijuana smoke in my face. The men took out their guns to show them off, and the others laughed.

The Ford Explorer rolled up. In an instant, everyone quieted. A rear passenger window lowered, and Winston, in trademark brimmed hat, smiled. Booming rap music spilled into the air. Between his legs was an automatic T-65 rifle, a Korean knockoff of the Russian AK-47. The crowd's nervous energy had made me apprehensive and I was relieved to see Winston, who exemplified the social contract in Haiti: The man with the greatest firepower, the man who calms the unruly mob, is the man who is welcomed.

The car was crammed with six men and a woman. Four of the men held rifles. I asked about the hardware. "Yes, I've got guns to protect myself. This is a T-65, that's a big gun. I know you know what it can do," Winston said with a laugh.

His voice was soft and his English, which he learned in school, was quite good. "We don't want to use it. It's too big for us. It's too dangerous for us. But in Cité Soleil we ain't got nothing. We don't want guns. We don't want our people to live with weapons. We want a proper school. We need a hospital and jobs, we don't got no jobs. There's a lot of people, children, with no medicine, no hospital. That's all we need, you know, we don't need guns. We don't need violence. We need peace in Cité Soleil."

As Winston spoke, cars pulled up in front and behind, but the street was too narrow for them to pass the Explorer. The men with rifles glowered. The drivers waited.

Winston explained that although U.S. and French troops were demanding the disarmament of both sides, the OPs weren't likely to give up their weapons. His people were worried that once the international troops left, rebel leader Guy Philippe would make his move. "We're not stupid," he said. "He will wait and then try to kill us."

He emphasized a point the savvier chimères have pressed: They were the last vestiges of a democratically elected government illegally forced from power. "We're not gangs here," he declared. "We're militia. We fight for Aristide."

I asked Winston what he would do if he gave up his weapons. "I want to go to university," he replied. "I would study music. I got my music, I have rap." In fact, he said, his nom de guerre is Tupac.

The next day suspected chimères opened fire in front of the palace and the city tensed like a muscle cramp.

In Port-au-Prince there are some 126 organisations populaire, according to Dany Toussaint, who collected dossiers on their numbers, names, locations, and arsenals when he was a Lavalas senator. (He resigned earlier this year.) Many of the OPs have odd, creative names: Dan Sere, which translates roughly to Clenched Teeth; Paille Kourotte, or Skinned Carrots; and Sillosé Hay, a Rastafarian expression meaning "I am a King."

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