Guns & Haiti

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

Toussaint estimates that between 500 and 1000 OP operatives are active in the capital, but only about 300 of them are heavily armed with T-65, M-14, and AK-47 assault rifles, and Israeli Galil and Uzi machine guns. The rest have small arms: .38- and .45-caliber handguns, as well as 9mm automatics. But this does not take into account the hundreds, maybe thousands, of weapons police handed out in the final hours of the Aristide administration, a desperate attempt to arm civilians willing to fight the rebels. "They are like fanatics," Toussaint says. "They believe they are fighting for the government. But the problem is they also smoke marijuana and crack, so when they have a job to do, they are not scared."

During the nights that followed the palace shootings, Port-au-Prince became a combat zone. The multinational forces imposed a 10:00 p.m. curfew. There were nightly shootouts. Throughout the week U.S. Marines killed six people; one soldier took a bullet in the arm.

I had a few hurried cell-phone conversations with Winston during this time. "You want to meet again? Okay, I meet with you. But you must come into Cité Soleil. I cannot leave," he told me. So another journalist and I had Demat take us back to Cité Soleil.

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

Once inside, we couldn't find Winston. A twenty-year-old named Reginald Nick announced that he was in charge while Winston and his brother Billy were away. I asked Nick what he did, and he answered that he's never had a job, but he'd like to find work. He was tired of fighting. Nick lifted his shirt to show a meandering scar on his belly that ended where a pistol grip jutted out of his waistband. Soldiers had shot him and his cousin in 1994, killing his cousin. "I don't want to die the same way my cousin did," he said. Then a non sequitur: "If President Aristide was here, we wouldn't have to fight for food. The people are starving. The president needs to send food to them now."

I heard a gunshot so close it made me flinch. The kids around us laughed. Then we heard a burst from an automatic rifle. Now everyone was looking around. Suddenly the air erupted in b-r-a-a-a-t-s of gunfire exchange. Down the street we saw Winston running, putting on a flak jacket with one hand, holding his T-65 in the other. Two men with rifles followed him. The rest of us scrambled for cover.

I crouched behind a concrete wall. In back of me was the open door of a home where three children motioned for me to join them. Instead we made it to a hospital around the corner, where I met Winston's brother Billy. He explained that a gang from a Cité Soleil neighborhood at the port had hijacked a truck of rice. Another gang, led by a notorious chimère named Labanierre, was trying to hijack the hijacked truck. Nick's comments about hunger resonated: They were fighting over food.

I'd seen enough guns for one day, and during a lull in the action suggested we leave. We were told it might be difficult for strangers to negotiate an exit because of the gun battle. Two men volunteered to accompany us.

We tried a couple of streets but they were either dead ends or impassable. Eventually we found a well-paved straightaway and took it for all we were worth. In the distance we could make out a white truck parked in the middle of the road. It bristled with armed men. We had stumbled into yet another gang's territory. "It's okay," one of our volunteer guides said. "We know them."

Demat rolled up to the truck and stopped. Men jumped down, surrounded the car, and pointed their weapons at us. There was much shouting, none of which was reassuring.

I can't give an accurate account of the number of men or the types of weapons they brandished. The only detail I remember with clarity was the pistol pointed at my head: automatic, the gunmetal blue worn off along the barrel, apparently in frequent use. I lifted my hands and stepped out of the car. If we're lucky, I thought, we'll just get robbed. A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor earlier had described for me how he'd been robbed in a similar situation.

The shouting ended on a positive note, and the man with the gun to my head waved it toward the car. He shouted, "Allez! Allez!" Quickly we drove off.

The Haitian National Police Force is virtually absent from the power struggles under way throughout the country. Police admit they've been outgunned to the point of irrelevancy.

This was affirmed by an officer at the Petionville station, which had been ransacked by an angry mob. "Police cannot talk of safety because police only have .38s and the chimères have big guns, M-16s and Kalashnikovs," said Moise Norizeron. Compounding that problem was depleted morale, he added. Aristide filled the police ranks with Lavalas operatives who were rewarded for doing his bidding, which left rank-and-file officers deeply disillusioned.

When it came time to defend the president, Norizeron said, "Many police officers stayed home. It was just the chimères" and the Lavalas police loyalists.

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