Guns & Haiti

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

In the sweltering hilltop town of Petionville, about ten miles above the congestion and cacophony of Port-au-Prince, people gathered on the morning of March 7. Under the watchful eyes of U.S. Marines and French troops in armored vehicles, men and women wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Haitian flag and carrying signs denouncing Jean-Bertrand Aristide filled the main plaza, Place St. Pierre.

A little after 9:00 a.m. the crowd, now several hundred strong, began to parade downhill, escorted by very alert soldiers. Rebel leader Guy Philippe looked like a rock star in the back of a pickup truck, pumping his arms in the air to the enthusiastic shouts of supporters. The march was a victory lap for Philippe and his motley pack of insurgents, who are credited with ousting Aristide, and also an expression of pent-up hostility toward the deposed president and his militant and often violent loyalists, pejoratively known as chimères.

During the descent from the rolling hills of Petionville thousands more joined in, like a landslide gathering mass. They were headed to the National Palace, an enormous white-domed building in the heart of Port-au-Prince.

Carlos Villalon
U.S. Marines escort anti-Aristide marchers on 
February 7
Tristram Korten
U.S. Marines escort anti-Aristide marchers on February 7
Wary young men stationed at Cité Soleil's street 
corners
Carlos Villalon
Wary young men stationed at Cité Soleil's street corners

Shortly after 2:00 p.m. the first wave of marchers arrived at the plaza fronting the palace. Some bore banners. Others carried lengths of rope, which they said they would use to subdue chimères. The mood was jubilant, aggressive, and charged with a volatile energy. One group chased a gray-haired man accused of being a chimère. He fled to a nearby police station for protection. Another band tore down a pro-Aristide sign, carried it to the fence surrounding the palace, and set it on fire. As dark smoke billowed, a fire truck approached and tried to make its way to the flames, but people clogged the street, chanting taunts. The silver-helmeted firemen then playfully turned a water hose on the sweaty, dancing throng, and doused any potential malevolence. Demonstrators, firemen, and observers smiled and relaxed as the tension palpably uncurled. In fact many journalists decided the demonstration was over at that point and began to wander off.

Then shots cracked the air. Bursts of automatic gunfire rang out from several directions. I had just left the plaza to follow Philippe into the Plaza Hotel, where he was about to sit down to lunch. At the sound of the first shot, his guards instantly pulled out snub-nosed machine guns, seemingly from nowhere. The hotel closed and locked its doors.

After about five minutes, I urged an attendant to crack the rear gate and let me slip out. Gingerly I headed back to the plaza. Six people would die that day near the palace, including a Spanish-TV journalist. At least twenty more would be wounded, among them a Sun-Sentinel photographer.

Death comes easily in Haiti. Frequently in the form of a bullet. Often anonymously.

On a sidewalk where, moments earlier, the elated multitudes had been celebrating, lay the body of a man shot through the chest. He wore jeans and a blue T-shirt, now soaked in blood. His death-mask face was serene, his killer unknown but assumed to be an Aristide loyalist, a despised chimère.

People squeezed in close and stared down at the corpse, oblivious to the symbolic tombstone that loomed directly above him -- the half-finished Freedom Tower, a monument to Haiti's 200 years of independence, whose construction was halted amid the chaos that had recently engulfed the country. Now it was spattered with blood.

The flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince took two hours. Before Haiti came into view, the turquoise water blended seamlessly with the cloudless sky, an infinity of blue. But the tranquility of that mesmerizing sight was short-lived. At Port-au-Prince airport troops lined the tarmac, dressed in flak jackets and carrying rifles. "Thank God," muttered one passenger. It would be a recurring theme: Arms, depending on who had them, were instruments of either comfort or chaos.

In Haiti guns are a form of currency -- those who have them are better off than those who don't. And today they are everywhere, from the airport to retail stores, from car dealerships to factories, from utility stations to hotels, where it's common to encounter rifle-toting sentries in the lobby.

Private security is a booming business. In fact armed guards have become a kind of status symbol. Down the street from my (secured) Petionville hotel, at the Royal supermarket, a man in uniform lazily held a shotgun as customers passed to buy milk and bottled water. The sense of Haiti as armed camp has intensified with the arrival of foreign officials and soldiers. A contingent of State Department security agents staying at my hotel turned the dining room into a sea of khaki during lunch. Except for one man dressed in black. He was watching over his colleagues as they ate, an automatic rifle at his side.

While some degree of lawlessness is a more or less permanent condition throughout Haiti, a heightened sense of anxiety exists in Port-au-Prince, where the heavily armed chimères represent an unpredictable danger. And as the shootings at the palace demonstration illustrated, Aristide's hasty departure on February 29 did nothing to end the violence. The Americans can help stitch together a makeshift government. A new president and prime minister can be solemnly sworn in. New elections can be promised. But it will mean little in a country where men with guns -- whether anti-Aristide rebels or chimères -- rule Port-au-Prince's sprawling slums by day and control the city by night.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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 chimèrenamed 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.

Toussaint corroborates that assertion. "The president took gang members and promoted them," he says. "He put in every police station one of his confidence guys to protect the gangs."

One of the tasks facing the multinational force is reconstituting the police force, which will require much more training and equipment. Until then the foreign troops do the heavy lifting -- patrolling streets, confronting armed bands, and struggling with their other major task: disarmament. "We're here for the security of Haiti, we're not taking sides," Maj. Richard Crusan, the U.S. Marines spokesman, told me. "The military doesn't get involved in politics. If we're going to disarm, we're going to disarm both sides."

Progress has been slow. Two weeks after Aristide's departure, Chilean troops had confiscated just three guns; the Americans had grabbed only four and raided a suspected arms cache that turned out to be empty.

On March 17 and 27 authorities persuaded gangs in Cité Soleil and La Saline to turn over several guns, still considered a trickle. Toussaint says negotiations continue: "I tell them it's over, they need to give up the guns and get a job. Nobody ever talks to them and tells them they could be better men. I make them dream. I also tell them Aristide kept them in their position because it helped him." More than twenty guns were collected, most old or inoperable, though two T-65s and one Uzi were among them. In return came appeals for jobs and schools.

It's unlikely more guns will be voluntarily surrendered anytime soon. After all, they are power in the hands of the powerless. Both sides know this, which makes the multinational force's disarmament plan difficult, if not impossible.

In the absence of functioning civil institutions, weapons fill the power vacuum. And in the end, people prefer order to chaos, even if it flows from the barrel of a gun.

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