The vodou appears to have worked. In Gonaives, a port town in northern Haiti where the armed insurrection began that ultimately forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, an ash mound in front of the grave of Amiot Metayer is a charred reminder of an angry people.
It is the remnants of a vodou circle. The oungan and others came here to sprinkle salt and wood and curse Aristide, praying that the spirits would drive him from power. The people of Gonaives blamed Aristide for Metayer's murder this past September. Their rage, already stoked by complaints of local police abuse and entrenched corruption, ignited the battle against the president.
Although it is one of the impoverished nation's largest cities, Gonaives is remote by most standards, accessible by a single road that is intermittently paved, a dirt path, and a rugged, rock-strewn track. The nearest airport is about three hours north in Cap Haitien. Yet its ties to South Florida abound. Rusty freighters from the Miami River dock here and unload sundry goods, everything from toilet paper to bicycles. Perhaps because of the boat traffic, the town is festooned with effluvia from 700 miles away: one home features a tarp made from a Miami Seaquarium banner, and numerous residents wear Marlins, "Miami USA," and Heat shirts. This is also where Haiti's new prime minister, Gerard Latortue, grew up before eventually leaving for exile in Palm Beach County.
And while Gonaives is the place where curses were cast and guns loaded for the revolt, Miami is where Aristide's fate was sealed. Butteur Metayer was visiting his cousin in North Miami when he learned of his brother's death. He vowed to seek revenge. After all, his brother was not simply assassinated with a bullet. Amiot Metayer was savagely shot through the eyes and heart.
Butteur, who worked at an auto plant in Michigan, returned to his hometown in 2000 to be with Amiot. "My brother and me, we were living together in Gonaives. But I'm vacationing in Miami when I hear my brother die in Haiti, and I come back," Butteur recently told me in chopped English while patrolling the streets of Gonaives. With him was a contingent of men shouldering M14 rifles and Uzi submachine guns. "I fight Aristide and I take him from power."
After Butteur returned to fight, Billy Augustin emerged as one of his most trusted soldiers. Augustin told the New York Times he had been a security guard at a Miami Target store prior to returning to Haiti eight months ago. (I made two trips to Gonaives from Port-au-Prince to meet with Augustin, but on both occasions he was deployed to outlying towns to provide security.)
Amiot Metayer, the charismatic and popular leader of an armed group, had become an awkward problem for Aristide. Originally he was a strong and ruthless backer of the president and his Lavalas Family political party. Metayer led one of Aristide's OPs, or organisations populaire, the groups Lavalas armed to enforce the president's political will. OPs throughout the country beat, harassed, and allegedly killed members of opposition groups, as well as journalists critical of Aristide. In Gonaives several radio reporters were forced to flee. Human-rights workers alleged in 2002 that Metayer had ordered a man involved with an anti-Aristide political party to be burned to death. The Organization of American States pressured Aristide to charge Metayer. In July 2002 Haitian police did arrest him on arson charges, but in August his followers, who called themselves the Cannibal Army, commandeered a tractor and smashed through the prison walls to free him, along with more than 150 other prisoners.
Foreign governments may have denounced Metayer, but he was a champion to the poor here. In the seaside Gonaives slum of Raboteau where he lived, he had become a folk hero after fighting the brutal military regime that ousted Aristide in a 1991 coup. Such resistance provoked the military to kill dozens of innocent people in what became known as the Raboteau massacre of 1994. When the U.S. restored Aristide to the presidency that same year, Metayer made a show of protecting the poor neighborhoods, paying the medical bills of the sick, and finding jobs for the young.
After his jailbreak, Metayer lived openly in Gonaives, protected by supporters with automatic weapons. Police said they couldn't risk trying to capture him because it would lead to a bloodbath. His arrest turned him against Aristide, but eventually the two made peace. His brother Butteur claims their truce came at a price: Aristide purportedly paid Metayer $25,000 for his allegiance. And therein lay one of the first indications of how tenuous was Aristide's hold on power. Either the government was too weak to enforce the law, or it was looking for an excuse not to jail a politically influential ally. Neither option inspired confidence in Aristide's leadership.
Through the early months of 2003 Metayer's cohorts, once again unified with Aristide and Lavalas, were wantonly beating members of the opposition party in Gonaives. "Our strategy is the rigwaz," Metayer told the Haitian Times, referring to the hose whips his men used. "If they are hit with the rigwaz, they will think about what they are doing. They are adults who have become children again. They need to be spanked."
The United States, meanwhile, had begun withholding aid money from Aristide's government and redirecting it to nongovernmental organizations. U.S. officials were pressuring Aristide on a host of issues; if he wanted the flow of money to resume, he had to take steps to reform the police and disarm the OPs. They also brought up another nettlesome subject: Amiot Metayer. On September 22, 2003, Metayer's mutilated corpse was found in the port city of St. Marc, about 25 miles south of Gonaives.
It was a convenient end to an inconvenient man.
"We talked with Cubain the day before," recounted Jacques Antoine Madene, the Metayers' cousin who lives in North Miami, using Amiot's nickname. "Butteur was staying with me for vacation."
During the conversation, Madene said, both he and Butteur warned Amiot to be safe. "I told him: 'My cousin, you be very careful. This month is very dangerous.' Butteur told him, too: 'Don't go out. I don't want anything to happen while I'm not there.' And Cubain says, 'I'm not going out, I'm staying home. To prove it to you, a friend came up from Port-au-Prince to visit. We stay here and have some drinks.'"
The friend was Odonel Paul, a former employee at the National Palace. Paul is now suspected of killing Metayer.
Madene, along with Butteur and his mother and other family members, returned to Haiti for the funeral. Afterward, Butteur decided he would remain and fight. But he took his family to the airport in Port-au-Prince to send them back to Miami. Government officials approached him there and took him to meet with Aristide. According to Butteur, Aristide expressed sorrow over his brother's death, asserted that he was not involved in the murder, and that the people of Gonaives needed peace now. He then presented Butteur with a check for traveling expenses: "Aristide give me like $6000 and say, 'I'm going to give you justice, Butteur, don't worry about that.' I say, 'You cannot buy my brother for $6000.'" He refused to accept the money. (Ira Kurzban, general counsel for Aristide's government, confirms that the president made an offer "of assistance" to Butteur and his mother to express his condolences.)
Aristide ordered that Butteur be escorted back to the airport and put on a plane to Miami. But Butteur feigned that he had left his passport in Gonaives. The officials reluctantly agreed to drive him home to retrieve the document. After they departed, however, Jacques Madene called members of the Cannibal Army from the airport. When Butteur arrived in Gonaives and entered his brother's home, supporters were waiting. They locked the door and told the officials to leave.
A war had started.
The fighting in Gonaives was intense. After months of street riots, Butteur's men attacked the police station in early February. Fire and bullets masticated the structure into fist-size chunks of concrete. The burned-out frames of at least ten vehicles still lie scattered in front. A special police force, aided, some say, by OPs (also called chimeres, a term that has come to mean thug), arrived from Port-au-Prince but were repelled in a firefight that left many dead. The Cannibal Army, now renamed the Liberation Front, was joined by Guy Philippe, an exiled police chief implicated in a previous coup attempt, and Louis Jodel Chamblain, a former military officer accused of human-rights violations. They brought truckloads of reinforcements. (Kurzban maintains Butteur was merely a convenient front for these men, who had conspired a long time for this coup.)
"It's a big fight," Butteur told me. Then, motioning to a new four-wheel-drive Hyundai Terracan, he added, "That's why I've got this car, the chimeres Lavalas come in this car and we kill them and take their car. We got like eighteen car like that."
The government collapsed, the police fled, and Butteur was now the sole authority figure in the region. He spends his time roaming the dusty streets of Gonaives and its outlying villages with his rebel guards, young men in floppy hats and T-shirts who tote automatic weapons. They monitor the cleanup effort as civilians dig out from the ravages of battle. At the height of the fighting a month ago, the roads were impassable, strewn with burning tires, cement blocks, and the scorched carcasses of cars. Now most of the streets are clear.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Butteur pointed to the lines of smartly dressed children in blue school uniforms walking down the street. "You see what happen in Gonaives City?" he said. "No communauté international in Gonaives City, yet the school is open, the bank is open, no one go to rob the bank. We got good security in Gonaives City." He smiled. It was more than his countrymen in Port-au-Prince could say. There the schools remain closed and gunfire crackles day and night.
Butteur said he hopes to give up his weapons and return to a job he had at the port. But not until international forces are in place to ensure security. There are still chimeres in the hills. "We're waiting for the U.S. and the French," he reported. "I've already told them: When Aristide out of power, I put the gun down or give the gun to the new president. But not now, because without them we don't have no security in Gonaives City."
Then, he laughed, he can continue his vacation in Miami.