Port-au-Prince, Haiti – The willowy, fleet-footed gang leader says he got the call to defend his government one night last December after a mysterious group of armed men stormed the presidential palace. 

“We have a coup d’etat! Come by the palace,” a police official ordered. When the gang arrived at the battle with 9-mm handguns, the official eyed them disparagingly and said, “‘Those are too small. Go get big weapons,'” the gang leader recounted. “We came back with M-14 and M-1 automatics. We exchanged gunfire with a car driving out of the palace. Rata-tat-tat.”
The account by the gang leader, who didn’t want his name used for fear of reprisals from the palace, underscores a growing concern among Western diplomats and human rights groups that the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is using armed groups to quash opposition.

For more than a century, Haitian autocrats have created personal armies in the slums to retain power. But many Haiti watchers find Aristide’s apparent links to gangs a galling signal that the president, a former parish priest, is unwilling or unable to fulfill his pledge to bring democracy to the hemisphere’s poorest nation.

Some gangs are starting to question or oppose the president, further destabilizing a nation that teeters on chaos, Western diplomats and human rights experts said. By supporting armed groups with an appetite for power, “Aristide has created a monster,” one Western diplomat said. Government officials adamantly deny any links to gangs and contend their accusers want to unseat Aristide, whom the United States restored to power three years after he was ousted in a 1991 coup. “If there are some vested interests who are arming popular groups in Haiti, it’s not the government,” said Prime Minister Yvon Neptune.

Aristide, who was elected on a platform of combatting poverty and corruption, has repeatedly deplored Haiti’s violence and has launched a nationwide disarmament campaign, a spokeswoman said.  Haiti experts agree that Aristide’s foes, including the main opposition bloc, the Democratic Convergence, exaggerate his collusion with gangs. They say some Democratic Convergence leaders
also have armed thugs and note that violence here is fueled by many factors, including drug trafficking and the existence of Haitian army weapons that U.S. troops failed to seize when they disbanded the force in 1995.

Questions about the president’s links to armed militants came to a head last month, when a gang known as the Cannibal Army freed its jailed leader, Amiot Metayer, during an anti-Aristide rampage in the western city of Gonaives. The Cannibal Army had supported Aristide until July, when the government jailed Metayer on charges of murdering an opposition politician’s aide. Once freed, Metayer declared that government officials had previously given him arms and money and ordered him to attack the opposition. A few days later, Metayer retracted those statements, but many observers say they believe the president had bought back the gang leader’s loyalty. 

Human rights experts fear similar uprisings as splits widen within Aristide’s party, the Lavalas Family. “In the worst-case scenario, there are enough arms circulating out there for this to become a situation similar to Colombia,” where dozens of armed groups are waging civil war, said Merrie Archer of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights.

Already, “armed gangs supporting political activists or locally elected officials have been allowed to consolidate their presence and now constitute a serious challenge to the rule of law in the country,” Amnesty International warned in a new report on Haiti. In the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité Soleil, some gang members said they voluntarily defend Aristide. “When Convergence wants to gather or give press conferences, we go stop them,” one said. But the gang
leader who helped defend the palace on Dec. 17 said the government has compensated his group with no-show jobs and cash payments totalling $5,000.

The government calls the Dec. 17 attack a coup attempt. An
Organization of American States report in July found no evidence of a coup plot, but said local officials and police had helped gangs in reprisal attacks that day on opposition buildings. “Arms were distributed by some government and party officials,” the report said. “The attackers were transported in official vehicles and threatened to kill leaders of the political opposition parties.”
The Cité Soleil gang leader said he still backs Aristide and shares the president’s dream of helping Haiti’s poor. However, he added bitterly, “When the government needs us, they send for us to put pressure on the street. But we don’t get the support we need to improve the neighborhood.”
A tour of the slum packed with 200,000 people illustrated his frustration. Tin hovels teetered on the banks of a river of
stinking sewage and glowing chemical runoff. Children swam alongside pigs in garbage-strewn water off the wharf. Young, unemployed men idled near defaced murals of Aristide. “People are losing hope. In my view, the militants who are still vocally supporting the government are in a minority,” said another Cité Soleil gang member. “We have the power to raise the population of Cité Soleil,” the
gang leader said. “And if Cité Soleil goes against Aristide, so will the other slums.”