Originally: Police officer from Haiti flees to Delray

Nearly a decade ago, a restored democracy took out ads for police officers
to patrol its liberated streets. Frantz Montezuma promptly quit his job as a
telephone operator when he saw them.

The year was 1995. The U.S. military had recently reinstated Haitian
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a 1991 coup. Young
Haitians such as Montezuma rallied around their new leader expecting the
course of the impoverished nation’s history to change. He rushed to join the
International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, a U.S.
Department of Justice program that trains police officers in foreign

After a two-month training stint at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., his first trip
outside of Haiti, Montezuma started his new job. But Montezuma, now living
in Delray Beach and recently granted political asylum, quickly saw that he
and other officers were helpless to enforce the law. Within two years, he
found himself standing by as his police chief in Petionville released young
criminals who had arrested only hours earlier. On the streets, he says, he
was a figurehead mocked by bandits who could steal, rob and batter civilians
with impunity because of their alleged ties to Aristide’s regime.

It was a life of deep disillusionment, but Montezuma stayed for eight years.
He was moored to the job by the roughly $300 monthly pay — as much as the
average Haitian worker earns in a year.

Montezuma recalls his years of thwarted police duty with a mix of pride in
the ideals that drove him and bitterness at the American program’s law
enforcement teachings, which had little bearing on the snarled political
reality of Haitian life. The U.S. program’s former director echoes his

“All of us had one goal — to change things,” said Montezuma, 31. He had
friends who quit university studies to join the policing program at a time
when jobs were widely advertised.

Training in U.S.

While in Missouri, Montezuma says he was among hundreds of recruits who were
taught how to use guns, defuse volatile street conflicts yet remain
impartial, and protect themselves.

The day he donned a uniform and hit the streets of Petionville was a rude
awakening. After months of arresting lawbreakers, it was clear his police
chief was receiving orders to let many of the offenders go.

“The government put pressure on them. Eventually, if I had a warrant to
arrest someone, my chief would say, `Don’t go there. Give that warrant up.’
You didn’t always know why,” he said.

By 1997, throngs of pro-Aristide youth, known as chimeres, emerged as
streetwise powerbrokers. The frail democracy implanted with Aristide’s
reinstatement was unraveling.

“As a police officer, you were trying to do your job, but it was
disappointing. If you arrested someone with ties to the government, you were
persecuted,” said Montezuma, who says he was threatened by militant gangs
when he tried to interfere in street melees or crime they had sparked. At
violent protests, he was ordered by his superiors simply to observe.

“Everybody knew about it, but you couldn’t say anything. You have family.
You have kids and a wife. How can you say no to your chief? What are you
going to feed your wife and kids if you get fired?”

In November 2003, before the civil strife that led to Aristide’s ouster,
Montezuma fled to Florida. He left behind his wife of two years, siblings
and parents.

The Justice Department program, created in 1986, trains police in countries
undergoing sweeping transition or a change of government. It has instructed
officers in Panama, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia and, most recently, Iraq.

`Pumping kids out’

There were 3,000 Haitians trained in four-month sessions from 1994 to 1996,
said Jan Stromsem, director of the program from 1995 to 1999. Originally
envisioned as a five-year commitment with extensive field instruction,
Stromsem said training time dwindled to a matter of months once the U.S.
military hatched a quick exit from Haiti.

“We were pumping kids out of the program as fast as possible and getting
them on the streets,” said Stromsem, who now heads the National Center for
State Courts.

The field-training component that might have given the recruits a chance of
success fell apart once U.S. troops withdrew and a United Nations
multinational force took over, making U.S. oversight of the training
unfeasible, Stromsem said.

Jim Hammond, a former chief sheriff’s deputy from Tennessee, helped train
officers in Haiti. Now on a mission in Jordan, he stressed by e-mail the
importance of field training to the program’s success.

“Haiti … needs long and I do mean long-term intervention,” Hammond wrote.
“Training is not the problem; mentoring is.”

Officers left behind

Further hobbling the U.S.-led police training was Aristide’s delay in
appointing a viable, high-level officer corps to lead the country’s law
enforcement system.

When the U.S. program withdrew from Haiti in 1996, Stromsem said, it left
behind a legion of young men in uniforms like Montezuma who had no street
patrol experience and no leadership to guide them.

“We left too early and we left the police force vulnerable. We’re paying the
price for it now,” said Stromsem, who knows well the stories of ill-trained,
exposed officers like Montezuma who eventually fled Haiti.

Now, Montezuma works as a restaurant busboy, but will soon earn his high
school equivalency diploma. He wants to study criminology and to enforce the
law in a country where laws are enforceable.

“Any government has to respect the rule of law,” he reflected. “If you let
the officers do their job, then that’s my government. But if you rule the
police force, then you have no country.”

Tal Abbady can be reached at tabbady@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6624.
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