Originally: Five Months After Aristide, Mayhem Rules the Streets
AP HAITIEN, Haiti, July 27 – The two police officers stood in front of this impoverished city’s central police station and recounted their grievances: they had no guns, no police cars and no radios. They said they were reduced to sporadic patrols in a stolen truck they had impounded. “We’re like dead men on vacation,” one said.
The other said their cars and guns were in the hands of the rebel force that swept through Cap Haitien on Feb. 22, as the revolt that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide reached its height. About a mile away, in the courtyard of an ancient military jail where the rebels are now based, their supreme leader, Michel Dieuseul, who goes by the name Commandant Mano, denied that his men possessed police weapons and vehicles. “When we attacked, the police took their guns and ran away – they are hiding them,” he said, as about a dozen rebels lounged near what looked suspiciously like a police truck with its markings removed.
In fact, he says, it is really the violent supporters of Mr. Aristide, known as the chimères, that need to be disarmed, not the rebels. “We will work together with the U.N. to disarm the chimères,” he said.
As the charges and suspicions filter through the city like the sticky summer air, though, one thing is certain – mayhem is reaching ever higher levels, with murders, rapes and bus robberies becoming routine.
In the five months since Mr. Aristide was driven from power, a tense inertia has spread over efforts to police this shattered society, allowing armed factions and marauders to move in. Despite the United Nations peacekeeping force of 2,300 soldiers spread across the country, and despite a surface quiet in major public places, any number of groups are vying for street control – the old guard police, the rebels, the Aristide supporters and freelance thugs.
Prime Minister Gérard Latortue and his caretaker government, backed by the peacekeepers, are focused on setting conditions for elections in 2005, attracting foreign investment and aid, and trying to restore a semblance of normality so that rebuilding can go forward.
But by all accounts, the often precarious sense of safety in Haiti is taking a beating, and nowhere is this more evident than here in Cap Haitien, the country’s second-largest city, where the rebel breakthrough in February brought chaos and hastened Mr. Aristide’s downfall.
Crime statistics in this city of 500,000 are unreliable. The police have no finger-printing equipment, much less computers, and records are kept in a battered brown ledger. But four days of interviews with residents and United Nations and local officials provide a picture of an anxious and violent city with weapons caches and a barely functioning police department. The disarming of the population, an oft-expressed goal, is at best a distant concept.
Security experts working for nongovernmental organizations say four residents were killed here during one recent week, and a United Nations official confirmed that there had been three recent vigilante killings. By all accounts, roads outside the city that lead to the Dominican border are controlled by armed gangs that rob and rape passengers on buses filled with traders.
“They rob the buses every Monday and every Friday, the days the border is open,” said Séjour Ellison, a police officer who told of being a passenger on a bus two weeks ago that was diverted by bandits into a remote field. “They made us lie on the ground. They took our money and jewelry. I watched as they raped two women in front of me.”
The police blame the crime wave on their rivals, the rebel forces who according to nearly all observers freed 186 prisoners from the penitentiary here when they attacked in February. “They were mostly professional criminals; now they are controlling gangs,” said Taillefer Ismaille, the ranking police officer at the patched-up city jail on a recent afternoon. “So far we have only recaptured two or three.” Commandant Mano denies the accusation, saying the prisoners “let themselves out” after his rebels attacked.
In late June, Amnesty International released a scathing report accusing the interim government and an initial peacekeeping force of American marines, who left to make way for the United Nations force, of failing to implement security and disarmament measures.
Pierre Espérance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, echoed the criticism in Cap Haitien this week. “The security situation in Cap Haitien is getting worse, and I do not see a plan from the government to fix it,” he said. As for the peacekeepers, he said, “I do not see them doing anything at all.”
The United Nations has several hundred peacekeepers stationed outside Cap Haitien, and they occasionally roll through the crowded streets in personnel carriers or trucks. On Monday, five United Nations police officers arrived as the vanguard of a new deployment that is hoped to eventually reach 150 officers.
A senior United Nations official with the police contingent, who insisted on anonymity, said: “We’re walking on eggs here. The rebels have the support of the population.” They cannot be easily demobilized, he explained, while the police, with whom the United Nations is supposed to work, are seen as tainted by their ties to the former government.
Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, chief of communications and public information for the United Nations peacekeepers here, defended them. “We don’t have a civil war,” he said. “All the shooting after the departure of Aristide has stopped.” The force, now at one-third strength, is expected to grow to 6,700 soldiers, he said. Talks with the government about a national committee for disarmament have begun, he said, though it may take months to set up.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of former Haitian soldiers are coming forward, and many of them hope the Haitian government and the United Nations will offer back pay in exchange for their weapons. The rebel camp in Cap Haitien has 300 people, almost entirely former Haitian Army soldiers who were disbanded by Mr. Aristide in the 1990’s. Commandant Mano sees the rebels as paving the way for the current government, and he clearly expects some reward. “I want the Haitian government to pay me 10 years and 7 months of back salary,” he said. But as far as disarming goes, he said, the government can forget about it. “We are the Haitian Army now,” he said.
Likely to be even harder to deal with are the chimères, who have gone underground and lack a clear command structure. Credible reports suggest they have several hundred automatic weapons stashed around the city.
The slum Shara 2, a dense warren of sewage-strewn passageways lined with malnourished children and unemployed men loitering in the stifling heat, is a known chimère stronghold, a place where nearly everyone says they are waiting for Mr. Aristide’s return, however unlikely.
In a recent interview in Shara 2, a group of young men dismissed talk of disarmament. “The chimères are not going to give their guns away, because they don’t know what the other side is going to do,” said one, Jackie Digoirand. “If a person has three guns, he might give up one and keep the other two.”