July 22, 2005; Page A13

“When you leave your house in the morning, write your name on the soles of
your feet, because your head does not belong to you.”

That caution, a Haitian official alleges, was penned by loyalists of former
Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide and circulated in a crude flyer for
delivery to police officers in Port-au-Prince last fall.

The warning was all too credible. Three Haitian police officers had already
been beheaded in what militants calling for the return of Mr. Aristide
termed “Operation Baghdad.” One pro-Aristide protestor told the Associated
Press in November: “We’ll be in the streets until death or Aristide comes
back. We won’t stop. If they [the police] come in here, we’re going to cut
off their heads.”

Most people wouldn’t voluntarily sign up for a job with such occupational
hazards. But Mario Andresol is no ordinary person. He is Haiti’s most
revered lawman, who was forced to flee the country in mid-2002 because his
own government was trying to kill him. On Tuesday he returned to Haiti to
become the country’s top law enforcement officer. A Haitian diplomat told me
that it’s the biggest thing to happen in Haiti since Aristide went into
exile in Africa last year.

With municipal, congressional and presidential elections slated for later
this year, Mr. Andresol has returned at a propitious time. Given the
ferocity of the criminal network that flourished under Aristide, his
decision is a profile in courage. But he cannot restore law and order alone.

This is a critical moment in Haitian history and one that demands intensive
U.S. and international support for efforts to build security. Rather than
wait for the next wave of desperate refugees to wash up on Florida shores
and create a crisis, the world would be well advised to pay close attention
now. The future of Haiti rests on securing the rule of law.

The Haitian Diaspora is famously prosperous, in sharp contrast to the
majority of Haitians who never left their country and live in abject
poverty. That dichotomy proves that there is no lack of human capital. A
dysfunctional political system is the problem, one lasting through a
succession of thugocracies.

A decade of Aristide abuses and corruption — both during his presidency and
from behind the scenes during the René Préval presidency — has left the
country destitute. From environmental degradation, to arms and drug
trafficking, to street crime, hunger and disease, there is little to
recommend the place to either tourists or investors. Misery is so
omnipresent that it’s hard to set priorities; everything begs for urgency.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has been promising an economic
revival, but the culture of bureaucratic corruption, an institutionally weak
police structure and, up until recently, an ineffective United Nations
peacekeeping presence have stacked the odds against him.

The first order of business now is electing a legitimate government and, for
that, law enforcement matters. This is why Mr. Andresol’s return is
critical. He will not only command enormous respect but having run the
Haitian judiciary police at one time, he knows the country’s best lawmen and
will be able to pull them together for his team. He also has the respect of
his peers in Washington and around Latin America. In 2001 a Los Angeles
Times news story called him “the closest thing the Haitian National Police
ever had to a super cop.”

Mr. Andresol is, of course, in a better position than he was in 2002 because
his own government will not be out to kill him. Yet his chances of survival
and success would be greatly improved if pro-Aristide forces in Washington,
Boston and South Africa (where Mr. Aristide is living) would denounce the
criminality of the former president’s regime and embrace the election

There is ample evidence that Mr. Aristide’s government was more like an
organized crime ring than a democratic government. In 2002, Mr. Andresol
charged that, “People involved in drug trafficking are working with
Aristide. If you arrest one of them, the whole country is shaken because
you’ve arrested the president’s man.” He also alleged that “people I have
arrested for drug trafficking and crime were promoted in the police

Back then, Aristide backers like former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II and
the Congressional Black Caucus could ignore Mr. Andresol’s allegations. But
now that former top officials of the Aristide government have been busted
and sent to jail in Florida for their roles in narcotics trafficking, it’s
more difficult to sustain the Aristide myth. Indeed, it would seem well past
time for America’s Aristide backers to throw in the towel, admit they backed
a crooked politician and defend the coming electoral process.

Instead long-time supporters like California Democrat Maxine Waters want to
delay elections, echoing the sentiments of the criminal network in Haiti
that still supports Mr. Aristide and threatens violence against anyone who
cooperates in the process. Rep. Waters pegs her objections to the lack of
security, which is precisely the reaction the anti-democratic forces hope
their killing sprees will elicit. In recent months there has been a new rash
of kidnappings and murders, alongside the extortion and robberies carried
out by rival gangs interested in controlling turf and maintaining power.
Aristide supporters may not be behind it all but the worse it appears, the
more it casts doubt on the viability of the elections that the former
president dreads.

One positive development in recent weeks is the more aggressive stance of
U.N. peacekeepers led by their Brazilian command. By moving into areas where
gangs stockpile weapons and plan their assaults, the U.N. mission has put
the thugs on notice. The fact that pro-Aristide militants are now griping to
U.S. human-rights and trade-union activists that they are being persecuted
is a sign that they are feeling some heat.

If the beheadings in Port-au-Prince have parallels to Iraq, so does the
question of whether the elections ought to go forward. Security should be
beefed up. Instead of throwing crumbs during refugee crises, the U.S. should
give the brave Haitian democrats the same moral backing that produced all
those ink-stained Iraqi fingers in January.