The Miami Herald
Nov. 19, 2002

Critics doubt Haiti vow to disarm political gangs


  PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti -- After the mayor put him on a target list and the journalist who interviewed him was slashed to death, a mob came for Deus Jean-Francois' home.

  The armed vigilantes -- a crew that allegedly included a police officer and a politician's bodyguard -- burned the house to rubble and shot Francois' 20-year-old son in the shoulder. The lawyer and opposition party leader blames ''Asleep in the Woods,'' a political gang linked to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas party.

  The armed episode wasn't unusual because Haiti has been awash in weapons for years, but now that Aristide has pledged to the international community to disarm
  violent groups, the government is making a show of collecting guns.

  Critics, however, say it's just that -- a show, with the most dangerous vigilante groups still free to carry weapons and threaten government opponents. The Haitian
  government started with radio ads and spot car and home searches. A weapons buy-back program didn't yield a single gun.

  Weapons-toting gangs remain and are seen as Aristide's political enforcers, threatening to cause problems during next year's proposed elections.

  ''The Aristide government has no interest in disarming these people, his people,'' said Gerard Pierre-Charles, a former Aristide ally turned opposition leader. ``He would lose his image as an all-powerful leader.''

  The government knows where the guns are because its supporters distributed them, the opposition says. They point to an OAS report that found that after Uzi-bearing commandos stormed the National Palace last December, some government and party workers distributed weapons, and even transported supporters in official vehicles to attack opposition members, party headquarters and homes.

  The attacks were premeditated, said the report by the Organization of American States. Though the report implicates government officials and gang leaders, not one has been arrested.

  Last week, the government announced it had seized 2,500 weapons, including 432 Uzis. But many remain skeptical because the government didn't show its yield.

  Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has asked the OAS for technical assistance, and the government insists the political gangs, or so-called popular organizations, will be
  targeted, along with everyone else who has an unregistered gun.

  ''There are a lot of weapons out there in a lot of different sectors, not only in the popular organizations,'' Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert said. ``We intend to get all of those weapons.''


  Yet they may not be able to touch the illegal guns carried for the party's own elected officials. Last week, Aristide reminded parliament members, known for being
  surrounded by their own armed entourage, that they too must obey gun laws. Yet while police spokesman Jean Dady Simeon says the force knows some of the
  bodyguards have illegal weapons, neither they nor the elected officials can be inspected, or have their guns taken away, he said.

  ''It's up to them to conform to the law,'' Simeon said.

  Disarmament has dogged Aristide's government since the former parish priest was restored to power in 1994, after a coup. The United States, which then occupied Haiti
  in a peacekeeping mission, pledged to weed out illegal guns. Despite Aristide's insistence, the forces didn't follow through. So when the Haitian military was disbanded in
  1995, soldiers simply took their weapons home.

  Illegal weapons proliferated through criminal networks and the drug trade. In the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, guns have meant political power, currency and also security. Crime troubles residents, and Haiti has a small national police force, 5,000 officers for eight million people.

  As part of a compromise that unlocked international aid, Haiti pledged to the OAS that it would disarm. A coalition of civic, church and human rights groups and the opposition want to hold up elections until it starts.

  At a two-day disarmament seminar last month, the OAS suggested a few routes for the government: setting up an independent commission to lead and verify
  disarmament and assure confiscated weapons don't return to criminals' hands; an amnesty for people who hand in arms; a pilot disarmament project in a certain area to test methods.

  So far, disarmament hasn't reached Petit-Goave, a coastal town known for its sweet pink and brown caramels, and political divisiveness.


  Last year, after Aristide announced a zero-tolerance policy for criminals, the then-deputy mayor read a list of names of people considered ''terrorists,'' and to whom the zero-tolerance policy should be applied. On the list was the opposition leader whose house was burned, Jean-Francois, and radio journalist Brignol Lindor, who had interviewed government foes on his show. Days later, Lindor was killed by machete and hatchet slashes. Ten members of the political gang ''Asleep in the Woods'' were indicted in September.

  When violence broke out Dec. 17, 2001, after the attack on the National Palace, 18 homes were ransacked in town, two belonging to Lavalas members. The rest
  belonged to the opposition.

  Both the opposition and the Lavalas party have armed wings here, said Mayor Luc Francois, who says he belongs to neither party.

  ''Usually it is said that the Lavalas group is more violent, but that is normal because they are in power,'' Francois said. He sat beneath a folk painting of a mob burning a man to death by placing a flaming tire around him. Above his head, the artist writes as if asking, ''porquoi?'' or ``Why?''