Haitian capital suffers grind of violent crime
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- One day before Haiti's Carnival festivities,
businessman Karl Batroni went to a cock fight arena in a suburb of the capital to
do some gambling.
Instead, he got a painful reminder that, even if political violence is
no longer as
prevalent as it has been at times in the past, the impoverished Caribbean nation is
still afflicted by criminal violence, particularly in Port-au-Prince.
Batroni ended up with four bullet wounds after thugs sprayed the arena
Petionville suburb with gunfire. And he was one of the lucky ones. Four people
died including one of the attackers, who was shot in the neck as he tried to flee.
"A guy named Junior went into the ring to cash in on his wins and then
shot," said a security guard, pointing to the ring and the bullet holes dotting the
arena where the action is meant to be confined to aggressive fowl.
"The insecurity situation shocks. It handicaps people because they can't
to enjoy themselves," said the guard, adding the stadium has closed temporarily
to tighten security and raise the surrounding walls. "It makes everybody worried.
People are scared. They don't know what will happen to them."
The assailants shot and killed another security guard and hit Batroni in
calf, and both sides of his stomach. A stray bullet also hit another bystander,
The incident appeared to be a settling of scores in which others got hurt
killed. Other violent crime in the capital, a crumbling and overcrowded city of
1.5 million, is the work of roaming thugs -- called "zenglendoes" in the native
Creole -- who mug and kill for money, keeping the city on edge.
Many people stay at home after dark, but even during the day it is not
there is a perception that things are getting worse.
Last month a well-known businessman was gunned down on a thoroughfare in
one of the city's "safer" neighborhoods. It was midday when three cars blocked
his car in traffic and a gunman shot him five times.
In addition to street crime, political violence, which stalked Haiti in
the past as
the country endured successive dictatorships, has become a concern again in the
past year or so amid political tensions between President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's
ruling Lavalas Party and the opposition.
Most notable was the still unexplained April 2000 assassination of prominent
broadcaster Jean Domnique.
'Unstable security' throughout Haiti
Just before Aristide took office in February, returning to power after
first term that included three years in exile and ended in 1996, the U.S. State
Department issued an advisory warning U.S. citizens against going to Haiti
because of the "unstable security situation throughout the country."
Four pipe bombs exploded in the capital in January, wounding two people.
Then-Prime Minister Jacques Eduard Alexis blamed the opposition for the
attacks, saying they were trying to destabilize the country before Aristide's
The U.S. advisory noted the rise in political violence that accompanied
presidential election last November and legislative elections in May. Lavalas won
the legislative elections in a process marred by allegations the results were
miscalculated in the party's favor.
"The Haitian government has failed to contain certain violent and dangerous
incidents, including bombings in public areas, politically motivated killings,
indiscriminate gunfire directed at pedestrians in Port-au-Prince and incidents
directed at diplomatic facilities and vehicles," it said.
A month later, two Molotov cocktail devices were thrown at a U.S. Embassy
official's residence. One soda bottle exploded in the front yard but caused no
injuries or property damage.
Painting a bleak picture of a country with no "safe" areas, the report
violent crime was on the rise:
"The state of law and order is of increasing concern, with reports of armed
robberies and break-ins, murders and car hijackings becoming more frequent.
The limited response and enforcement capabilities of the Haitian National Police
and the judiciary mean there is little relief for victims of crime."
New justice chief faces major obstacles
Haiti's newly appointed Justice Minister Gary Lissade is well aware of
obstacles he faces in trying to impose a bit of law and order. Criminals often
operate with near impunity. The legal system is inefficient and plagued with
corruption. The police force is understaffed, with some 3,000 officers in a
country of nearly 8 million people.
"There are laws but they need to be enforced," Lissade, who previously
as an attorney for Aristide, told Reuters. "There will be change. We need it. We
have to. Otherwise, the country won't go anywhere."
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, has a minimum wage of
than $2 a day and 62 percent of the population are malnourished.
Rampant crime delivers another blow to the economy.
"Lately, there have been those murders and people are taking fewer risks
invest," said Hans Tippenhauer, a senior analyst for a local consulting firm. "If
you solve the security problem, you are likely to bring back investors."
Apart from discouraging investors, crime and the need for protection against
an extra expense small entrepreneurs can ill afford. Many shops and homes in
the capital have bars on all the windows and businesses also often feel obliged to
hire security guards whose wages -- while very low by U.S. standards -- add
another $100 a month per guard to costs.
Ruth Goldman, owner of the Guess Who restaurant and bar in the relatively
affluent suburb of Petionville, has witnessed firsthand the impact of crime on
people and their businesses.
"It's been for about a year now that people have been thinking twice before
out to a nightclub. The insecurity is killing the nightlife," said Goldman, whose
fiance was killed almost three years ago, shot in the head by a gang member as
the couple returned home from work one night.
"As soon as somebody of this class gets attacked or shot, it's a ghost
here," she said, speaking on an evening when Guess Who was deserted save for
a few lone barflies and a bored bartender playing with a calculator.
Copyright 2001 Reuters.