Tough rebel both feared and loved
An ex-police commissioner is a leader of an armed gang trying to topple Haiti's president. He says he believes in democracy.
BY TRENTON DANIEL
GONAIVES, Haiti - Guy Philippe looked far too at ease for a man who's one of the top leaders of a bloody revolt against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Former Gonaives police commissioner, alleged drug trafficker and serial coup plotter, the 35-year-old Philippe cracked jokes about his ''fifty-dollar'' watch and held a bottle of Prestige beer as he talked.
''If Aristide wants a civil war, hes going to get it,'' Philippe bragged to a Herald reporter in a tin shack in Gonaives, Haitis fourth-largest city and the revolt's main redoubt. "Were going to have the fight of the year in Port-au-Prince.''
Philippe appears to be first-among-equals of the three leaders of armed gangs whose raids have left some 60 dead since Feb. 5, driven police out of a dozen towns and villages and pushed this grindingly poor nation to the brink of chaos.
It's an unlikely role for the baby-faced man, about five feet nine, in camouflaged uniform and combat boots but no visible weapons, who smiled often during the interview but tried to avoid eye contact.
Although Philippe's own National Front for the Liberation of Haiti appears to be largely made up of former soldiers seeking revenge against Aristide for dissolving the military in 1995, he said that's not his view.
''We dont want no revenge,'' he said. ''Were looking for peace.'' He's also looking for democracy, he added, but not the kind that elected Aristide in 1990 and again in 2000.
''Democracy is not a four or five-year term [in office]. Its principles,'' he insisted, pointing to the statues of three heroes of Haitian history.
The statues of Alexandre Petion, Henri Christophe, and Capois Lastont were moved to Philippe's shack-headquarters from a Gonaives plaza, said Jude Dragron, a former police commissioner for a Port-au-Prince suburb who backs Philippe.
But Philippe denied he has any personal political ambitions. ``Im not interested in politics for now. The only thing political for me is security. This is what I studied.''
Philippe indeed started out studying security at the Gerard Alberto Enriquez Gallo police academy program in Quito, Ecuador, from 1992 to 1995.
It's what he did afterward that earned him his notoriety.
Haitian and U.S. authorities say Philippe has been involved in drug trafficking, while police chief of the northern port of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, and later in exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
''Guy Philippe is well known in Haiti as a big drug trafficker; its a secret to nobody,'' said government spokesman Mario Dupuy. But he has never been officially accused of drug crimes. Haiti is a major transshipment point for cocaine moving from Colombia to the United States.
He served as security chief for then-President René Preval, an Aristide ally, in the mid-1990s and was later assigned to the National Police outpost in Ouanaminthe, on the Dominican border. He later spent one year as commissioner in Cap Haitien.
But Philippes shadow has loomed especially large and troubling over Haiti for the past four years, ever since he and a half-dozen police officers were accused of trying to overthrow Preval in October of 2000.
Philippe on Thursday denied the allegations of coup plotting and drug trafficking. ''Two months before I left the country, I got promoted to a higher rank,'' he said. ``If I was that bad, why didnt they arrest me?''
He was indeed never arrested, because he and the other suspects fled to the Dominican Republic. But the move apparently did little to dampen his enthusiasm for revolt.
The government accused Philippe of orchestrating a mysterious nighttime attack by more than two dozen gunmen on the National Palace in Port-au-Prince on Dec. 17, 2001, by then occupied by Aristide. The gunmen fled. At least 10 people died in the attack and the riots afterward by Aristide supporters. The Organization of American States conducted a lengthy investigation into the raid but said it was unable to determine who was behind it.
Haitian authorities also link Philippe to a July 2001 attack on the Police Academy in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, and last year he was briefly detained in the Dominican Republic for questioning about alleged meetings with former Haitian military officers to hatch a coup plot.
Throughout the spring of 2003, there was a string of attacks by mysterious gunmen around the Central Plateau -- the area now occupied by Philippes forces -- that the government blamed on Philippe.
OUT OF EXILE
Philippe was supposed to have been in exile in the Dominican Republic, but last Friday appeared at the side of the until-then main leader of the anti-Aristide revolt, Butteur Métayer, during a news conference.
Métayer launched the revolt in Gonaives, some 70 miles north of the capital, to avenge his brother, a gang leader assassinated in September by alleged Aristide agents. Also at the news conference was Louis Jodel Chamblain, a notoriously brutal leader of FRAPH, a paramilitary group that supported Haiti's 1991-1994 military dictatorship.
Whatever the allegations against Philippe, it seemed that Gonaives residents hold him in high regard. At a rally Thursday in a central plaza, thousands clapped and shouted their support as he and Métayer vowed that they were ready to die in the fight to oust Aristide.
''Guy Philippe is working for the population,'' said Florel Altine, 29, driver of one of the city's motorcycle taxis. ``Hes working so that people can live.''
Herald staff writer Marika Lynch contributed to this report.