Rebel force small but intense
The gunmen behind a revolt against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that is terrifying Haiti are surprisingly few.
By TRENTON DANIEL
GONAIVES, Haiti - The gunmen whose revolt has thrown Haiti into chaos claim ''millions'' of supporters and go under impressive names like the Haitian Liberation Front and the Artibonite Resistance Front.
But they appear to be more of a witch's brew of thugs, former soldiers and police, apparently totaling only about 250 fighters, marauding around the countryside aboard half a dozen beat-up trucks and even motor scooters.
Sunglasses are de rigueur. Their leaders are never far from bottles of cold beer and Haiti's famed Barbancourt rum, and some of their uniforms still show a U.S. Marine Corps emblem on the chest pocket.
They claim that part of their bizarre mishmash of weapons -- from WWII-era M1 Garand rifles to 12-gauge shotguns and AK-47 assault rifles -- was seized during raids on isolated police stations in the last few weeks. The rest, they say, came from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide before they rebelled against him.
Without question, the rebellion launched on Feb. 5 has terrified the country of 8 million people, driving the police out of a dozen towns and villages in northern and central Haiti. At least 60 people have died, and international consternation over the long-troubled country has steadily increased.
The rebels today control the port city of Gonaives, 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince, appear capable of easily moving around parts of the countryside and have vowed to soon attack St. Marc to the south and Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, to the northeast.
But Herald reporters who spent several days with the rebels found them to be a small, motley crew that would not have presented much of a challenge to Aristide were it not for the stunning weakness of the ill-trained and lowly paid 4,000-member National Police.
''There's truth to that at one level,'' said one U.S. official monitoring Haiti when asked about the small numbers of rebel gunmen. ``But at another level, the real impact to measure is what effect they have. One, two guys in the right place can make a difference.''
And the rebels have indeed made a big impact.
By first seizing Gonaives, birthplace of Haiti's independence and a town astride the main road from Port-au-Prince to the north, they restricted food, medical supplies and gasoline to much of the north and stirred up memories of the bloody war against France.
Today, the city remains in the hands of the Artibonite Resistance Front, the largest of the rebel groups and bound to the Haitian Liberation Front only by hatred of Aristide.
Winter Etienne, 40, an accountant and self-proclaimed mayor of Gonaives, acknowledged the group has only ''more than 200 trained fighters'' but said it enjoys the support of the populace. ``If they do not have guns, they will have machetes and rocks.''
Artibonite leader Butteur Métayer, 33, a thick-set man with a goatee, admits that his men got their guns from the government when they were a pro-Aristide gang known as the Cannibal Army.
His brother, gang leader Amiyot Métayer, was assassinated in September, allegedly by Aristide agents. The Cannibal Army has now changed names and allegiances.
''The guns that Aristide gave us, we are now using against him,'' Butteur Métayer told reporters during one of his frequent news conferences in the tin shack that serves as his movement's headquarters. The government denies the allegation.
His men often patrol the dusty streets of Gonaives aboard the city's fleet of motor-scooter taxis, and sunglasses are as popular among them as they were for the Tonton Macoutes, the brutal militias of the Duvalier family dictatorships.
Some of Métayer's followers are so afraid to be identified that they cover their faces. The dress code is mostly camouflage, although Métayer appeared at a rally last week in a white linen suit with a Gianni Versace label still on the cuff.
More warrior-like is Guy Philippe, former Cap Haitien police chief, alleged drug trafficker and coup plotter -- and now leader of the Haitian Liberation Front.
''No, I'm not going to take a drink. You guys will take a photo of me drinking,'' Philippe joked with reporters as he slowly picked at the label of the beer bottle on his lap.
Wearing full battle dress and body armor and carrying a German-made MP-5 submachine gun, Philippe commands a group of former soldiers who were demobilized when Aristide abolished the armed forces in 1995. Aristide had been toppled by the military in 1991 and returned to power by the U.S. armed forces in 1994, and he was not about to give the Haitian army another shot at him.
'BURNED OUR HOUSES'
Some said they took up arms against Aristide to avenge his abolition
of the armed forces. Others said they and their families were attacked
or harassed by pro-Aristide
gunmen after 1995.
''Aristide has put us in prison and burned our houses,'' said a former soldier who identified himself as Panel Bolivar, 34.
Philippe said his men obtained their weapons when they served in the armed forces. But they have also captured guns and ammunition during attacks on police stations.
Philippe's men move about in a half dozen battered off-road vehicles and pickup trucks without license plates, staging quick but devastating raids on rural police outposts and putting on a show of force for the civilians.
Less clear than the rebels' strength and weaponry is their source of financing.
They say they are receiving support and food from the population.
''Wherever we go they help us out,'' said Daniel Marcel Moise, 50, a former soldier among the rebel leaders.
Others allege the rebels' money comes from drug trafficking. The Caribbean nation is a major transshipment point for cocaine moving to the United States from Colombia.
''The source of funding of many of these things is drug trafficking. If you wipe out the police force, you can get to the drugs,'' Joanne Mariner, a deputy director with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview.
To be sure, not all of Métayer and Philippe's men say they are seeking revenge or a police-free drug trafficking base. Jude Gilbert Dragon, 35, a former police officer accused by the government of involvement in a coup attempt against then-President René Preval in 2000, said he's fighting for something else.
''I'm trying to bring democracy to Haiti,'' he said.