Haiti's Police Accused of Lawlessness
U.S.-Trained Force Linked To Killings, Drug Offenses
By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—Created four years ago to usher in a new era
of impartial justice, the U.S.-trained Haitian National Police force is
grappling with allegations that its officers have been involved in a wave of
murders, disappearances of detainees, drug-related crimes and other illegal
After 20,000 troops, mostly Americans, dismantled a military dictatorship
in 1994 and reinstated Haiti's first democratically elected president, the
new police department was to be the cornerstone of justice reform. And
even its harshest critics have welcomed the new force as an alternative to
the repressive security forces that traumatized Haiti during the military
government and the earlier dictatorships of Francois Duvalier and his son
and successor, Jean-Claude.
But the implication of members of the new police force in human rights
abuses and other illegal activities has focused concern on police
lawlessness and raised questions about the department's ability to become
an effective and credible force despite the sizable assistance provided by
the United States and other countries.
"If you are asking me whether I am more concerned about rot in the police
than a year ago, the answer is yes," said Colin Granderson, executive
director of an international civilian mission here run by the Organization of
American States and the United Nations. "We have both human rights
concerns and concerns about the broader conduct of officers, specifically
with respect to criminal activity, in particular drug smuggling."
A lot is at stake, not only for this Caribbean nation of 7 million people,
Western Hemisphere's poorest country, but also for the United States,
which has spent about $75 million to help train and build the police force.
The alleged police transgressions have further eroded confidence in the
department among the Haitian public, which already is widely distrustful of
state security. "For me, I feel fear when I see their guns and their dark
sunglasses. I want to trust them more and have freedom without worries
that they will harm me. But there are too many bad stories," said Raymond
Jean, 24, a Port-au-Prince shoeshine man.
From April through June alone, 50 killings, many of them summary
executions, were attributed to police, compared to 31 for all of last year,
according to Haitian and international investigators. Observers said the
sharp increase in part reflects the heightened state of insecurity.
In a case that has drawn widespread attention, a number of officers under
the command of Jean Coles Rameau, the Port-au-Prince police
commissioner, are under investigation in the deaths of 11 detainees on the
night of May 28 in the Carrefour-Feuilles neighborhood.
Seven officers have been arrested in connection with the slayings, including
Rameau, who had fled to the neighboring Dominican Republic before he
was apprehended and extradited. An eighth officer is at large after
escaping from custody. The government has named a special three-judge
panel to investigate the killings.
Allegations of police involvement in the drug trade have continued to
surface in a country that has become a major transshipment point for
cocaine and heroin bound for the United States from South America. Last
week, four police officials were dismissed on suspicion of trafficking, a
week after a half-dozen officers were arrested on charges of stealing
hundreds of pounds of cocaine found on a boat docked in the northern city
of Cap Haitien.
Investigators also have received information about plainclothes officers
working with illegal vigilante groups that have recently reemerged in some
communities, ostensibly in response to an increase in crime. According to a
report last month by the international civilian mission, residents in the
Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil said 16 people were killed recently by
one of the groups headed by police officers.
"Haiti has an authoritarian history, and it is easy to fall back into old
practices," said Viles Alizar, coordinator of monitoring for the National
Coalition for Haitian Rights. "We know the police are not an army, but
they can act very much like one."
Although U.S. officials have expressed frustration over criminal behavior
by officers, they said that in the case of human rights abuses the culprits
appear to have been acting without official approval.
"The key is that there is no systematic violation of human rights," said
Ambassador Timothy M. Carney, adding, "What is encouraging is that
when there are abuses they move to address them."
The police department has been cited for good work -- including seizures
of drugs headed for the United States -- despite its limitations; it has been
hampered by inexperience and poor resources, ranging from inadequate
manpower to a lack of basic equipment.
Officers also have to contend with the impunity enjoyed by many criminals
at the hands of corrupt judges in a dysfunctional justice system. Officers
are paid about $300 a month, a salary far above Haiti's annual per capita
income of $250 but still considered very low.
The police department has dismissed more than 530 officers over the last
four years for corruption, abuse of power and other disciplinary infractions.
Of that total, 54 are awaiting trial. Because the officers were removed, the
size of the force has decreased just as it is facing a surge in crime and
violence stemming in part from political instability. The department is
scrambling to devise a security plan for upcoming parliamentary elections.
Officials said the number of police officers has dropped from a high of
more than 6,500 about 20 months ago to roughly 6,000 today, although
police personnel and international observers say the figure is probably
lower. "I am concerned about the numbers." said Robert Manuel,
secretary of state for public security. "We have to train even more officers,
but we do not have the resources."
Officials say it is doubtful that the police force will be able to reach
of between 9,500 and 10,000 officers by 2003. "Our view is that they are
not doing enough to maintain, let alone build," said Gary Bennett, manager
of the U.S. Justice Department police training program in Haiti. "We are at
the hardest point of development."
Officers say their jobs have been made more dangerous by the 300 or so
Haitian criminals deported each year from the United States and elsewhere
and because the United States failed to disarm state security forces after
reinstating president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994. Since the force's first
officers were deployed, 59 have been killed.
Manuel and Police Chief Pierre Denize have been the targets of a public
campaign -- attributed to members of Fanmi Lavalas, the party headed by
Aristide -- that has been described as an effort to destabilize and politicize
the police to pave the way for Aristide's return to the presidency.
Aristide, who spent three years in exile in the United States after he
ousted in a military coup in 1992, remains popular among the country's
poor and is heavily favored to win next year's presidential election. Fanmi
Lavalas has denied any involvement in the campaign against the police.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company