Police force on run from rebels
With a police force small, underpaid and underequipped, Haiti finds its thin blue line a receding line as antigovernment rebels flex their muscle.
BY MARIKA LYNCH AND NANCY SAN MARTIN
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- In these days of rebellion, it seems that when Haitian police shout ''Drop it!'' they are talking to each other: Drop your guns and run for your lives.
Eight police officers stationed far from the fighting in central Haiti kept their uniforms and weapons and fled by boat to Jamaica last week. They didn't want to wait around to die, they said.
Other officers haven taken off their uniforms and abandoned a dozen towns and villages. Even in Haiti's second largest city, Cap Haitien, scared officers barricaded themselves in their station when rumors flew that antigovernment gunmen were headed their way.
With too few police officers, no army and numerous loose weapons on the streets, Haiti's national police force has proved to be no match for the rebels pushing a 2-week-old revolt to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
'I just talked to the chief [of Cap Haitien], and he said `I have almost no means to resist,' '' Police Inspector General Michael Lucius said during an interview with The Herald this week. Cap Haitien is supposed to have some two dozen police officers.
The rebels -- a mixture of of street gangs and former soldiers -- are clearly and vastly outnumbered by the Haitian National Police.
Yet the rebels have repeatedly managed to outgun and outmaneuver the police, killing an estimated 40 agents and forcing others to flee as soon as the first shots are fired.
Rank-and-file police earn about $100 a month here, a barely livable wage, and most are trained to fight crime and traffic -- not armed gunmen. The police have a SWAT team and special forces unit, but they number fewer than 100 agents and are based in Port-au-Prince, Lucius said.
Aristide himself may be partly at fault for the weakness of his security forces.
He disbanded Haiti's military in 1995, apparently fearing another coup like the one that drove him into exile in 1991. He was returned to power after a U.S. invasion in 1994.
And he opposed U.S. post-invasion efforts to create a strong police force, again apparently concerned about a coup, said a former U.S. police advisor in Haiti. Today's force of 4,000 can't compare to New York City, with the same population of eight million but some 62,000 officers.
The U.S. government also spent $70 million from 1995 to 2000 to equip and train the police. But Washington halted all direct aid to the Haitian government after controversial legislative elections in 2000.
Washington was also concerned at the time that Aristide was misusing the police force for political purposes and had left unfilled for months a key position that kept tabs on alleged police human rights abuses.
Initially, U.S. military authorities also tried to gather up loose weapons, including guns in the hands of soldiers who deserted when the Americans arrived and guns the military dictatorship had issued to its civilian supporters.
But a U.S.-financed weapons buy-back program collected only 9,915 guns and was a ''dismal failure,'' according to a report in 2000 by the General Accounting Office.
''It was never a serious program. It was window dressing,'' said author Bob Shacochis, whose book The Immaculate Invasion chronicled the U.S. military's efforts in Haiti in 1994.
The number of guns seized, he said, was ''a drop in the bucket.'' The current crisis, he added, was ``predictable.''
Soon after his reelection in 2000, Aristide became the target of allegations that he was issuing guns to gangs of supporters, usually in the country's poorest slums, to protect his government and to keep his foes in line.
And as the power of the armed gangs grew, the professionalism of the police dropped.
The force has had four directors in one year, including one who lasted only two weeks before he fled to the United States and requested political asylum.
Jean-Robert Faveur, a career officer, said he feared for his life because he refused to let some of the pro-Aristide gunmen, who had not been trained at the police academy, join the force.
Human rights groups also have accused the police of extrajudicial killings, and the opposition has alleged that officers attack them without cause during street marches or turn a blind eye when pro-Aristide militants attack them.
U.S. officials have claimed that high-ranking members of the force were also involved in the drug trade. Last year, the country's top narcotics officer was arrested after brazenly stopping traffic on a highway to let a drug plane land.
The vacuum left by the absence of a strong and well-trained police
force has been filled by the gangs, both for and against the government,
now terrorizing parts of the
On the streets of Port-au-Prince, thugs aligned with Aristide have formed groups known as chimeres, Creole for a mythical monster, to protect the president and threaten opposition members at street protests.
A leader of one of those gangs, Butteur Metayer, turned against Aristide after his brother was slain in September, allegedly by government agents.
His gang is now fighting to topple Aristide with the same guns
the government gave him, he says.