Slum dwellers who have received aid from President Aristide may well be his last line of defense.
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Bily Prezidan, 22, and his gang of slum toughs are girding to fight for what little they have, what little President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has given them.
''Aristide doesn't have money to do much, but he does his best,'' said Prezidan, one of four bosses of the feared pro-Aristide gunmen who control the capital's sprawling Cité Soleil slum. ``If he had more time, he could do more.''
As rebels press their 20-day-old drive to topple Aristide, Haiti's police have been melting away virtually everywhere, surrendering government control of the northern half of the country.
U.S. officials estimate the 4,000-member police force is down to 3,000 agents. In 1995, Aristide abolished the army that forced him out of power from 1991 to 1994.
But if the rebels attack Port-au-Prince, as they have vowed to do shortly, they may well run into gunmen like Prezidan, one of the pro-Aristide militants widely alleged to have been armed by the government and known as chiméres, after a mythical dragon.
''We are the military of Aristide,'' said Prezidan, the father of two girls, a 2-year-old and five-month-old, as he showed off the pistol in his belt.
Aristide recently handed out some 4,000 weapons to civilian supporters from stockpiles in the basement of the National Palace and bought 2 million rounds of ammunition from a Latin American country, according to one U.S. security expert monitoring Haiti.
''I want to see Aristide finish for five years. I worked for that. I voted for Aristide,'' Prezidan said in broken English. ``Nobody is going to take that away.''
For Prezidan and his chiméres, it's Aristide who brought the real sunshine to 250,000 people in the festering slum with the pretty name that translates as Sun City.
Their homes, a combination of tin shacks and crude cinder-block structures, are crammed into an area that backs into the ocean.
Their lives revolve around survival, either from bloody turf battles or hunger. Until Aristide took office, first in 1991 and again in 2000, they were nothing more than the poorest citizens of the hemisphere's poorest nation.
But the former Catholic priest brought dreams of a better life. And he delivered with some of the promises: a paved road to replace the pot-holed dirt path filled with rubbish; a park with a patch of green grass, the only place where anything grows; two new schools; and a renovated St. Catherine Leboure Hospital.
The chiméres have been accused of being little more than drug-dealing gangs armed by Aristide to terrorize his opponents, break up their street protests, and fire off their guns at night near the homes of opposition leaders.
Prezidan denied those accusations but admitted his chiméres sometimes disrupt opposition demonstrations -- but only because the opposition disrespects Aristide.
''Maybe I don't have no money, but I am the same as the rich,'' he said. ``I never understand the dream of the opposition. What plan do they have for the poor, for the children?''
And he's ready to battle the rebels.
''Guy Philippe can't come here,'' Prezidan said of the former police chief who is one of the leaders of the rebellion. ``We want him. If he comes, he dies. The police are afraid. But we are not. We have the power.''
Prezidan, who also calls himself ''Avenger,'' claims he heads a group of 30 armed young men that he calls ''Solution.'' With the help of the three other bosses in Cité Soleil, including his older brother, ''2Pac,'' they can quickly mobilize thousands of gunmen into the streets.
''Philippe says he's got 200. You know how many people are waiting for him here? We've got 2,000,'' Prezidan said. 'If Cité Soleil says `no more,' it's over.''
Jean-Maurice Edourd, an administrator at the hospital in Cité Soleil, said the shantytown is just one of several Aristide strongholds ready to defend the capital from rebels.
''It's not just Cité Soleil, but also La Saline and Matissand,'' he said of two other large Port-au-Prince suburbs.
The Cité Soleil bosses use traditional Haitian rara bands, which play during carnival, to mobilize the crowd and youngsters to chant to the beat: ``Aristide for five years.''
Some of the slum's children also know how to become a boss of chiméres. ''You've got to go to school and learn,'' Lando Duvergla, 15, said. ``You have to be liked by the people in the area. You have to put security in the area and don't waste the money that you have in your hands. And buy guns. You have to buy guns and play music so people can dance.''