A nation in tatters: Haiti rapidly spiraling out of control
By Tim Collie
GRAN RIVIERE DU NORD, Haiti -- Inspector Narcisse Lacombe cradled an aging assault rifle and swayed uneasily on the porch of this small town's police station -- one of the last in northern Haiti that hasn't been abandoned to anti-government rebels.
Not far away, a new recruit nicknamed "Jungle" tossed his rifle in the air and tried to catch it like a Marine in drill formation.
He and Lacombe are the only two police officers who showed up for work
this night, and they have three clips of ammunition between them. The rusting
two abandoned police cars litter the courtyard. The proper batteries cannot be found for their dusty radios, so there is no contact with the remaining 13 officers
guarding three towns just outside Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city.
Everything is in short supply, except the drugs and booze handed out
nightly to steel the nerves of officers and motivate youths manning barricades
of downed trees
and heaps of scrap metal. Some get so stoned that even Lacombe no longer approaches them after nightfall.
"I've had a bottle and a half of rum tonight -- you need a stimulant
just to get ready for nightfall," said Lacombe, an eight-year veteran of
the Haitian National Police
who was trained in a U.S. program designed to reform this country's police.
"If the rebels come tonight, I can maybe hold out for a few hours,"
he said, frowning and pulling out his flask for another sip. "Then maybe
I'll surrender and maybe
they'll kill me. I really wanted to be a policeman -- this country needed good policemen, and I wanted to be one.
"But it's all gone to hell, you know."
It's not quite there yet, but Haiti's descent into the abyss is well
along. A three-day journey through this fragmenting nation's central and
northern regions last week
found a country rapidly spiraling out of control.
This rag-tag band of police is the last thin line of defense for President
Jean-Betrand Aristide from a violent rebellion sweeping Haiti as rebels
demand the president's
resignation. About 40 police officers have been killed as rebels took more than a dozen towns in the past two weeks, leaving the few remaining officers demoralized
Aristide's government could stand or fall on these men.
Anarchy reigns in many areas. In others, a strange calm prevails, as
fearful men and women hover like ghosts on street corners and courtyards
waiting for the next
uprising. In many towns in Haiti's Central Plateau, the country's 5,000-man police force has melted away. The small bands of guerrillas who have frightened them off
appear only briefly, then disappear for days.
Barricades litter the country's national highways, which are little
more than rocky, dusty trails in most areas. Some are manned by gun-toting
youths wearing football
helmets, designer sunglasses and other hybrid gear. One bend in the road may turn into a bustling village where life appears normal. The next may lead to an
encounter with a camouflaged rebel wearing an old asthma inhaler to ward off the choking dust.
In the town of Hinche, residents spent most of Tuesday diligently stripping
the city's huge police station and jail of timber, scrap metal and auto
parts as the rotting
corpse of a prisoner lay nearby.
In nearby Maissade, thousands cheered arriving rebels led by Louis-Jordel
Chamblain, the former leader of a notorious paramilitary group linked to
the deaths of
hundreds of civilians during Haiti's military-run government more than a decade ago.
In the high-altitude town of Pilboreau, on Haiti's western National
Highway 1, dozens of residents sacked a police station days after officials
fled. One man danced
amid flaming tires, shouting curses at Aristide. Youths, drunk on a raw, unrefined rum called tapiye, built closely spaced, multiple barricades that seemed to make
little strategic sense.
"We are young, and we need peace and work," screamed one man running
alongside a passing car. "We need to kill Aristide. He unleashed these
bad people to kill
us, and we need to kill him."
In Gonaives, the nation's fourth-largest city where the 17-day-old rebellion
began, residents called for the creation of a Haitian nation-state called
after the river valley that is this country's agricultural breadbasket. Dozens of adolescents and teens lazily lugged pistols and assault rifles as their elders swilled beer
and chanted slogans such as: "With Aristide gone, even the sex will be cheaper."
`Chaos, utter chaos'
"It's the chimèrization of the entire country," said Chavannes
Jean-Baptiste, a former Aristide ally and peasant leader, referring to
the militant, pro-government gangs
known as chimère that enforce political order in Haiti.
"This is the direct result of years spent handing out guns and drugs
to these gangs so that they can attack any opponent of the government,"
said Jean-Baptiste, who
leads the Papaye Peasants Movement in Haiti's Central Plateau. "Now these very gangs are turning on the government, becoming powers unto themselves.
"What you have now is chaos, utter chaos."
Since Feb.5, uprisings have emptied more than a dozen towns of police
and severed much of the north from the control of Aristide's government
in the southern
capital city of Port-au-Prince.
But anger and frustration have been building in this nation for years, driven by hunger, unemployment and frustration over political repression.
Aristide, a former Catholic priest who helped force the Duvalier family
dictatorship from power in 1986, became Haiti's first democratically elected
leader in 1990.
But within seven months, he was deposed by a military coup d'etat. A U.S. force of 23,000 troops restored his government in 1994, the beginning of a $2 billion
attempt at nation building.
American officials and other international leaders label that effort a failure because of Aristide's inability or unwillingness to foster democratic institutions.
After disputed parliamentary elections in May 2000, followed by Aristide's
re-election six months later, he tried to push a populist agenda of higher
public works construction and education programs. But many of his former allies, as well as the wealthy class of Haitians that has traditionally controlled the
country's industries, say he has fostered corruption and political repression.
The uprisings in the Central Plateau are the culmination of violent
skirmishes that have raged since the 2000 elections, when Dongo Joseph,
a member of Aristide's
ruling Lavalas Family Party, was elected as mayor of Hinche in disputed balloting. Viewed as an outsider because he was not from the region, Joseph established
control through the use of political gangs, residents here say.
In November 2000, chimère militants under his control fired on
a meeting held by Jean-Baptiste in what many believe was an assassination
attempt. Five group
members were wounded, including Jean-Baptiste's younger brother. The following year, a series of attacks on police stations in the countryside led to the burning of
the peasant movement's office in Hinche.
The attacks intensified last year. At least 30 people had been killed
by midsummer. Four government officials were murdered in July in an attack
supporters said was mounted by ex-members of Haiti's military operating from neighboring Dominican Republic -- the group that appears to be in control now.
The escalating rebellion in Haiti is being waged over fewer and fewer
resources for this region's desperate population, which lives in extreme
poverty in villages
arrayed over rocky, barren slopes that produce little food.
Because the roads are so bad -- and now are littered with barricades
erected by rebels and police -- goods, fuel and medicine are too expensive
and difficult to
transport. The inflation that has plagued Haiti since last year, doubling and tripling the price of basic goods, has further squeezed residents living on far less than $1 a
"The youth do nothing here but sit around because there's no jobs, and
there's nothing to grow," said Dovic Hilaire, 49, a farmer who runs a small
tire repair stand on
the rugged National Highway 3. "You spend your whole day figuring out where you'll get money for a pound of rice," which costs 15 gourdes, the Haitian currency
equivalent of about 40 cents.
Joseph Sylvestre, 32, a local agronomist, stood last week in the courtyard
of Hinche's police station. He had heard that men had fled but wanted to
see for himself
what was happening. Nearby, mechanics swarmed over several police vehicles, breaking up the engines for parts.
"This used to be a nice town but the last few years have been very rough,"
Sylvestre said. "The inflation just ate up many salaries and the roads
are so bad that
people had to go to the Dominican Republic to buy food.
"When Aristide came to power, we thought that with democracy life was
going to get better, but it's only gotten worse," he said. "And if you
complained to the
government or criticized officials, they terrorized you.."
The terror could be set off by the slightest hint of disloyalty, said
several former officials, now Aristide opponents in the region. In Maissade,
discovered his name on a list of people to be arrested that was left behind by fleeing police.
"I was shocked," said Garcon, who works for an international relief
agency, as he stood inside the town square. "That's just why people are
cheering to see these
guys go -- the police and the chimère terrorized everyone."
Pierre Esperance, a human rights activist who has written numerous reports
on police corruption during the last three years, said: "There are good
policemen left in
this country, but they are buried in the department, beneath all the political hacks. They're trying to do their job, but the police have to serve the political corruption
of the government."
Bribe money, just in case
Outside his crumbling station in Gran Riviere Du Nord, Lacombe took
a swig of rum and agreed with that assessment. He was in the first graduation
American-trained police officers turned out in 1995 by the U.S. Justice Department's International Criminal Investigative Training and Assistance Program.
The 30-year-old father of three learned investigation, interrogation
and arrest techniques -- that's why he didn't shoot a reporter who approached
him last week at a
barricade in the darkened city.
"I could have just unloaded my weapon, but we had good training," said
Lacombe, who was visibly drunk. "That's not the way with some of the newer
acknowledge that. There are a lot of cowards now in the police, a lot of criminals.
"But I always wanted to be a police office. That's why I quit teaching
college to take this job," he said. "I wanted to be a detective, a chief
inspector, like in the
"But now, I don't know anymore," he said. "I know this country needs
police, lots of police. Instead of 5,000 we need at least 50,000. And I
don't think they should
be shooting us. We just want to maintain order. But many of the people are angry."
Still, he vowed to stay on at his post, and to wear his uniform while
many of his colleagues, like Jungle, have long shed theirs. His only concession
to defeat is $100
he keeps carefully folded in his wallet -- bribe money in case the worst happens.
"I walked on patrol the other night and this old man came up to me and
thanked me for staying here. That meant a lot. There are some people who
still respect what
we're trying to do."
Tim Collie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4573
Copyright © 2004