With no effective government and with only thugs and political gangs to challenge each other, Haiti's Les Cayes is in free fall toward anarchy.
BY JOE MOZINGO
LES CAYES, Haiti - In the low-lying shanties of this Caribbean city, they use barricades of conch shells to keep enemy vigilantes out. And as fear and hunger mount, residents are beginning to throw their fate to rickety boats and the pitiless whims of the sea currents, which may or may not get them to Florida.
At the burned and gutted husk of a police station, the officers have no guns, no trucks, no authority. They pray that the U.S. Marines will come soon -- assuming they come at all -- before the shaky, relative level of peace they have now collapses into chaos.
''Everybody right now is living in fear,'' said Joseph Avril, the police chief, who recently returned to his looted station after four days in hiding. ``Without U.S. military backup, this will be a tragedy.''
For now, Haiti's fourth largest city, an old colonial port on the south coast -- five hours by pock-marked road from the capital -- lies perilously outside the law.
So far, the American, French and Chilean peacekeepers in Haiti have secured only the capital, Port-au-Prince.
NO IMMEDIATE HELP
A spokesman for the U.S. Marines said Saturday it would take some time to get out to the provinces. ''As of right now we don't have a mission planned for Les Cayes,'' said Staff Sgt. Timothy Edwards. A senior State Department official said the military eventually would be in the major cities throughout the country.
''I hope they don't come too late,'' said Pierre Léger, a prominent businessman and president of the Les Cayes Chamber of Commerce. ``The Americans have this idea that Haiti is just Port-au-Prince.''
Not only is the situation here likely to send more desperate people adrift in the Windward Passage, it also has created the state of anarchy needed for a certain brand of entrepreneur found in abundance here -- the drug trafficker.
With Haiti increasingly becoming a transit stop for drugs on their way to North America, Les Cayes is one of the main points of entry. At least twice, U.S. authorities have seized 800-pound shipments of cocaine landing here.
Last week, Léger and a group of business and religious leaders brought the city's two armed political factions together. The meeting resulted in a certain level of calm on the main streets.
But by most accounts, the gangs are arming themselves and shooting in the slums, having stolen police weapons.
''The few police officers that come back to work have nothing to defend even themselves,'' said police administrator Boyer-Pierre Joseph, pointing to a half dozen ransacked police pickup trucks. ``We have one vehicle left. We just have little guns, .38s and 9 millimeters. They have machine guns.''
On the road between Port-au-Prince and Les Cayes, armed men at one checkpoint were stopping officers solely to take their weapons. They let others pass.
The violence in Les Cayes is generally occurring between supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the slum of La Savane and the opposing neighborhood of Pontgombo.
But it is impossible to draw any line between politics and opportunism in Haiti. With attacks and counterattacks, gangs, thieves, rebels and armed political parties, all that remains clear is the violence.
With Aristide gone, La Savane -- a hive of stick-framed huts on a spit of land between mangrove and sea -- is politically unprotected and cut off from the rest of the city now.
''Now we can't circulate in the city,'' said Ernest Herard, 37. ``We're stuck in this neighborhood. We can't look for work or food.''
And the seashell barricades have done little to keep violence at bay.
''Right now in Les Cayes, anyone can murder anyone,'' said Jean Carlen, 17. ``There is no justice.''
Sister Madeleine, a nun who takes her 80-year-old legs on the scorching hot streets every day to help the poor, said the situation has been deteriorating for months.
''There is more hunger every day,'' she said. ``There is no work. There is no fish in the sea.''
The economic isolation is breeding desperation. Joel Sayed, a father of five, hasn't had work for months. The crumpled shreds of tin on his roof do not stop the rain anymore, and he doesn't have anything to feed his children.
On Friday, he sat on his porch trying to sell an old cassette player. He said he would use the money to get on a boat and drift off into the strait between Haiti and Cuba, headed for America. Even if he got caught by the U.S. Coast Guard and detained in Guantánamo Bay, he said he would be happy.
''At least they give you three meals a day,'' he said. ``Anywhere is better than here.''
AWARE OF DANGERS
And no one takes the journey lightly. This is a town that knows the danger of the passage. Fishermen routinely head off into the trade winds in dugout-canoes, with sticks for masts and sails patched together from rags. They don't always come back.
Three weeks ago, a 17-foot boat, the Misyon Pou Christ, set off for Florida, the residents say, with no motor or sail. It carried 48 people.
Richard Pierre listens to the radio every day to hear of his cousin's whereabouts. He says he will go, too, if the situation doesn't improve.
''We are going to take whatever boat is out there and just take our chances,'' he said.