Weakened Haitian Police Forces Overwhelmed by Rebel Violence
By LYDIA POLGREEN
ST.-MARC, Haiti, Feb. 19 — Inspector Pascal Robert knew from the moment he heard about the approaching mob that he and his three dozen men were outnumbered and outgunned. Armed with an easy smile and a battered .38-caliber revolver, he did not present much of a threat to the men carrying assault weapons who had burned down his police station nearly two weeks earlier.
So rather than stand and fight, he got in his car and went home.
"It is not that I was afraid," he said, wandering through the station's charred concrete frame. "But we don't have the training or the weapons to fight those men. We don't have the means or the force. They would have killed us all."
The uprisings that have left dozens dead and thrown Haiti into chaos as militants seek to overthrow President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have been directed largely at the police, whose stations are often the only outposts of a weak and nearly invisible central government. In cities like Hinche, in the central plateau, and St.-Marc, a port city between Gonaïves, the largest rebel-held city, and Port-au-Prince, the capital, militants have easily taken control as the poorly armed and inadequately trained police flee, slipping out of their uniforms and into the countryside.
The takeovers have given the militants control of large swaths of the country — including much of the Artibonite Valley, Haiti's breadbasket and revolutionary heartland — and have laid bare the fundamental weakness of Haiti's only source of law and order, its police force.
"The police force has been demoralized," Michaël Lucius, inspector general of the National Police, said in an interview in his office in Port-au-Prince. The situation, he said, is "basically a war."
Political strife has gripped Haiti since 2000, when flawed legislative elections led opposition parties to boycott the presidential election later that year that returned Mr. Aristide to the National Palace for a five-year term. Opposition groups began holding large demonstrations several months ago aimed at forcing Mr. Aristide to step down. The movement turned violent this month when a group of former Aristide supporters took over Gonaïves. The revolt has spread to at least a dozen cities, and more than 50 people have died.
A crucial factor in the rebels' surge, experts say, is their ability to roam much of the country, gathering strength, unhindered by a resilient police force.
After restoring Mr. Aristide to power in 1994, the United States and other nations spent millions of dollars setting up a police force. Some officers were trained in the United States and given high salaries to blunt the temptation of corruption.
"When we arrived, there was nothing you would call a police force," said Raymond W. Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, who spent much of 1994 in Haiti leading a 1,300-member group that helped build a police force from the ruins of the 7,000-member army and the National Police.
The Americans imposed standards, requiring candidates to take an entrance exam for the police academy and to be taught everything from investigative techniques to the basics of walking a beat.
Henry Carey, an expert on Haitian politics at Georgia State University, said the new police force got off to a good start. "But when the international forces left by 1996, Aristide started stacking the officer corps with his cronies," Mr. Carey said.
Rights groups have criticized the police for cracking down on peaceful protests and standing by as government supporters attacked opposition demonstrators. A march scheduled for Feb. 12 was canceled because the police did not control a mob that threw rocks at demonstrators.
As the police force withered, Mr. Aristide relied more on armed gangs, largely of young men culled from the vast slums that are the base of his support. They have been given weapons to defend the president and the interests of his party, Lavalas, Mr. Carey said. Their loyalty is sometimes genuine but is often bolstered or even purchased with money and drugs, he and other experts said.
Mr. Aristide has denied arming gangs.
In a country where drug money flows freely and guns are easily obtained, Mr. Aristide's opponents have also armed themselves. Here in St.-Marc, where the pro-Aristide group Bale Wouze rules the streets, battles and midnight burnings have left the city littered with dead bodies and at the brink of chaos.
In this fight, police officers like Inspector Robert are bystanders. "I became a policeman to help people," he said. "It was my civic responsibility. We are not soldiers."
His officers fled the police station on Feb. 7, when militants stormed the building after similar rioting in Gonaïves. The militants burned and looted the station and made off with anything they could, down to the tires of a police truck. Pro-government groups later took back the city.
In a slum controlled by the anti-Aristide group Ramiccosm, boys showed visitors last week the bodies of men killed in the fighting. "We have a small contingent of armed men," said Charles Camille, vowing to retake the city. "But we cannot regroup because the Bale Wouze try to kill us with the guns that Aristide gave them."
Across town, Amanus Maette, a politician who is a leader and founder of Bale Wouze, said his group had no guns and had killed no one. "We are a political group that works with children and the community," he said. But a box of ammunition sat on a shelf behind him and young men milled outside his house, uneasily shifting gun butts under their shirts.
"In retrospect, the United States and the U.N. left too quickly," said Mr. Kelly, the New York commissioner. "Haiti is a long-term challenge, and we were out of there in two years. It is the poorest place in our hemisphere and it is 500 miles from our shores. It couldn't be turned around in that time."
In the St.-Marc police station, Inspector Robert is the highest ranking officer, but he is certainly not in charge. Men armed with rifles and machine guns stand guard and will not say whether they are policemen. They do not wear the khaki shirts and blue pants that make up the the National Police uniform.
"We are here to defend our country from the animals," said one man on
guard. "If we go, it will be a catastrophe. We are the only ones who can
protect the people."