Photo © Jean-Pierre Cloutier
TOWARD THE REBIRTH OF A MILITIA?
Note : Published in the Haiti Times, June 1988.
With the recent wave of violence characterized by murders, armed robberies, kidnappings, and random shooting at night, terror and uncertainty has settled once more in the minds of the entire population. During a two-week period, from mid-April to early May, and this according to official hospital records, 17 people were admited dead on arrival at the state hospital following shooting incidents. These figures however do not reflect those people who died from gunshot wounds after being admited, those whose bodies were taken by their assailants after they had been shot, and those whom were taken from their houses at night by armed civilians and never seen again.
Little is known of the murder victims, even less on the murderers. But the execution-style killings have prompted suggestions that they could be politically related, or the results of old accounts and feuds being settled. One body found on April 1, on Route No.1 near Laffiteau was that of Jean Richard Alphonse, 25, a resident of the Fontamara neighborhood. He was leader of a group which, in November 1987, had proceeded to the "dechoukaj" of the house of Lafontaine Dominique, a well-known Duvalierist and voodoo priest. During the incident, an officer of the close-by Marine Corps had been wounded. Alphonse, just before his death, had been requested to appear at the Marine Corps base, which he did. He never made it back home.
A friend of Alphonse, Charles Edouard Desgrottes, along with two other friends, Adrien Berthol and Jean Fleurant, were taken into custody by the Recherches Criminelles brigade in connection with the murder of Alphonse. Desgrottes was released after two weeks and quickly took refuge in New York where he described his experience to the weekly newspaper "Haiti-Observateur." However, Berthol and Fleurant remained in custody, and at press time had still not been formally charged with any accusation. Recognizing that Alphonse, Berthol, Fleurant and himself had participated in the ransacking of Lafontaine's house, Desgrottes denied having been involved in the killing of Alphonse. He said that "macoutes" with connection with the military were settling accounts and were killing those who had participated in the "dechoukaj" operations. However, no other case enables investigators to confirm this could be going on on a large scale retalliation basis.
A group of police attachés photographed in front of the Recherches criminelles building as they were coming back from a round-up mission.
Photo © Jean-Pierre Cloutier
By mid-May, gas stations had become the favorite target of night time hoodlums. The press had reported four armed robberies in a two-week time period. However, assembled in annual convention, officials from the national association of petroleum products retailers (ANADIPP) corrected this figure and said it was closer to the dozen mark. In the early moring of May 14, the day the convention opened, a gas station belonging to ANADIPP vice president Sylvio Rocourt was the scene of an armed robbery which claimed the life of one employee and sent another to hospital. The association informed the Ministry of Commerce that as of Monday, May 16, its members would have to restrict their opening hours at between 6 AM and 7 PM because of the insecurity factor. But on that Monday night, a 13th station was broken in an robbed of cash and goods.
To date, the authorities have adopted a less than reassuring stance on "l'insecurité" as it is now called by everyone. On May 4, Prime Minister Martial Celestin (who is also minister of Justice) summoned to his office a group og high officials to discuss the problem of insecurity. Present were Interior Minister Yves Auguste, Defense Minister Williams Regala, Justice Secretary of State Robert Augustin, Chief of Police Colonel Gregoire Figaro, anti-crime brigade chief Major Josepf Baguidy, and firefighter chief Major Menard. "Le Progressiste Haitien" (government newspaper) reported that Prime Minister Celestin expressed his concern over the ongoing wave of violence, and especially over the fact that the authorities had not proceeded to any arrests in the cases. He also deplored the deficiencies affecting the firefighting brigade, paralyzed by inoperative equipment and lack of water.
After hours of deliberations, during which time all present acquiesced to the fact that police forces were ill-equiped to adequately fill their mandate, a series of resolutions were adopted by the group. Among those resolutions: the creation of a vast security plan involving the participation of all organizations involved in police and security matters; a supervision and monitoring of existing private security firms; a tighter immigration control of foreigners entering or living in the country; a stricter control of those individuals circulating at night, whether on foot or in their cars.
However, two of the adopted resolutions gave way to protest by several sectors of society. First, the constitution of a civilian organized vigilante corps, second, the "controled reorganization" of the neighborhood vigilance brigades "not on a free basis as in the past but according to a plan devised by the Ministry of Justice and the police." During the events that marred the pre-November 29 canceled elections, such neighborhood vigilance brigades had been set-up by concerned citizens. After a few incidents that had caused the death of some armed individuals circulating at night and themselves shooting at pedestrians for no apparent reason, the minister of Interior, then Colonel Williams Regala had outlawed the groups. However the violence had only increased.
At the time, the Constitution had also been invoked to dismantle and ban the brigades. Articles 263 and 263.1 state that there are two armed corps, the police and the army. "No other armed corps may exist on the territory" says the document. Hearing reports of the intention of the government to structure the equivalent of a civilian militia, the democratic sector and press organizations reacted unfavorably to the plan. Several trade unions and association linked the plan to a restoration of the "tonton macoutes," the dreaded militia set up by Francois Duvalier in 1958 and given official status in 1961. "Considering that in particular historical circumstances where national peace and security had been threatened... citizens devoted to the cause of peace had voluntarily faced these aggressions and fought them alongside the regular armed forces..." the VSN's had among other tasks the "responsibility to exert the role of the police itself" (November 7, 1961, Decree creating the VSN's).
The Democratic Unity Confederation (KID), the CATH trade union, the Women for the Liberation of Haiti, and Sylvio Claude's Christian Democratic Party of Haiti all protested against the governmental plan. Hubert de Ronceray, leader of the Mobilization for National Development (MDN) stated that "The history of Haiti in the past 30 years does not let us belive in vigilance brigades that would be constituted of saints and angels." The daily newspaper "Le Matin" commented by saying "The government, if its intentions are truly honest, should think twice before implementing such a scheme that aims less at reinstating security than at creating a force parallel to the regular armed forces. The right-leaning "Petit Samedi Soir" went with a front page titled "Neighborhood Brigades: A Perverted Form of the VSN's." New York-published "Haiti- Observateur" for its part wondered if "Thse brigades could be set up without being issued weapons, because they would be powerless in front of armed commandos."
On May 6, during his traditional "Koze anba tonel" television address, and truthful to his habit of laying it down on the media, President Manigat accused the press organization of exaggerating their reports on the crime wave. He stated that murder was a current, even trivial occurence shared among all the countries of the world. He refuted the allegations voiced by "certain radio stations and newspapers" that there could exist a political link between a destabilization effort of his government and the crime wave. Said the President: "Social banditism, which the government will fight energetically, has no political connotation. It is a social fact!"
The question of reinstating vigilance brigades however may not have come from the meeting Prime Minister Celestin held in his office on May 4, but could have been in the works for some time. On April 20, during President Manigat's press conference, a clue to that effect surfaced, but at the time was not picked up by the press corps. An individual attending the press conference asked the moderator (Information Minister Savain) to be recognized and be allowed the opportunity to question the President, a request that was granted to him. After a confused preamble, the man (who had not identified himself before addressing the president, and whose identity is unknown from this and other journalists present) said "I would like to hand you this dossier on the security we wanted to establish in our neighborhood. I was the "chef de section de rue" (street's section chief). The detective that had solicited us had found necessary to unite the people of our neighborhood to defend the area against thieves and all that, to give ourselves some security. You have here the names and phone numbers of all these (neighborhood) people who participated in that effort, and you also have the requests of these people." The President interrupted the individual promptly telling him time was running out for the press conference. "If you have a question ask it, otherwise send me your complaints" said Mr. Manigat.
Two points come to mind. First the use of the expression "chef de section." In the Duvalierist political structure, the smallest territorial collectivity was the communal section headed by the "chef de section." These "chefs" were handpicked by the president himself. The structure has now been replaced by the communal section being run by three-member councils. The second intriguing fact is that on April 20, date of the press conference, the unidentified individual referred to having already been contacted by a "detective." This would point to the anti-crime brigade (Recherches Criminelles) having proceeded with an attempt to set up vigilance brigades much before the decision would have in fact been taken on May 4, as reported by the government newspaper.
During his May 19 press conference, President Manigat was pressed by several questions from journalists on the topic of the vigilance brigades, but gave little more information that could clarify their legal status. He however commented on the continuing violence saying the phenomenon was a composite of social banditism and politically related violence aimed at destabilizing his 100 day-old regime.
In the meantime, Haiti Times has learnt from a high ranking source within the executive branch that the government had in fact instituted an investigation, and had found that the robberies and murders were in large part attributable to elements of the former regime operating from the Dominican Republic and intent to destabilize the Manigat-Celestin government.
Government investigators have traced the responsability of the recent wave of violence to Roger Lafontant, a former Minister of Interior under Jean-Claude Duvalier, who has now apparently settled down in the Dominican Republic. Lafontant reportedly funds and organizes the destabilization tactics with the help of former "tonton macoutes" remained loyal to him and to the former order. In October 1985, Lafontant had been exiled and had taken refuge in Montreal where he operated a float of taxi cabs. Although he denied having considerable financial resources, the fact that his tenure as Interior Minister had made him a wealthy man is no secret. The Haitian government, taking into account the result of the investigation that pointed the finger at Roger Lafontant, tried to get the cooperation of the Dominican government to curtail the efforts of the former Interior Minister, but to no avail. It seems the entanglement of legal implications cannot at this time be solved. Unless Mr. Lafontant commits a crime which can be proved in Dominican courts, little can be done against his presence in that country, and against his underground activities.
One element hampering investigations conducted either by the police or by the press is the fear of witnesses, or victims still living, to testify or give detailed accounts of incidents. Scared of eventual reprisals, none of those who could give vital information is willing to talk. There has been reports of people being stopped while driving right next to the president's residence, the "Villa d'Accueil" on Delmas 48, and being robbed by individuals dressed in military clothes. But the victims declined being interviewed on the record for fear of reprisals. Grave diggers working for the urban community of Port-au-Prince and who bury in Titanyin's communal graveyard the bodies of the homeless found daily in the streets of the city have recently noticed a good number of corpses, mostly of young male individuals, which visibly had died from gun shots, their hands still tied behind their backs. These bodies would not be accounted for in official figures, as morgue employees would have removed whatever had been used to tie the hands of the victims. This indicates a "parallel" network of body count, the victims being killed in "execution-style" manner. But again, no one is ready to go on the record, strongly indicating the lack of confidence in the institutions that normally insure the safety and security of lives and property.
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