By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
As the U.N. mission nears full strength, it switches gears in an effort to dislodge entrenched gangs.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - His departure was supposed to bring peace.
But 91/2 months after former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was flown into exile, the city's slums are still crawling with armed gangs.
When hundreds of United Nations troops in white armored personnel carriers mounted a predawn raid in the waterfront slum of Cite Soleil on Tuesday, they were met with a hail of bullets from pro-Aristide militants.
"It's guerrilla war," said Jean-Claude Bajeux, a veteran human rights activist. "When Aristide left we thought we could breathe more easily, but the battle was only beginning."
Restoring government control over Port-au-Prince, one of the hemisphere's most lawless cities, was never going to be easy. For months after Aristide's ouster U.N. peacekeepers kept their distance, hoping the gangs would disarm and go along with international efforts to rebuild the desperately impoverished nation.
Instead the gangs dug in and stocked up on ammunition. Dislodging them has now become an urgent priority as Haitians have begun to lose patience with "les blancs" - the "white men," a term they use for all foreigners , in this case those who have come to their rescue. Money from a $1.2-billion international aid package has barely begun to flow.
Haiti's weak interim government is fast losing credibility amid the insecurity and the absence of any sign of political reconciliation and economic reconstruction.
Accusations of a witch hunt against pro-Aristide supporters - with dozens languishing in jail without formal charges - led to unusual criticism from the United States this week of the government's poor human rights record.
"The country is completely destroyed," said Leonce Duval, a 75-year-old retired metal worker in Bel Air, a poor but once relatively peaceful neighborhood here in the capital.
"Things weren't great with "Titid,"' he added, using the name many Haitians use to refer to Aristide. "But at least some of us had work. Without Aristide it's chaos."
Street walls are covered with pro-Aristide graffiti. "One way or another Aristide is coming back," one announces.
Outside a small street-corner store run by Duval's 31-year-old son, Leonel, residents complain bitterly of seven months without electricity or running water. They defend the actions of the gangs, known as " "chimeres, " or gangsters, in Haitian slang.
"They aren't chimeres; they are the underprivileged that society ignores," said the older Duval. "They are fighting for a means to survive and to feed their families."
The situation is no better outside the capital. In the port city of Gonaives, where a flash flood killed upwards of 3,000 people and left thousands homeless, the waters have receded. But the city's 200,000 residents struggle to survive on food handouts from international relief agencies.
Former members of the disbanded Haitian army who joined the uprising to oust Aristide are also refusing to disarm. On Wednesday they brazenly occupied Aristide's former residence on the outskirts of the capital, declaring it their new headquarters.
"The security problem cannot be dealt with by the U.N. alone," said their leader, Remissainthe Ravix, standing in the driveway in full military fatigues and brandishing a gold-plated sword. "The U.N. needs our help."
The United Nations wasted no time turning down that offer. By week's end Ravix and 50 of his men were evicted. But other former army soldiers continue to defy authorities in several towns.
It was quiet at first after Aristide left. But by September the gangs erupted in violence, proclaiming their loyalty to Aristide, a former slum priest who made his name preaching to the poor in Cite Soleil.
All over the city the gangs sprang into action, mounting hit-and-run attacks on poorly defended police stations, erecting barricades of uncollected garbage and burned-out cars. In the last two months the death toll has risen past 100, including a number of savage beheadings. Often bodies are left to rot in the street. Ambulance workers say it's too dangerous to pick them up.
The assassins are never apprehended. If the victims' relatives are lucky, a police report may be filed. But the case almost always ends there.
In fact, killings are so frequent in the capital that municipal workers simpl y ferry the unclaimed bodies each weekend to a mass grave outside the city. When the refrigeration unit recently broke down at the city morgue for two weeks, the stench became so overpowering that offices in surrounding buildings had to close.
Neither can Haiti's small civilian police force be counted on. Under Aristide the force was deeply corrupted by involvement in drug trafficking and political repression. Only 3,500 active officers remain. The force is being vetted with the help of the U.N. to weed out those suspected of ties to criminal activity.
At one police station in the northwestern suburb of Cazeau, the exterior is pocked with bullet holes. A pickup bearing police plates and carrying armed men drove by Dec. 7 spraying gunfire. Three police officers inside the station were wounded.
The entrance is now protected by a five-foot wall of sandbags. "We are supposed to be policemen," said Inspector Joel Casseus, 32, who graduated from a U.S. police training program in the 1990s. "But this is a military situation."
By mid December the gangs had extended their influence beyond the slums and into downtown Port-au-Prince. Many schools and businesses operate on a day-to-day basis, depending on where the gangs choose to strike.
Most of the deaths are attributed to clashes between gangs who were previously allied behind Aristide, and received their weapons and financing directly from the presidential palace.
Throughout the city, gangs have marked their turf: When reporters met leaders of a Bel Air gang recently, they were escorted through barricades by a youth wielding an Uzi submachine gun.
In a safe-house some 20 gang members said they were former public employees fired in recent months from municipal jobs in the capital and the state telephone and electricity companies. They accused the police and wealthy businessmen of using paid infiltrators to turn the gangs against each other.
"They want to massacre us all," said Samba Boukman, a spokesman for the Popular Base Resistance Movement in Bel Air, which claims to have armed supporters in all the city's major slums. "Without Aristide there can be no reconciliation. We prefer to fight and die for Aristide's return."
He produced a list of 16 names of recently deceased members. Others in the room displayed recent injuries. "I was on my way to have lunch when we were ambushed," said Daniel Cazamayor, 23, pus seeping from an infected bullet wound in his jaw.
The dozen or so gangs in the city number only 200 to 300 armed men altogether, police say. Even so, from a hilltop in Bel Air it's easy to see how a few men with guns are able to hold the city in a viselike grip.
The city center stretched out below is hemmed in on all sides by slum squalor. Less than a mile to the south gleams the white facade of the presidential palace. Behind it is the Martissant slum, another bastion of pro-Aristide gunmen.
To the west lies the waterfront and the capital's main port. Access to the north runs into La Saline and then Cite Soleil, the most divided and dangerous of the slums.
The no man's land that separates Cite Soleil's warring gangs is a smoldering wasteland of burned down shacks. The road that runs through it is littered with rocks, broken glass and spent bullets.
On one side is a gang led by Emmanuel "Dread" Wilme, allied to Aristide's Lavalas Family party. On the other side, are the gunmen of Thomas Robinson, alias "Labaniere," o r "the Banner."
Robinson was once a chief enforcer for the Aristide government. He switched sides last year and now flies an American flag over his gang headquarters.
"Here it's calm," said Robinson, lounging by the side of the road as a U.N. patrol went past. "But over there it's a Lavalas jungle," he added pointing down the street.
With the American military stretched thin around the globe, U.S. officials say the Bush administration was happy to allow other nations to lead the peacekeeping effort. But they privately worry that the passive U.N. tactics have allowed the gunmen to become entrenched.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently urged tougher action during an official visit. As if to emphasize his words, gunfire broke out near Haiti's presidential palace while he was inside holding talks.
U.N. officials have always said they can't tackle the gangs until the mission reaches its full strength of some 8,300 troops and police. That has taken months, as small contingents have trickled into the country from 41 nations.
But with most now here, the United Nations is beginning to change gears. "It's true there has been a security gap," said David Beer, the Canadian commander of the 1,600-strong foreign police contingent. But he is confident the situation will soon improve. "The next few weeks will be very telling."
Tuesday's raid on Cite Soleil was a sign that the United Nations means business.
Residents were awakened by the sound of gunfire as Jordanian troops rolled into the slum in light armored vehicles with .50-caliber, mounted machine guns.
The troops came under "intense" fire from Wilme's gunmen, said Gen. Augusto Heleno, head of the Brazilian-led U.N. military force. They responded with overwhelming force, blasting the shantytown streets with automatic rifle and cannon fire.
While casualties appear to have been limited - the U.N. reported only five wounded, including one Jordanian soldier - residents said the toll was far higher.
Three-year-old Lovenciat Dieudonne was wounded in the neck by a stray bullet. "She was asleep on the floor. We don't even know where the bullet came from," said her father, Reguer Dieudonne, 35, indicating a hole in the corrugated metal exterior of the family shack.
U.N. troops reoccupied two abandoned police stations in Cite Soleil. They were there to ensure a return to "normal life," said Gen. Heleno.
Of course, normal doesn't amount to much in Haiti's slums. "I feel sorry for Gen. Heleno," said Bajeux, the human rights activist. "I don't think he knows what he's dealing with."
-- David Adams can be contacted at email@example.com