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In slums of Haiti, a vote for security

Presidential elections are next week, but gangs seem in control with extortion and kidnapping the major weapons.

Published February 3, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Nicolas Martino hasn't dared visit his office in six months. Sales are down 40 percent. Gangs have looted the business twice. His factory guards ran away and the local security firm he used canceled its contract. Another businessman was shot dead two weeks ago by 20 gang members who ambushed him leaving his plant.

Located on the edge of Cite Soleil, a sprawling seaside shantytown bordering the country's main highway, National Road 1, Martino's factory, United Plastic, is in the heart of Haiti's main industrial zone.

This is the new front line in Haiti's undeclared war with an army of slum gangs terrorizing the city day and night, extorting businesses for protection money, kidnapping the owners, their wives and children, as well as poorer, working-class employees.

In four days, Haitians go to the polls to elect a new president. The election is crucial to the restoration of constitutional rule after a bloody rebellion in February 2004 swept former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power.

United Nations officials heading a 9,000-strong peacekeeping force of troops and police are reasonably confident the elections - postponed four times in the past three months - can go ahead on Tuesday. But, despite the presence of 1,500 troops inside Cite Soleil, the U.N. has failed to quell the violence there.

"This is our main road, our I-75, and you can't go on it," said Charles Baker, a hard-talking businessman and presidential candidate who is critical of the U.N. mission. "If they can't do it, they should find someone who can."

While Haitians welcome the chance to put their country back on a democratic track, they wonder if law and order will ever return. Home to some 400,000 poor Haitians, Cite Soleil is a capsule of everything that is wrong with this country. Even with elections, Haiti's insecurity will likely never be resolved unless this slum, and others like it, are pacified.

"I don't think Cite Soleil will ever be what it was," said Martino, 44.

Such nostalgia is ironic. The slum, whose name means Sun City, has always been an infamous hell-hole of poverty. "It was always a place where the less fortunate came to live. There was poverty, but not violence," he said.

* * *

Cite Soleil has a special place in Haiti's recent history. Aristide, a former slum priest, ignited political awareness in the slums when he ran for president in 1990 promising justice for the poor. But instead of building modern democratic institutions, Aristide is blamed for distributing money and weapons to slum gangs who became his enforcers.

After his fall from power the gangs were left leaderless, but still armed. They turned to infighting. U.N. peacekeepers tried to intervene, but lacked answers to Cite Soleil's misery. Emboldened, the gangs resorted to crime to finance their activities, claiming to be the voice of the impoverished masses.

With an estimated 20 kidnappings a day, Port-au-Prince is now the ransom capital of the Western Hemisphere, far surpassing Bogota and Mexico City. Victims come from all classes, with ransoms ranging from $800 and $180,000.

"This is the worst I have known it," said Corwin Noble, a former California detective who worked for a security firm that guarded Aristide. After serving in Iraq, he returned to Haiti last year to work for a local phone company.

"Everybody is wondering who is in charge. Rules are broken, no one cares," said Noble, whose cell phone and radio update him every hour on the latest incidents.

More than 1,500 people - including 78 police officers - have died since Aristide fled Haiti in February 2004, according to local human rights activists. But with the approach of the election, the battle between U.N. troops and the gangs has only intensified. Concerned about pre-election violence, American Airlines canceled its flights to Haiti scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

The French-based medical relief agency, Doctors Without Borders, which operates the lone hospital in Cite Soleil and a trauma unit in the capital, says it treated more than 220 gunshot victims in December, half of them women, children, and the elderly.

Chevalier Silfa, a 37-year-old sugar cane street vendor, was walking near the U.N. battalion headquarters one evening earlier last month when he was hit by a bullet in the stomach. "It came out of nowhere. There was no provocation," he said, lying in a hospital bed in Cite Soleil.

Residents say at least one-third of Cite Soleil's population has fled. Most small businesses are shuttered. The few private schools still operating report at least a 50 percent drop in enrollment.

"When there's shooting we put the children on the ground," Monteus Leonce, head teacher at the Faith in God private school, said. He pointed to bullet holes in the school gate and walls.

Children in neat brown uniforms still managed to beam broad smiles. "I love Haiti," one small girl piped up cheerfully.

* * *

The Chilean head of the U.N. mission, Juan Gabriel Valdes, admits that the task of pacifying Haiti after Aristide's departure in 2004 has proven more difficult than his bosses had imagined.

"There was a presumption that overwhelming (humanitarian) assistance would come to the problem areas and therefore the military element would not be the central one," he said. "This has not happened."

But with nine U.N. peacekeepers killed since the mission began in July 2004 there is evidence that the U.N. would be better served pursuing humanitarian solutions.

Valdes pointed to Bel Air, a former "red zone" where some 20 gang members disarmed in return for U.N. support for a feeding program for local children.

"Too many people were dying so we agreed to talk," said Samba Boukman, a 34-year-old Rastafarian musician and grass-roots pro-Aristide political activist. "I told them the violence could be stopped with social programs."

Today Bel Air is a model of peace, at least on the surface. Brazilian soldiers in blue U.N. helmets patrol on foot, at ease with the local population, helping children to clear garbage from the streets.

"We want to provide an example so that people become more aware that we are here to help them," said Lt. Dario Castro, 29. "They are good people. They want to work."

But the peace may not hold much longer, Boukman warned, without more social investment. "We are struggling to hold back the wave (of violence)," he said.

Foreign diplomats and aid workers privately criticize Haiti's light-skinned business elite for its failure to support social programs in the slums. Most relief work is left to a brave handful of small charities run by foreigners or church groups, working directly with the poor.

Many business leaders say they would like to do more, but are struggling themselves to make ends meet. Business owners have had to spend heavily on extra security, including expensive armored cars. To stay in business, some owners pay the gangs protection money, roughly $600 a month.

Claudine Auguste, who graduated from the University of Florida in agricultural studies, is barely able to keep her 40-year-old family business running. Also located on National Road 1, she shut down her sand and concrete block business for a month in June to fortify the factory walls, raising them 18 feet with barbed wire on top.

"We know it needs dialogue, but that alone won't work. You have drug money here. This is pure criminality, gangsterism," said Auguste, who supports social action. She built a school in the slum next door, and provides 30 scholarships to local children.

Private security experts say there is a solution.

"You can reclaim the streets. It's not brain surgery," said Lt. Col. Louis-Philippe Kernisan, who retired from the U.S. Army Military Police after a 20-year career. "It's a small number of people. We don't have car bombs going off or suicide bombings. We are not at that stage yet."

Kernisan, who is Haitian-born and served as military attache at the U.S. Embassy from 1989 to 1991, now runs the largest private security firm in Haiti. He advocates a policy of "tough love," mixing strong police action with patient social work.

He concedes getting to the bottom of the violence isn't easy because of police and judicial corruption. "It's a nebulous network, you can feel it, you can smell it, you can almost taste it, but you can't see it."

Even Haiti's police chief, Mario Andresol, recently went on local radio to say a quarter of the 5,600-strong force is corrupted by gangs and drug traffickers. Between Dec. 6 and Jan. 5, police say 138 kidnappers were arrested and 44 gangs dismantled in the capital. Among those arrested were 29 police officers.

Andresol, who is closely guarded by U.N. forces, says his men are no match for heavily armed gangs.

"When you send a policeman with only four months of training ... to operate in Cite Soleil, you are sending him to the slaughterhouse," he said. "He has not been trained for these combat tactics."

The gangs have safe houses all over the city where kidnap victims are kept, and increasingly operate in wealthier suburbs.

The gangs have made everyone prisoners in their own homes, says Martino. He and his wife rarely venture out at night. "I get home after work and I stay home," he said. His 19-year-old daughter is permanently grounded.

"The fact is that we are abandoned, by our own government and the U.N. We are all alone."

David Adams can be contacted at

[Last modified February 3, 2006, 01:25:14]

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