Under the shade of an ancient tree, about 40 men drill in the Caribbean sun. The men occupy the main police station in the town of Petit-Goave, a coastal city about 40-kilometers south of Port-au-Prince. They are being put through their paces by ex-Haitian army sergeant Clement Mathurin Etienne, who until Haiti’s Army was disbanded ten years ago, drilled troops for fifteen years.
Now Sergeant Etienne is back in business. He says he and his colleagues will fight any move to disband their small force. Sergeant Etienne says that he and his men will fight to defend their right to assemble as Haiti army. The aging sergeant says it will be difficult for anybody to force his men to disarm because they are at home in Petit Goave and have support from the local population. Sergeant Etienne and his rag-tag troops represent just one of the forces now unleashed in Haiti.
Other ex-soldiers occupy similar towns across the country. In Port-au-Prince armed gangs loyal to former President Aristide terrorize residents of the capital. Despite the presence of over seven-thousand U.N. peacekeepers, many Haitians say insecurity and criminality are blocking efforts to return their country to a semblance of normality. Caught in the middle are ordinary Haitians like Port-au-Prince resident Michelet Simond. Mr. Simond says it is now impossible to go out at night and see friends and family. He says he has not seen some of his family members in nearly a year because he is too scared to leave his house. Brazilian Army General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro heads the seven-thousand strong U-N peacekeeping force known by its acronym, MINUSTAH.
General Heleno says his troops did show muscle recently in an operation against some of the pro-Aristide gangs who are based in the sprawling slum, Cite Soleil. Now, U.N. troops occupy two police stations and a port in the slum. Speaking to VOA, General Heleno says negotiations are underway between Haiti’s interim government and some of the ex-army soldiers to demobilize and disarm, and for now U.N forces will not move against them. The Brazilian General says he is not interested in antagonizing Haitians. He says Haiti’s government seems to be making progress in the negotiations with some of the ex-soldiers. He says troops under his command are not going to add to the cycle of violence that has plagued Haiti.
U.N. commanders say more needs to be done to provide security to areas like Cite Soleil, but they only recently received their full commitment of troops. Others in the capital, like U.S. Ambassador James Foley warn that some elements of the ex-army are actually joining pro-Aristide gangs in what he describes as a “witches brew” of “criminals, smugglers and drug traffickers,” who follow no political ideology but thrive on chaos and violence.
“There are certainly groups among them (ex-army) who are committing violence and who have even begun to forge rather strange unholy alliances with some of the pro-Aristide street gangs. So you have the extremes – some who rose up against the former president joining hands with supporters of the former president. What they have in common is the fact that they are armed, lawless and they are bent on violence and destabilization. So that is a tremendous problem,” says Ambassador Foley.
As bad as things are, Ambassador Foley says they were much worse a year ago, when gangs ruled the streets of Port-au-Prince and mountains of trash blocked major roads in the capital. The violence paralyzed economic activity, scaring off foreign investors and international donors. Mr. Foley says U.N troops and their Haitian police allies have now begun to reassert their authority and donors are beginning to return. Still, he says future progress will depend on improving security so that Haitians can go to the polls in November and elect a government that will reflect the will of the people.