Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HAITI: For Once, Violence Leaves Greater Sense of Security

Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Apr 11 2005 (IPS) - Traffic was steady and people cautiously optimistic in Haiti’s capital Monday, after weekend raids by Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers left eight alleged gangsters, some of them ex-soldiers, dead.

Two of those killed – former Haitian soldier Remissainthe Ravix and Jean-Anthony René, also a former soldier but better known for his work as a brutal police “attaché” or civilian thug – have been blamed for much of the recent violence plaguing parts of Port-au-Prince.

The 7,400-member U.N. peacekeeping force, the Haitian police and the interim government have been criticised for failing to stem the crime and politically-tinged unrest which has left over 400 dead, hurt the already floundering economy and raised doubts about the general elections planned for the fall.

The 15-member United Nations Security Council is slated to make an unprecedented three-day visit to Haiti this week to assess the complex situation.

But for people in the grimy streets here, the solution to their problems has been simple all along.

“Now we’ll finally have some peace,” Josephine St. Fleur told IPS on Sunday.

A former shopkeeper, St. Fleur and her children had to leave her home and small business in the Bel-Aire neighbourhood because of violence there. She was among hundreds who flocked to the city morgue over the weekend to try to get a glimpse of the bodies.

“I want to know why they took so long to get these men. They made our lives miserable,” she said. “If they had killed them earlier, the country wouldn’t be this way. Now they should go to Bel-Aire and Cité Soleil (a gang-controlled slum) to finish the job.”

Ravix, a burly ex-sergeant who wore used military fatigues and carried a sabre, was a leader of the “rebels” (ex-soldiers and former police) that helped chase President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in February 2004.

Unlike other former soldiers who agreed to put down their guns and take off their uniforms in exchange for what they say is long-overdue severance pay, Ravix – fired by the army for drug-running in the early 1990s – took to the hills and vowed to fight to the death for the reinstatement of the Haitian Armed Forces, disbanded by Aristide in 1995.

René – more commonly known as “Grenn Sonnen” or “Ringing Balls” because of the fear he instilled in his male captives – gained infamy when he worked for Ravix’s former nemisis, the Aristide government, as a police informant and hit man.

According to the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in Haiti (NCHR-Haiti), which has studied the police attaché phenomenon for years, René headed a “Zero Tolerance” gang attached to the Delmas 33 police station from 2001-2004. He is believed to have been involved in dozens of murders and torture sessions during the last three years of Aristide’s rule.

The former enemies – one fought to overthrow Aristide and the other carried out Aristide’s police dirty work – struck up an unlikely alliance a few months ago when the police declared both of them outlaws and offered a reward of about 28,000 dollars for their capture.

Suddenly, they both had it in for the interim government. On radio shows, they threatened police officers and public officials. They and their followers were blamed for much of the violence that has terrified parts of the Central Plateau and capital in recent weeks, including the recent attacks on the country’s Electoral Council offices.

The two were also wanted for the assassinations of four police officers last February.

“We regret that Ravix and ‘Grenn Sonnen’ died rather than being brought before a judge to respond to all the accusations facing them,” NCHR-Haiti’s Marie Yolène Gilles told IPS today. “‘Sonnen’ was implicated in many murders and disappearances during the Aristide regime, and both of them were involved in the Feb. 20 attack on the prison.”

On that date, about a dozen armed men walked into the national penitentiary in the capital and freed 481 prisoners, including several former Aristide officials. The former officials and about 70 others later turned themselves over to authorities, saying they were not part of the escape plan.

On Haiti’s constantly buzzing airwaves Monday, a few politicians also had mixed feelings about the fact that the outlaws were not taken alive.

But in general, almost everyone at the morgue, on the streets and calling into talk shows were universal in their relief. Some even admitted that they shouted with joy or honked their horns the moment news of the deaths became known on Saturday and Sunday.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said one of hundreds of gawkers in the morgue yard on Sunday.

“It makes me very, very happy. I really appreciate it,” said another.

Some of the police called in to disperse the crowd strutted like roosters, giving each other “high-fives” and accepting embraces from men who greeted them as heroes.

The shoot-outs came as part of an operation planned by elite Haitian police units and U.N. civilian police, U.N. peacekeeping police spokesman Daniel Moskaluk told IPS.

Tips led police and peacekeepers to a hide-out in the Delmas neighbourhood on Saturday. Although most of the alleged criminals got away, police arrested three people and also seized a number of Haitian police and military uniforms, automatic weapons chargers, a gun belonging to one of the police officers killed last February, an M-16, other guns and ammunition, as well as three stolen vehicles.

One of them belongs to the Taiwan embassy and a second was used in a drive-by shooting attack on a U.N. bus last week, said Moskaluk, a police officer from Penticton, British Columbia, Canada.

“These guys were running around dressed as police officers committing crimes,” he noted. In recent months there have been numerous accusations of abuses against the police.

After the raid, Haitian and U.N. police tracked the fugitives to a factory complex in the mid-Delmas area. The bandits were surrounded and a shoot-out ensued. Ravix and two others were killed. A total of 18 people were arrested, police said.

The pursuit continued the next day, in the airport area. Police surrounded the house where René and accomplices were said to be hiding out. Once again a gun battle erupted.

René and five men were killed. No police or U.N. officers were hurt.

The aggressive police and U.N. action comes just two days before the U.N. Security Council is slated to arrive to “review progress achieved in areas such as security, development, the political transition, human rights, institution-building and the humanitarian situation.”

In recent months, U.N. peacekeepers and the Haitian police have been the targets of negative reports accusing police of torture and summary executions, and accusing peacekeepers of failing to live up to their mandate.

A joint study by Harvard law students and Brazilian rights groups said the U.N. mission has not correctly monitored human rights, adequately improved Haiti’s ill-trained police force or progressed quickly enough on disarming gangs.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey recently estimated that civilians and “non-state” armed groups have over 183,000 weapons and that “virtually every disarmament effort in Haiti has failed.”

In its report “Securing Haiti’s Transition,” the group said a programme of demobilisation, disarmament and reintergration “must be pursued assertively” and coupled with police and judicial reform as well as political and economic programmes and reforms.

“Without the permanent demilitarisation of armed groups, humanitarian assistance and development will be continuously endangered,” the report’s executive summary said. “Haiti’s vicious cycle will thus continue.”

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