Guns-for-cash swap nets collectors' items

September 28, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- U.S. Army Specialist Robert Mora of Cleveland looked at the rusting, decaying guns laid out on the back of the flatbed truck and shook his head in disgust.

There were 19 pistols, seven rifles and three submachine guns. Eight canisters of tear gas were stuffed in a bag.

"You could probably sell 12 or 15 of these guns in America -- to antique dealers," Specialist Mora said.

And so it went yesterday on the first day of the guns-for-cash swap between the U.S. military and the Haitian population.

This is the second time that the U.S. military has tried to coax weapons from a local population with cash. The plan worked wonderfully after the Panama invasion. But Day One of the Haitian swap got off slowly.

The biggest security problem came after the first trade was made. The man who handed in a rifle was surrounded -- by a pack of television minicams.

Pistols were swapped for $50, rifles for $100, semiautomatics for $200 and machine guns for $300. Since the street value of a working handgun in Port-au-Prince hovers around $300, the Army was fortunate to collect even this small cache.

"Every little bit helps," said Sgt. 1st Class Drinnon Wilcots, 34, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "One less gun on the streets means one less gun that could hurt a soldier."

Many of the Haitians who watched the swap at a local airport were dubious.

"I think it will be a very difficult thing to get anyone to turn back their weapon," said Gerard Voltaire, 28. "Those who have money and a gun won't turn in the weapon, and those who are killing people at night won't turn in a weapon either.

"You need to protect yourself," he said. "If you don't have a gun to shoot, you might end up dead. The police, they will come in and take everything you have."

Jacques Toussaint, 39, waited until early in the afternoon before deciding to turn in his ancient .38-caliber handgun. He packed the weapon -- loaded with five bullets -- in a leather bag and rode an hour on a crowded bus.

Calmly, he handed the weapon to a sergeant at the airport gate, and then was taken by truck to a nearby tent, where he received his cash and a receipt.

"I feel good," he said. "I got rid of that gun. I needed the money."

Does he think the program can lead to disarmament?

"Yes," Mr. Toussaint said. "All the Haitians with good hearts will give those guns away."

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