Common crooks now prey on Haiti's citizens

January 08, 1995|By New York Times News Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- After three years of enduring state-sponsored lawlessness and violence under a military dictatorship, Haiti is suddenly confronting a wave of conventional crime.

Despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of international police monitors, the country is awash in opportunities for criminals, some of them apparently the same gunmen who had terrorized people in the government's name.

"There is a sense of liberation as people come out from under the yoke of a repressive regime, and one of the products of that is a rise in traditional crime," said Raymond W. Kelly, the former New York City police commissioner who directs the international police monitoring force here. "We saw something very similar in the Soviet Union" after the collapse of communism there.

The outbreak appears to have primarily affected the country's small upper class, which in the past enjoyed the luxury of treating the Haitian army and police as a private security force. But there have also been reports of increases in nonpolitical crimes in the countryside and in working-class neighborhoods of the capital.

Haitian government officials attribute much of the crime increase to the collapse of Haiti's 7,500-member armed forces, which included the national police force, after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was returned to power on Oct. 15.

Dismissals and desertions have cut the size of the combined security forces nearly in half, and its command structure and ability to operate have been thrown into turmoil.

"As dreadful as the old force was, it could be brutally efficient when it wanted to be, and that had a definite dampening effect on ordinary crime," a diplomat here said. "Free-lance robbers and rapists had to think twice before they acted because they knew if they were caught, they were likely to be killed without a trial by a police force that didn't give a damn about due process."

But former police officers and soldiers are also said to be a major part of the crime problem. Many took weapons with them when they left, Haitian officials said, and with no steady incomes to replace the salaries and bribes they once collected, they have either sold their guns or used them to commit crimes.

Diplomats and Haitian officials said they suspect that many of the robberies and shootings are the work of former police auxiliaries, known as attaches. Those paramilitary gunmen were routinely ordered to intimidate, beat and even kill Aristide supporters, and in the course of those duties developed an appetite for easily acquired loot.

Commanders of the new interim police force did not respond to requests for an interview. But aides to President Aristide said that several jailbreaks, apparently carried out with the complicity of the remnants of the military, have allowed dozens of professional criminals to roam freely, adding to the upsurge in criminal activity.

The increase in common crime here is hard to measure. The military dictatorship did not keep reliable statistics, and many victims acknowledge that they were afraid to report offenses to the police, who had a well-earned reputation for corruption and brutality.

"There's more reporting of crime because people are now more comfortable coming into police stations," Mr. Kelly said. "A big factor in the past was that police were using repressive tactics to keep people in line."

Even with the surge of the last few months in the capital, Mr. Kelly said, "crime is still low here, lower than any comparable city in the United States of this size," about 1.5 million people. With 7 million people in all of Haiti, he added, the country averages one homicide a day, compared with six a day in New York City, which has approximately the same population.

Probably the most notorious crime was the theft in November of a U.S. Embassy payroll, in which two Haitian employees of the embassy were killed. The man accused of being the mastermind of that attack was captured last month when Haitian and U.S. security officials learned he was about to visit a voodoo priest to obtain a potion that he thought would make him invisible.

In rural areas, numerous trucks, including several loaded with donated food or medicine, have been hijacked at gunpoint. And in the provinces, where the security vacuum is especially pronounced, highwaymen have set up roadblocks and robbed motorists and buses.

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