by Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives
Leading members of Haiti’s bourgeoisie tried to turn the Haitian police force into their own private army, according to a secret U.S. Embassy cable provided to Haïti Liberté by the media organization WikiLeaks.
Then U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley warned in the cable “against private delivery of arms to the HNP” (Haitian National Police) after learning from a prominent Haitian businessman that “some business owners have already begun to purchase weapons and ammunition from the street and distribute them to local police officials in exchange for regular patrols.”
Fritz Mevs, a member of “one of Haiti’s richest families and a well-connected member of the private sector elite” with major business interests in Port-au-Prince’s downtown and port, was the principal source for Foley’s May 27, 2005, report.
Haiti’s “private sector elite” has been a key U.S. ally in promoting Washington’s agenda in the country, from free trade and privatization of state enterprises to twice ousting Jean-Bertrand Aristide followed by U.S. and U.N. military occupations.
Mevs told the embassy that the president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce, Reginald Boulos, had “distributed arms to the police and had called on others to do so in order to provide cover to his own actions.” Boulos currently sits on the board of Bill Clinton’s Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) which controls the spending of $10 billion being donated to rebuild Haiti after the Jan. 12, 2010, quake.
The cable describes the period after the Feb. 29, 2004, coup d’état that ousted Aristide, repressed his Lavalas Family party, set up a U.S.-backed de facto government, and ushered in a 9,000-strong U.N. military occupation known as MINUSTAH (U.N. Mission to Stabilize Haiti).
De facto Prime Minister Gérard Latortue’s interim government of Haiti (IGOH) and his paramilitary allies had difficulty stabilizing their unpopular regime, despite killing, jailing and purging from government jobs thousands of Lavalas militants and sympathizers.
The Latortue regime had particular trouble suppressing pro-Aristide strongholds like the slums of Bel Air and Cité Soleil, which mounted a fierce armed resistance to the coup and occupation. The coup government, U.S. Embassy and Haitian elite called the resistance fighters “bandits” or “gangs,” the terminology used in the cable.
Entitled “Haitian Private Sector Panicked by Increasing Violence,” the cable relays Mevs’ report to the Embassy’s political officer that Haitian “business leaders are exasperated by the lack of security in the vital port and industrial zone areas of Port-au-Prince and are allegedly arming local police with long-guns and ammunition in an effort to ensure security for their businesses and employees.”
Foley wrote that “Mevs says that of the roughly 150 business owners in the area, probably 30 have already provided some kind of direct assistance (including arms, ammunition or other materiel) to the police, and the rest are looking to do so soon.”
Mevs “defended the idea of the private sector arming the police in general, but he lamented the haphazard manner in which many of his colleagues seemed to be handing out weapons with little control,” the cable says. Mevs also worried “that funneling the arms secretly would only serve to reinforce rumors that the elite were creating private armies,” which was in fact happening.
Mevs was asking the embassy if “the U.S. would oversee [a] program” under which the elite could legally buy the HNP’s guns because “he did not trust either MINUSTAH or the HNP to properly control the issuance of weapons.”
The private army “rumor” was corroborated by “[c]ontacts of the Econ Counselor [who] report from time to time of discussions among private sector leaders to fund and arm their own private sector armies.”
Foley added that the “[American Chamber of Commerce] Board of Directors at one point discussed informally giving non-lethal assistance to police stations, such as furniture and microwave ovens for police stations, but decided against doing so for fear that anything given to the police would quickly be stolen.”
Security around the capital’s industrial, warehouse and port districts degenerated after the Mar. 30, 2005, death of Thomas Robenson, alias Labanière, a one-time Lavalas leader in Cité Soleil’s Boston neighborhood, who defected to defense of the 2004 coup and providing armed protection to the bourgeoisie’s nearby commercial zones. Labanière was killed by one of his bodyguards, Evens Jeune, “allegedly in a plot directed by rival pro-Lavalas gang leader Dread Wilme,” Foley wrote.
After that, the U.N. force had tried to secure the commercial areas but “was proving to be a poor substitute for Labanière,” a political advisor to Cité Soleil’s mayor told the Embassy, largely because “MINUSTAH troops (who, he said, rarely set foot outside of their vehicles) were unable to identify the bandits from amongst the general populace as Labanière had done.”
The residents of Cité Soleil did not view Emmanuel Wilmer (aka Drèd or Dread Wilme) as a “bandit.” They saw him as a hero defending them from pro-coup paramilitaries, who in 1994 burned many houses in the rebellious shantytown, and U.N. occupation troops. Today, one of the main boulevards through Cité Soleil is named after him, and murals of his face adorn many walls.
Wilme told the Lakou New York program on Brooklyn’s Radio Pa Nou station in April 2005 that “MINUSTAH has been shooting tear gas on the people. There are children who have died from the gas and some people inside churches have been shot … The Red Cross is the only one helping us. The MINUSTAH soldiers remain hidden in their tanks and just aim their guns and shoot the people. They shoot people selling in the streets. They shoot people just walking in the streets. They shoot people sitting and selling in the marketplace.”
But for Foley and the Haitian elite, the U.N. military was not doing enough repression. “According to Mevs, although MINUSTAH has on occasion parked armored vehicles near the Terminal with some success, he said criminals regularly force the tanks to move (by burning tires or fecal matter nearby), and as soon as the vehicles depart, the rampage continues.”
Foley asked the “Core Group” of international donors and the U.N. military for a “swift, aggressive” response to the business sector’s call for action against the “criminal elements” from slums like Cité Soleil.
The MINUSTAH soldiers remain hidden in their tanks and just aim their guns and shoot the people. They shoot people selling in the streets. They shoot people just walking in the streets. They shoot people sitting and selling in the marketplace.
“Ambassador Foley warned the Core Group that MINUSTAH’s stand-down in Cite Soleil put the elections at risk, and that the insecurity around the industrial zone risked undermining what is left of the Haitian economy,” said the cable.
In response, U.N. mission chief Juan Gabriel Valdes “promised a more robust response from MINUSTAH,” which sat down with police leaders to develop a plan in “coordination with the private sector,” the cable explains.
“In response to embassy and private sector prodding, MINUSTAH is now formulating a plan to protect the area,” concluded the cable.
Weeks later, on July 6, 2005, at 3:00 in the morning, 1,440 Brazilian and Jordanian soldiers sealed off Cité Soleil with 41 armored personnel carriers and attacked. Helicopters dropped grenades and U.N. troops fired more than 22,000 bullets, leaving untold dozens of civilian casualties, including women and children. Cité Soleil residents told an October 2005 fact-finding delegation for the International Tribunal on Haiti that U.N. tanks whisked away many bodies, which were never returned. Human rights groups called the carnage a “massacre.”
“It remains unclear how aggressive MINUSTAH was, though 22,000 rounds is a large amount of ammunition to have killed only six people,” the U.N.’s official death toll, wrote Foley in a July 26, 2005, embassy cable obtained by Professor Keith Yearman through a FOIA request. The U.N. claimed it only killed “gang leader Dred Wilme and five of his associates,” the cable says, while noting that “at St. Joseph’s hospital near Cité Soleil, Doctors Without Borders reported receiving 26 gunshot victims from Cité Soleil on July 6, of whom 20 were women and at least one was a child.”
Meanwhile journalist Jean Baptiste Jean Ristil, a Cité Soleil resident, interviewed “a weeping Fredi Romélus, [who] recounted how U.N. troops had lobbed a red smoke grenade into his house and then opened fire, killing his wife and two children,” reported the Haiti Information Project. Jean Ristil also filmed inside the house where the body of Fredi’s 22-year-old wife, Sonia Romélus, lay, “killed by the same bullet that passed through the body of her 1-year-old infant son, Nelson,” the Haiti Information Project reported. “She was apparently holding the child as the U.N. opened fire. Next to them was her 4-year-old son, Stanley, who was killed by a single shot to the head.”
A U.S. Labor and Human Rights Delegation, which was in Haiti at the time and visited Cité Soleil the next day, reported that “this full-blown military attack on a densely-populated neighborhood, … multiple sources confirm, killed at least 23 people” and possibly as many as 50.
As the evidence of a massacre grew, the U.N. and U.S. began to admit that more Cité Soleil residents may have died. “Given the flimsy construction of homes in Cite Soleil and the large quantity of ammunition expended, it is likely that rounds penetrated many buildings, striking unintended targets,” Foley’s FOIA-released cable reported.
By Aug. 1, Foley was praising the Brazilians in another cable, obtained by Yearman’s FOIA requests, entitled “Brazil Shows Backbone in Bel-Air.” According to Foley, “the security situation in the capital has clearly improved thanks to aggressive incursions in Bel Air and the July 6 raid against Dread Wilme in Cité Soleil … Post has congratulated MINUSTAH and the Brazilian Battalion for the remarkable success achieved in recent weeks.”
The WikiLeaked May 2005 cable also offers a glimpse of Haiti’s inter-ruling class rivalries. Mevs felt that “private sector protests against the IGOH for the lack of security were misguided,” Foley reports, because “Haiti’s real enemy and the true source of insecurity [was] a small nexus of drug-dealers and political insiders that control a network of dirty cops and gangs that not only were responsible for committing the kidnappings and murders, but were also frustrating the efforts of well-meaning government officials and the international community to confront them.”
At the center of this “cabal,” according to Mevs, was prominent attorney Gary Lissade, who has a long history as a right-wing operative. In 1993, he was the lead counsel for the military government of coup leader Gen. Raoul Cédras during negotiations at New York’s Governors Island with Aristide’s exiled constitutional government. In 2001, Aristide, in a futile attempt to mollify the Bush administration and putschist bourgeoisie, made Lissade justice minister until popular outcry forced his removal along with Prime Minister Jean-Marie Chérestal’s whole government. Today, Lissade sits, alongside Reginald Boulos, on the board of the Clinton co-chaired IHRC.
Others whom Mevs cites in this group allied to “Colombian drug-traffickers” include powerful Sen. Youri Latortue, a close ally of new Haitian President Michel Martelly, Dany Toussaint, a former Lavalas Family senator who changed camps and supported the 2004 coup against Aristide, and Michel Brunache, who was de facto President Boniface Alexandre’s chief of staff.
The embassy took Mevs’ warnings about Lissade’s “cabal” with a grain of salt. Foley wrote that Mevs “is no doubt biased against those individuals he names” because “Mevs himself is a core member of what might easily be described as a rival network of influence competing for control of Haiti against the cast of characters he has described.” Presciently, Foley says that while his embassy “cannot confirm whether the alleged cabal of political insiders allied with South American narco-traffickers is controlling the gangs, we have seen indications of alliances between drug dealers, criminal gangs and political forces that could threaten to make just such a scenario possible via the election of narco-funded politicians,” which some political observers fear may be the situation in Haiti today.
Meanwhile, Dread Wilme’s legend lives on. “His funeral was a hero’s farewell,” wrote Haitian attorney and writer Ezili Dantò. “His remains decked in a Vodun boat were pushed out onto the open seas next to Site Soley’s water shores and set to flames for his spirit to soar towards the countless African Ancestors who, like Dread Wilme, had made the ultimate sacrifice for our people’s freedom and dignity.”
Haiti Liberté releasing secret U.S. Embassy cables provided by WikiLeaks
The weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté is publishing a series of exclusive articles which will draw from 1,918 secret diplomatic cables about Haiti from U.S. embassies around the world. The cables were obtained by the transparency-advocacy group WikiLeaks and made available to Haïti Liberté.
The cables cover an almost seven-year period from April 17, 2003, 10 months before the Feb. 29, 2004, coup d’état which ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to Feb. 28, 2010, just after the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding cities.
“Haïti Liberté is publishing these cables because they offer unparalleled insight into how the United States government has tried to manipulate Haitian affairs in its own interests, not in the interests of the Haitian people,” said Berthony Dupont, Haïti Liberté’s director. “We hope that the release of the cables will help bring about some transparency and accountability for the Haitian people.”
The cables range from “Secret” and “Confidential” classification to “Unclassified.” Cables of the latter classification are not public, and many remain marked “For Official Use Only” or “Sensitive.”
The cables cover official U.S. strategies and maneuvering in Haiti during the coup years, 2004-2006, and the period after President René Préval’s election, 2006-2010. We see Washington’s obsession with keeping Aristide out of Haiti and the hemisphere, the microscope it trained on the democratic Lavalas movement, the relentless focus on rebellious shanty towns like Cité Soleil and Bel Air, and Washington’s tight supervision of Haiti’s police leadership and of the United Nation’s 9,000-man military occupation known as the U.N. Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH).
In November 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing the 251,287 leaked U.S. embassy cables it obtained last year by providing them to large newspapers like the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.
Now WikiLeaks is selecting media in many other countries to provide them with the U.S. Embassy cables relative to their specific country. “Haiti Liberté is honored that WikiLeaks has entrusted it with releasing the cables relative to Haiti,” Dupont said. “Haiti Liberté is also pleased to partner with The Nation, the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., in publishing and distributing English-language articles based on those WikiLeaks cables.”
The cables offer many clues as to how Washington brought Haiti from the paramilitary and Special Forces coup of 2004 to the electoral coup that installed the neo-Duvalierist Michel Martelly in 2011.