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a774: Tired of violence, some Haiti gangs try peace (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Michael Deibert
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb 14 (Reuters) - His eyes shaded by dark
aviator glasses, James Petit Frere, a rugged gang leader from Haiti's tough
Cite Soleil shantytown, gestures to a series of charred tin-and-cement
hovels that residents once called home.
"They (rival gangs) burned these down in December 2000." Then,
gesturing across a stream bank choked with refuse. "They burned those down
a few months ago."
Exasperated and wearied by the mounting destruction of street warfare
and years of tit-for-tat revenge killings, 15 warring gangs in Haiti's
worst slum recently called a truce, deciding, they said, that if the
government of this Caribbean nation cannot help them end the cycle of
poverty and violence, they will try to help themselves.
But five gangs refused to join the truce, and whether the peacemakers
will ever be able to make headway against the intractable misery of Cite
Soleil remains to be seen. A tour of the sprawling slum reveals the
magnitude of the task at hand.
A warren of tiny shacks in dusty streets crisscrossed by jury-rigged
electrical wiring and open sewers on the northwestern edge of the Haitian
capital, Cite Soleil slumps from the main airport road toward the
marshlands that bleed into the polluted Bay of Port-au-Prince.
The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is struggling to establish
democratic institutions after throwing off decades of dictatorship in the
1990s, led by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former populist priest
who took office a year ago for his second term.
In a country where 62 percent of residents are underfed, Cite Soleil
stands out as the poorest of the poor.
Frere, a polite, lanky 21-year old neatly dressed in pressed shirt and
jeans, is one of the most powerful gang leaders in the slum, chief of two
gangs, from the Boston and Soleil 19 neighborhoods. He and other gang
leaders formulated a truce to improve their neighborhoods and end a feud
that saw eight people killed and a Canadian journalist wounded in one week
The five gangs would not join the fold despite a warning from rivals
that the time for an alliance was at hand.
"These gangs are trying to hold Cite Soleil hostage," said Faubert
Jean Pierre, leader of the faction from the Belekou district. "President
Aristide is trying to help us, with schools and with education, but these
guys have decided that nothing will change unless he goes through them."
The Brooklyn and Tracks gangs are the worst, he said.
The latter gang, which takes its name from the railroad tracks that
run past the now-abandoned Haitian-American Sugar Company headquarters near
their base, has a fierce reputation for violence and drug abuse. Residents
tell tales about the orange glow of their crack pipes illuminating
"I was raped three times," says Dadent, a small, fine-featured woman,
hair braided in a mass of cornrows. "I have to move from house to house
every night because those guys always come back."
"Look at what happened to that journalist," says Lise Lande, a
careworn woman in a pressed blue dress and a straw hat, referring to the
Canadian reporter Mathieu Prud'homme, 27, who was shot while interviewing
people in Cite Soleil on Jan. 21. "They shot him because they want to make
people afraid to come and talk to us, so they can do whatever they want."
The journalist is recovering from his wound.
Frere's brother, a gang leader who goes by the name of Tupac, was
recently jailed as the muscle behind a kidnapping ring that had terrorized
Frere and his friends, however, say they have a purpose beyond rotting
"My mother was killed by the FRAPH (an anti-Aristide paramilitary
group) and so was my father. So my brother and I were on our own when we
were very young. I got involved in politics first when I was 15, trying to
understand my life and my situation," Frere said.
"We want to try and help our people now and President Aristide has
been the only president who has tried to do something for poor people like
us," he said.
Frere seemed proud that residents of Cite Soleil were among the
vanguard of mobs that appeared at the gates of the National Palace after it
was attacked by gunmen in an attempt to topple Aristide on Dec. 17. But
those same mobs burned to death several people allegedly connected to the
"The police called us, early in the morning, and I took my gun and my
people and was gone, to defend my palace and defend my president," he said.
In the slums, the intensity of the recent conflict kept Haiti's
National Police, a civilian force created after Aristide disbanded the
dreaded army seven years ago, on the sidelines.
Police said if the gangs are serious about the truce they announced at
a news conference in the capital several weeks ago, they need to give up
their guns. So far, none of them have disarmed, fearful of giving up their
guns before the police jail the hard-core criminals.
"The first step in restoring order is disarming the gangs," police
spokesman Jean Dady Simeon said. "After that, the police can set about
restoring some safety to the daily lives of people."
Some gang members contend that they would gladly disarm if the police
could find a way to protect them. "We would give up the guns if we could,"
said one gang member. "Who would want to live like this if they didn't have
The gang leaders say Aristide met with them at the palace three days
after the coup attempt to urge a truce and promise that he was trying to
address their problems. The gangs' press conference, a few said, was a way
to pressure officials to put their words into action.
"President Aristide wanted two representatives from each of Cite
Soleil's 34 different groups to find a solution, but those five gangs want
to run the whole thing themselves," resident Junior Milard said. "We hope
the president hears us and helps us."
Some observers believe the crime rate in Port-au-Prince has dropped
since Aristide began his second term in office last February. The capital
has been plagued by street crime in recent years and is a major
transshipment point for South American cocaine en route to the United
But Cite Soleil and its sister neighborhood, La Saline, are harder
nuts to crack.
Cut off from the rest of Port-au-Prince by potholed, dusty Route
National 1, Cite Soleil is home to some 200,000 people, about 10 percent of
the capital's population.
The poverty present everywhere in Haiti here reaches staggering
proportions in the slum, with thousands of people literally clinging to the
city up to the very edge of the rank water.
In claustrophobic lanes swarming with flies, a child plays with a kite
fashioned out of a black plastic bag, while schoolgirls in blue and pink
uniforms walk hand-in-hand.
"We are tired of all the killing," Frere said "We want to concentrate
on community projects, help our country, teaching people how to read, how
to speak English. Me, I would like to be a policeman, or a doctor."