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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 March, 2004, 04:22 GMT
Problem of Haiti's gun culture
By Daniel Lak
BBC News, Port-au-Prince

No one knows just how many weapons there are in Haiti. It's just one of many statistics that has fallen victim to the lawlessness, chaos and political mayhem here.

US Marine orders man to cross to the other side of street in central Port au Prince
Most of the guns in Haiti come from the disbanded army

Most of the guns now being carried by armed militias here came from the Haitian army.

It was disbanded in 1994 by Jean Bertrand Aristide, then newly restored as President of the troubled Caribbean nation by an American-led multinational military force.

He had been overthrown by the army three years earlier when he won election as Haiti's first democratically elected head of state.

Breaking up the army was seen at the time as a bold, necessary step. It was a way to get rid of an institution that had plagued Haiti with military coups and human rights abuses for generations.

But the legacy of Haiti's army is the vast number of rifles, pistols and shotguns wielded by ragtag militia groups today.

'Army haunts us'

Those who carry army weapons now fight on both sides of the Haitian divide: the so-called Chimere militia that supports the exiled Jean Bertrand Aristide, and the groups that oppose the exiled former leader.

Outsiders often wonder why Haiti seems so endlessly violence-prone. There's no simple answer to that

"The army haunts us like a ghost, even though it's no longer around," said one Haitian journalist quoted in an international press report.

The US marines, French legionnaires and other foreign troops that are helping Haitian police disarm the militias face a tough task.

In the sprawling Cite Du Soleil slum that lies alongside the largest oil storage facility in Port-au-Prince, men with guns appear within minutes of a strange vehicle arriving.

They are always young, often drunk and hold their weapons carelessly. These are the people whom the authorities and the international forces want to disarm.


The Marine commander in Port-au-Prince, Colonel Mark Gurganus, admits that his men face dangerous challenges whenever they venture into the mean streets of the Haitian capital.

Looters make off with items from a complex near the airport in Port-au-Prince
US commanders say they face dangerous challenges in Haiti

Urban environments are by far the most difficult terrain to work in, he says.

"It's three-dimensional... you're looking in front of you, left, right, behind you, above you and below you. The good news is, you're very aware of what's on around you."

Outsiders often wonder why Haiti seems so endlessly violence-prone. There's no simple answer to that.

The country was founded by former slaves who defeated France in a prolonged uprising at the turn of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Since then, changes of government were almost always through bloodshed.

There have been 34 changes in government since Haiti became indepedent in 1804. What's happening today is nothing new.

Drug profits

In the 1990s, Colombian drug lords brought their own unique brand of corruption and violence to Haiti.

If there's a positive side effect to Haiti's current crisis, it's that the current chaos and uncertainty make the country less attractive to the Colombian cartels

At one point, nearly a fifth of the cocaine consumed in the United States was coming through Haiti.

Many say the culture of narcotics smuggling helped violence spread outward from the elite in Port-au-Prince to ordinary people.

The vast profits available to drug traffickers occasionally reached the local populace outside of smuggling ports.

In 1999, a mysterious foreign plane that landed in northern Haiti was burnt by villagers looking for cocaine to sell.

Haiti's national police force was deeply corrupted during the drug-running years, say diplomats.

History repeats itself

If there's a positive side effect to Haiti's current crisis, it's that the current chaos and uncertainty make the country less attractive to the Colombian cartels.

There are, said a veteran narcotics agent in Miami, just too many variables for the drug lords.

"American troops are in country, " the agent says, "bandits and political ideologues have guns and are willing to fight and steal, and there are more predictable places to run drugs to America."

Haiti's new Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue, and its interim President, Boniface Alexandre, both take office in trying times for their country.

They face immense challenges. But few Haitian leaders have come to power otherwise.

As one academic put it the other day, "History doesn't just repeat itself in Haiti, it is in perpetual motion."



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