Haitian Police Distribute Machetes in Bel Air

In what some are describing as a new tactic employed by Haiti's notorious national police to control the slums of Port-au-Prince, last week officers were seen distributing machetes to a group of residents in the impoverished neighborhood of Bel Air—setting them loose on their neighbors.

Human rights groups have long accused the Haitian police of terrorizing poor neighborhoods believed to be power bases for exiled President Aristide ever since the February 2004 coup, and in the months leading up to the elections planned for this fall, activists say police oppression has increased. A community leader—who insisted on anonymity—says that Lavalas has splintered into warring factions, with innocent people caught in the middle of the violence. He believes that police are taking advantage of the infighting by arming those willing to cooperate with them.

According to the AP witnesses told reporters that on Wednesday, Aug 10, black-uniformed police entered the slum and fired randomly, injuring several people. Some wore masks.

UN peacekeepers in Bel Air were unaware of police activities.
photo: Margie Williams
UN peacekeepers in Bel Air were unaware of police activities.

One week later, filmmaker/independent journalist Kevin Pina spoke to the Voice from Bel Air after he questioned a group of residents who witnessed the bloodshed.

"The police rode in on four jeeps and one small pickup," he says people told him. "When they stopped firing, they handed machetes off the back of the truck to people in what seemed to be some sort of pre-arrangement. It's hard to say how many machetes, [my sources] are just saying 'a lot, a lot.' A pregnant teenager was running away from the gunfire. She tripped and fell, and four men started hacking her. The police just watched. Everyone was running away; they were targeting the injured."

A portion of the witnesses' accounts were captured on film by a news agency and shown on French television.

Pina says at least two people are dead, with six seriously injured. Earlier news reports placed the number of dead at a minimum of five. Haiti's infrastructure and record-keeping system is now so degraded it is difficult to positively confirm deaths. When it comes to the very poor, death certificates are rarely issued and many corpses never see the inside of a morgue. If there is no family to dig a grave, bodies are left to rot in vacant lots.

Although there have been reports of men being "lynched," no one was actually hung by the neck. Victims were shot at by police and hacked to death by a "lynch mob" armed by police. (The problem was likely in the French-English translation.)

MINUSTAH, the U.N. mission in Haiti, may bear a certain level of responsibility for the actions of the police. Installed three months after Aristide's controversial ousting, their mandate is, in part, to "restructure and reform the Haitian National Police, consistent with democratic policing standards."

MINUSTAH spokesperson Damian Onses Cardona told the Voice that MINUSTAH was not made aware of the deadly incursion until the next day, when the story hit the media. When asked how this could be possible, given the fact that MINUSTAH has two large bunkers full of peacekeepers in Bel Air, staffed 24 hours a day, Cardona said that "gunfire is not that unusual in Bel Air." He added that a hotline has been set up so that people can phone to anonymously report violence—police and otherwise. "We are going to investigate this," he said.

In March 2005 Harvard University released a highly critical 50-page report on MINUSTAH entitled "Keeping the Peace in Haiti?"

The study contends that "MINUSTAH has effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Prince's slums." And that "even more distressing than MINUSTAH's complicity in HNP abuses are credible allegations of human rights abuses perpetuated by MINUSTAH itself."

 
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