Their Backing Gone, Haiti's Rural Chiefs Flee

Vast security network that repressed the populace unravels without strong military support

IN the Haitian town of Limonade, which in French means lemonade, the bitter forces of repression are beginning to wane.

The local police station has been abandoned. The area's three section chiefs, or rural sheriffs, who have kept the rural populace under their thumbs, have turned in their rifles to civil authorities. Local citizens for the first time in three years are demonstrating without fear of reprisal.

``We are tired of the old regime,'' says Jules Anantua, a priest at the St. Anne Catholic parish here. ``Now, we can taste the change.''

Just as Haiti's military and paramilitary forces are losing power in the cities, they're quickly losing their grip on the countryside as well. Reports here in the north of Haiti suggest that what is happening in Limonade is taking place in rural towns all over the country. The dreaded system of justice is crumbling; the section chiefs and their deputies are in retreat. Ending their reign would lift a heavy yoke off the people of Haiti. Roughly three-quarters of the population lives in the countryside.

``It's beginning to return to normal,'' says a young priest in Cap-Haitien familiar with the rural situation in the north of Haiti, requesting anonymity for security reasons. ``A few weeks ago, we could not have imagined this.''

According to reports by reliable sources, section chiefs left the nearby town of Grande Riviere du Nord last week. They've also left Ravine des Roches. In Le Borgne, to the west of Cap-Haitien, several of the section chiefs' adjuncts were killed when an angry populace attacked the police station on Sept. 26.

The big dog is gone

The reason for their departure is simple. The section chiefs no longer have the Haitian military in the cities to back them up. Outnumbered by an angry populace and now unprotected by Cap-Haitien's military, they are either fleeing or lying low.

``If the section chief doesn't have the support of the military in town, they're weak,'' the Cap-Haitien priest says. ``The people want to take their revenge, so they leave.''

The section chiefs are especially vulnerable here in the northern part of the country since the Haitian military abandoned its posts in Cap-Haitien after a Sept. 24 shootout in which US soldiers killed 10 Haitian members of the town's security forces.

Systematic brutality

The section chiefs have been at the center of Haiti's rural corruption and brutality for decades. Numbering 565 nationwide, each section chief employed an unofficial number of deputies, who in turn employed others. ``They have some parallels to the worst of the Southern sheriffs'' in the United States, says Richard Millett, senior research associate at the North-South Center of the University of Miami.

Often, however, the main aim of the section chiefs was to extort money from the peasantry. Since they typically had to pay off the military to get their position, they were eager to be reimbursed by the people as soon as possible.

Rural citizens paid to get out of jail or avoid arrest. Francklin Mllus, a Cap-Haitien activist, pulls out a list of 27 people in Ravine des Roches forced to pay the local section chief. ``That's my father,'' he says, pointing to a name next to a figure of 1,500 gourdes (about $100).

His father once had to pay the section chief that sum, equal to about half a Haitian's yearly earnings, simply to keep his land, Mr. Mllus says.

In Limonade, the shift away from the section chiefs has been tense but controlled. The section chiefs' adjuncts are believed to be in hiding. The chiefs are still around, but have relinquished power.

Last week a crowd visited one of the section chiefs, Kercius Alexis, who headed up the town's third section. The demonstrators forced Mr. Alexis to sing songs supporting Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

During the 1991 coup that ousted President Aristide, Alexis had named his dog and his pig ``Aristide,'' according to townspeople here. The demonstrators last week killed the dog; he'd previously sold the pig.

Alexis concedes that repression took place, but says, ``that was not done under my jurisdiction.... I was never brutal.''

Townspeople say otherwise. ``If you were arrested, you knew you were going to be beaten,'' says Thevenot Toussaint, a local candidate for the lower house of Haiti's parliament. ``Everybody expected it.'' Fr. Anantua of Limonade says the area's section chiefs kept an eye on any meetings he might be holding.

Those working for section chiefs could commit crimes with impunity. For example, two years ago, an adjunct of Eddy Valmyr, chief of the second section, killed a young girl over a personal matter. He was never brought to trial. ``He left with the section chief's help,'' Anantua says. About six months ago, the man returned to Limonade. No action was taken against him.

Establishing a police force

Haiti's 1987 Constitution envisioned dismantling the network of the section chiefs by splitting up their powers. A professionally trained police force would take over their rural policing duties. Locally elected officials would take over the administration. Judges, rather than the section chief or his superiors in the military, would mete out sentences. By decentralizing power, the Haitian Constitution aimed to eliminate repression in the countryside.

But these measures were ignored until 1990 when Aristide was elected, and he ordered that Alexis and the other section chiefs be replaced. But a military coup in September 1991 cut short the reforms and the section chiefs came back to power.

``They did what they wanted,'' says Robespierre Jean-Louis, the local judge at Limonade. ``They were judge-magistrate of the commune, the military, and everything!''

Will the section chiefs return? ``No,'' says the judge. ``We are just beginning to be a democracy.''

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