DISARMING Haiti is a touchy task for the United States.
While the US military steps up its efforts to take weapons out of the hands of civilian extremists, it is also engaged in a parallel effort to control the arms inventory of the Haitian military and police forces.
In Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien on Oct. 3, US troops dismantled the headquarters of Haiti's largest paramilitary group, FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti), detaining 40 people in the capital and 75 in Haiti's second-largest city.
Hundreds of Haitians in Port-au-Prince demonstrated in support of the US actions and ransacked the central FRAPH headquarters after US troops had raided them. They also cheered the Oct. 2 arrests of paramilitary officials, including the leader of the private militia of Haiti's Army Commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras.
And in the middle of the night Oct. 3, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, Haiti's police chief and alleged mastermind behind the 1991 coup, fled the capital for the Dominican Republic. He is to be replaced by a successor chosen by exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to the Associated Press.
The campaign to contain Haiti's military and police is taking place more quietly in Les Cayes and other cities where the US has been sending in troops since Sept. 27.
Although the police and armed forces (FADH) are widely condemned as brutal and repressive, the US is disinclined to take guns wholly out of their hands because they are the legally constituted forces in the country.
But the US command has also decided that the potential for violent retaliation from the Haitian population would be great should they disarm the military.
``The only thing keeping the people from killing the FADH is us,'' US Capt. Robert Bevelacqua says.
The hunt for weapons
On a sunny morning in Les Cayes, a team of US Army Special Forces makes a surprise visit to the local police station. ``Where is the commandant?'' shouts one US soldier in French. The commandant is not here, a Haitian policeman explains. The US team enters the station, past a stash of guns on the wall, and begins to look for documents and concealed weapons.
One cabinet, where someone has written ``Archives'' in white letters, is locked. The police explain that only the commandant has the key. Captain Bevelacqua orders them to break the lock. Inside, besides shelves of moldy papers, the soldiers find rifles and tear-gas masks.
The commandant's office is also locked. When police explain that the commandant has the only key, a US Army sergeant kicks in the door. Inside is an Uzi 9-mm machine pistol and shotguns, but the team has already seen these weapons on its two previous visits. The new discoveries this time include two ammunition boxes for a heavy machine gun. The US team confiscates the ammunition as well as 10 magazines of automatic rifles.
``The weapons they had out on the wall were the ones they wanted us to see,'' Bevelacqua says. ``What we're doing is trying to assess all the weapons they've got and, up to now, they've basically been lying to us,'' the captain adds.
But the team has authorization to take only the ammunition for the heavy machine gun and the rifles - heavy weaponry that the US military has decided the police do not need. The rest of the weapons Bevelacqua allows the policemen to keep, providing they store it in the same room with the guns on the wall.
A more bizarre arrangement is in place for the FADH. US soldiers have identified 17 heavy machine guns that the local military has, but have not confiscated them. Instead, they are kept in the Haitian Army's barracks but under the US Army's own lock and key.
US forces are acting as a buffer zone to keep all sides from battling each other: the Army, the police, the pro-Aristide movement - called Lavalas, meaning ``flood'' - and other groups.
``If the Lavalas shoots at the FADH, then I have to protect the FADH,'' Bevelacqua says. ``If the FADH shoots at Lavalas, then they're my enemies.''
Police or Army?
Here in Les Cayes, there seems to be no distinction between military and police forces. The ammunition found in the police station may be a sign that the Haitian police are still hiding a heavy machine gun from US troops; but it may be that the police routinely store ammunition for the Army.
Finding the weapons is also difficult. In Les Cayes, US soldiers receive reports that a man has been threatening the crowd with a grenade. After their trip to the police station, they go to the suspect's address, only to find that the small house is actually divided in two.
``Try my neighbor's house,'' says one man. His neighbor comes out. ``I'm a civilian official,'' he says. ``I have no interest in threatening people. Maybe people are trying to settle old scores by implicating me.''
The man invites the team to search his house. Bevelacqua declines and the team leaves empty-handed.
The disarmament process has already started in earnest here, but it is as politically sensitive as any effort the US military has attempted so far. In Haiti, guns still talk.