UN forces clear the way for Aristide comeback: Troops will try to ensure Haitian civilian rule against terror squads, writes Patrick Cockburn in Port-au-Prince

HAITIANS fear the bright green vans of the state telephone company because they are often used by death squads - made up of off- duty policemen - to pick up victims on the streets. In the last month they have killed at least 64 people in Port-au-Prince, leaving the bodies, usually bearing marks of torture, on garbage dumps or in the grass beside the road.

The aim of the killers is simple. By creating an atmosphere of terror they want to ensure that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted by a military coup two years ago, does not return or will come back with no real power. President Bill Clinton fears they may be right and is sending 700 American troops under the United Nations flag during the next week to ensure the transition to civilian rule.

In theory the transition has already begun. A civilian cabinet has been appointed. General Raoul Cedras, the army commander, and Colonel Michel Francois, the head of the Port-au-Prince police, who together led the 1991 coup in which 1,500 died, are to resign or be transferred. Both should get immunity under an amnesty. On 30 October President Aristide, 40, the Catholic priest elected with 67 per cent of the vote in 1990, returns from exile.

All this was agreed by both sides, under intense pressure from the United States, in New York on 3 July under the so-called Governor's Island agreement. But the spirit of compromise has been slow to show itself in Haiti, where the accord has led to a wave of killings and disappearances. Any sign of overt support for President Aristide is savagely punished. When a pro-Aristide poster is pasted to a wall, soldiers make passers-by tear it down and eat the paper, piece by piece.

Three weeks ago one spectacular killing made US and UN officials fear the agreement was on the verge of unravelling. On 11 September Antoine Izmery, a businessman and a leading supporter of President Aristide, attended a church service in the capital. Surrounded by foreign diplomats, he probably thought he was safe. As the service got under way, he was grabbed by men planted in the congregation, some of whom were later identified as being associated with the Haitian police.

They dragged Izmery into the street and shot him. Dante Caputo, the normally urbane head of the UN mission who negotiated Fr Aristide's return, reacted by calling Col Francois a 'killer'. Politically active Haitians were terrified, as the killers presumably intended. 'The Izmery assassination has worked in that there is no open organisation of Aristide's supporters,' says Ian Martin, head of the human rights section of the UN observer team.

Ordinary Haitians are frightened. Fear of the death squads sends them home at 9pm, leaving the streets of Port-au-Prince - once teeming with people late into the night - empty and menacing. But the brazenness of the Izmery execution may have been a miscalculation, since it forced the UN Security Council to respond. It is sending - nominally to provide technical assistance - 700 US troops and 550 French and Canadian police to Haiti.

Col Francois, if he was behind the killing of Izmery, might have done better to avoid a spectacular execution that humiliated the US and UN. President Clinton has never been enthusiastic about becoming involved in Haitian affairs, but, after setbacks in Bosnia and Somalia, he cannot afford a third debacle in Haiti. Failure here might also lead to a fresh and politically damaging exodus of Haitian refugees to Florida.

Gen Cedras, Col Francois and their allies may have agreed to the return of President Aristide because they never intended to surrender the substance of power. Perhaps they thought they could keep him a virtual prisoner in the presidential palace. If so, they may now be having second thoughts.

For the moment at least there are two governments in Port-au- Prince with bizarre and often bloody consequences. In theory there is a pro-Aristide Prime Minister, Robert Malval, the amicable owner of a large printing business, and his Cabinet, but since Izmery's death many Cabinet members have found good reason for extended foreign trips.

A visit to the Information and Culture Ministry, important because it controls television and radio, does not increase confidence in the authority of the new constitutional government. The Minister is Herve Dennis, a distinguished playwright, who has chosen this moment to produce a play in France. Given that the two soldiers armed with sub-machine guns, who loll in the chairs at the main door of his ministry, answer to Gen Cedras, his discretion is understandable.

Government employees certainly know who is in charge. A secretary in the entrance lobby of the ministry, asked what she thought of Aristide, looked frightened and closed the door, before placing her hand over her heart and saying: 'What we really think of Aristide we must keep here because if we speak . . .' She then performed a little pantomime, slapping her face and kicking out, to show she would be beaten.

Evans Paul, the mayor of Port- au-Prince, elected before the coup, did try to take back his office in City Hall. Ignoring broadcast warnings that he would be turned into tassot - a fried meat dish - he tried to resume his duties. The result was that what the police described as 'disgruntled government employees' but what were probably police out of uniform, opened fire on his supporters, killing four and wounding 20.

'One day soon I will return,' says Mayor Paul, as he sits in a small office elsewhere in Port-au- Prince, his desk bare apart from a plaque expressing solidarity from Liverpool council. He says he is not in hiding, but sleeps in a different house every night.

Mr Paul says the military government has run out of money, and this is confirmed by diplomats. Two frightened government employees complained they had not been paid in two months. Pro- Aristide forces took over the Finance Ministry and found it looted. Last Friday they took over the general accounting office by breaking in the door with a battering ram, because the official put in charge by the military government had disappeared with the key.

The problem is that civilian ministries have never had much power in Haiti. The 8,000 soldiers and police, united in one body, have a monopoly of armed force and there is little sign of them giving it up. They are supported by a network of so-called attaches, or gunmen, who operate like the Sicilian Mafia, living on the fruits of petty extortion such as small bribes from taxi drivers or the peasants selling chickens in the market.

Five million out of 6 million Haitians still live outside the capital and here the army and police are in complete control. In the town of St Marc on the coast north of the capital, people cannot afford to make enemies with the local security men. When Lyonel Addee, a businessman from the town, was found on a beach 10 days ago, apparently beaten to death, his family and the local police agreed it was a clear case of suicide and quickly buried him.

The Governor's Island agreement says the army and police are to be split in two and soldiers will no longer be involved in local security. The police will be retrained, assisted by Canadian Mounties and French gendarmes. Officers with the worst reputations for killing and torture will theoretically be sent where they can do no damage.

Power in Haiti will be divided long after Fr Aristide returns. He has international and popular support but little organisation and no guns. The army and police - supported by the death squads - are not going to go out of business whatever the new constitutional arrangements. But President Aristide remains massively popular, with the reputation of a Messiah, and will not easily be marginalised. Once he is back, said a supporter, it will be 'like keeping a big tiger in a paper bag'.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

£17447 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is a leading centre fo...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Apprentice

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence