Haitian business organizations and members of the country’s tiny elite used the Haitian police force as their own private army in the wake of the 2004 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to a secret US Embassy cable.
Then–US Ambassador to Haiti James Foley warned in the cable "against private delivery of arms" to the Haitian National Police (HNP) after learning from a prominent Haitian businessman that "some business owners have already begun to purchase weapons and ammunition from the street and distribute them to local police officials in exchange for regular patrols."
The May 27, 2005, report was in a trove of 1,918 cables that WikiLeaks made available to the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté, which is collaborating with The Nation on a series of reports on US and UN policy toward the Caribbean country.
Haiti’s private sector elite has been a key US ally in promoting Washington’s agenda in the country, from free trade and privatization of state enterprises to two coups against President Aristide followed by US and UN military occupations.
Fritz Mevs, a member of "one of Haiti’s richest families and a well-connected member of the private sector elite" with major business interests in Port-au-Prince’s downtown and port, was the principal source for Foley’s report.
Mevs told the Embassy that the president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce, Reginald Boulos, had "distributed arms to the police and had called on others to do so in order to provide cover to his own actions." Boulos currently sits on the board of former President Bill Clinton’s Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which controls the spending of billions donated to rebuild Haiti after the January 12, 2010, quake.
The May 2005 cable describes the period after the February 29, 2004, coup d’etat, which not only removed Aristide from power but repressed his Fanmi Lavalas party, set up a US-backed de facto government, and ushered in a 9,000-strong UN military occupation known as MINUSTAH (UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti).
De facto Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s interim government of Haiti and his paramilitary allies had difficulty stabilizing their unpopular regime, despite killing an estimated 3,000 people and jailing and purging from government jobs hundreds of Lavalas militants and sympathizers.
The regime had particular trouble suppressing pro-Aristide strongholds like the slum areas of Bel Air and Cite Soleil, which mounted a fierce resistance to the coup and the occupation. The de facto government, US Embassy and Haitian elite called the resistance fighters "bandits" or "gangs," the terminology used in the cable.
Titled "Haitian Private Sector Panicked by Increasing Violence," the cable relays Mevs’ report to the Embassy’s political officer that Haitian "business leaders are exasperated by the lack of security in the vital port and industrial zone areas of Port-au-Prince and are allegedly arming local police with long-guns and ammunition in an effort to ensure security for their businesses and employees."
Foley wrote that "Mevs says that of the roughly 150 business owners in the area, probably 30 have already provided some kind of direct assistance (including arms, ammunition, or other materiel) to the police, and the rest are looking to do so soon."
Mevs "defended the idea of the private sector arming the police in general, but he lamented the haphazard manner in which many of his colleagues seemed to be handing out weapons with little control," the cable says. Mevs also worried "that funneling the arms secretly would only serve to reinforce rumors that the elite were creating private armies," which in fact was happening.
Mevs asked the Embassy if "the U.S. would oversee [a] program" under which the private sector could legally buy the HNP’s guns because "he did not trust either MINUSTAH or the HNP to properly control the issuance of weapons."
The private army "rumor" was corroborated by "contacts of the Econ Counselor [who] report from time to time of discussions among private sector leaders to fund and arm their own private sector armies."
Security for businesses around the capital’s industrial, warehouse and port districts reportedly degenerated after the March 30, 2005, death of Thomas Robenson, alias Labaniere, a onetime Lavalas leader in Cite Soleil’s Boston neighborhood. He defected to the forces defending the 2004 coup and provided armed protection to nearby commercial zones. Labaniere was killed "allegedly in a plot directed by rival pro-Lavalas gang leader Dread Wilme," Foley wrote.
After that, the UN force had tried to secure the commercial areas but "was proving to be a poor substitute for Labaniere," an adviser to Cite Soleil’s mayor told the Embassy, largely because "MINUSTAH troops (who, he said, rarely set foot outside of their vehicles) were unable to identify the bandits from amongst the general populace as Labaniere had done."
The residents of Cite Soleil did not view Emmanuel Wilmer (aka Dred or Dread Wilme) as a "bandit." They saw him as a hero defending them from pro-coup paramilitaries (who in 1994 burned many houses in the rebellious shantytown) and UN occupation troops. Today, one of the main boulevards through Cite Soleil is named after him, and murals of his face adorn many walls.
Wilme told the Lakou New York program on Brooklyn’s Radio Pa Nou station in April 2005 that "MINUSTAH has been shooting tear gas on the people. There are children who have died from the gas and some people inside churches have been shot…. The Red Cross is the only one helping us. The MINUSTAH soldiers remain hidden in their tanks and just aim their guns and shoot the people. They shoot people selling in the streets. They shoot people just walking in the streets. They shoot people sitting and selling in the marketplace."
But for Foley and the Haitian elite, the UN military was not doing enough. "According to Mevs, although MINUSTAH has on occasion parked armored vehicles near the Terminal with some success, he said criminals regularly force the tanks to move (by burning tires or fecal matter nearby), and as soon as the vehicles depart, the rampage continues."
Foley asked the "Core Group" of international donors and the UN military for a "swift, aggressive" response to the business sector’s call for action against the "criminal elements" from slums like Cite Soleil.
"Ambassador Foley warned the Core Group that MINUSTAH’s stand-down in Cite Soleil put the elections at risk, and that the insecurity around the industrial zone risked undermining what is left of the Haitian economy," said the cable.
The UN mission chief Juan Gabriel Valdes "promised a more robust response from MINUSTAH," which sat down with police leaders to develop a plan in "coordination with the private sector," the cable explains.
"In response to embassy and private sector prodding, MINUSTAH is now formulating a plan to protect the area," concluded the cable.
Weeks later, on July 6, 2005, at 3 am, 1,440 Brazilian and Jordanian soldiers, backed by forty-one armored personnel carriers, sealed off Cite Soleil and attacked. UN troops fired more than 22,000 bullets, leaving dozens of civilian casualties, including women and children.
"It remains unclear how aggressive MINUSTAH was, though 22,000 rounds is a large amount of ammunition to have killed only six people" (the UN’s official death toll), wrote Foley in a July 26, 2005, Embassy cable obtained by Professor Keith Yearman of the College of DuPage through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The UN claimed it had killed only "gang leader Dred Wilme and five of his associates," the cable says, while noting, "at St. Joseph’s hospital near Cite Soleil, Doctors Without Borders reported receiving 26 gunshot victims from Cite Soleil on July 6, of whom 20 were women and at least one was a child."
By August 1, Foley was praising the Brazilians in another cable (obtained by Yearman’s FOIA requests), titled "Brazil Shows Backbone in Bel Air." According to Foley, "the security situation in the capital has clearly improved thanks to aggressive incursions in Bel Air and the July 6 raid against Dread Wilme in Cite Soleil…. Post has congratulated MINUSTAH and the Brazilian Battalion for the remarkable success achieved in recent weeks."