US Troops Bring Peace to Rural Haiti - But Stay Friendly With Ex- Gunmen
Dec. 21, 1994
HINCHE, Haiti (AP) _ U.S. occupation troops in Haiti's isolated central plateau are organizing democracy meetings, overseeing road-building plans and doing what they can to keep the peace - to the delight of most people.
But there's a glitch, something that confuses and worries many people here: The friendly, outgoing Special Forces guys treat FRAPH - a rightist paramilitary group that terrorized Haiti under the former army regime - as a legitimate party.
It is not.
''There is no possibility of cooperation with FRAPH,'' Justice Minister Ernst Malebranche said tersely Tuesday after flying in by U.S. Army helicopter along with visiting U.S. aid officials.
Malebranche noted parliament has passed a law outlawing paramilitary groups such as FRAPH. Earlier this month, he criticized U.S. troops based in some outlying areas for fraternizing with FRAPH leaders and even acting on their behalf to arrest peasant opponents.
Maj. Cindy Sito, spokeswoman in Port-au-Prince for the U.S.-led multinational force, said U.S. troops don't knowingly support FRAPH members. A senior U.S. diplomat in the American Embassy said last week that FRAPH - the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti - is not considered a legitimate party.
But that's not the message put out by U.S. troops in isolated rural areas, where FRAPH is still feared and powerful despite the U.S.-orchestrated reinstatement in October of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Aristide had been ousted by the army in 1991 - the same group who allowed FRAPH free rein to terrorize the population.
When asked how they deal with FRAPH, U.S. military commanders in Hinche, nearby Mirebalais and the west coast port of Saint-Marc all said they considered it a legitimate political group, just like Lavalas, the widely popular leftist movement that supports Aristide.
''We treat them as a party. They've cooperated with us a lot,'' said Special Forces Capt. John Carroll, who commands the small U.S. garrison in Mirebalais. ''In fact, they've cooperated with us much more than Lavalas has.''
That's the kind of attitude that makes residents jittery.
It's unclear whether the U.S. soldiers are aware of FRAPH's past as a terror group - or if they know how much people fear it. Residents say many FRAPH leaders - often prominent local citizens - can speak English, enabling them to befriend the Americans, serve as interpreters and dupe them.
The U.S. soldiers in Hinche are making great efforts to bring change and progress to the impoverished, isolated town 55 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
They are organizing efforts to rebuild the road to the capital, they help oversee civic lessons and encourage all factions to get together and compromise. But on that point, the implication is that FRAPH should be treated like any party - something some parish priests have equated to cooperating with the Nazis in occupied Germany after World War II.
''They're trying to get across the idea that FRAPH isn't that bad,'' said Johan Van Bignoot, a Belgian who runs the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Haiti. ''That message is very badly received by the people.''
''The ex-FRAPH guys are still in the shadows among the population. They're still armed,'' said French police observer Brig. Chief Richard Roger. ''For me, they're not an opposition party. They are gangsters.''
He and others say that as long as foreign troops and police are around, FRAPH will behave itself. After dismantling Haiti's oppressive army, U.S., Canadian and French instructors are training a new civilian police force. But it's unclear whether it will have enough presence in rural areas.
''People are scared. When they (foreigners) leave, it'll be a big question mark,'' said Hinche resident Jean-Marie Michel, 22. ''We are waiting for the arrest and trial of FRAPH leaders.''
That's not likely to happen soon. The justice system is in shambles and stacked with judges of the old regime.
''They killed my father because he was Lavalas. Now, FRAPH people drive around at ease,'' said 23-year-old Elie Genet.
Brian Atwood, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development who was among those visiting the region Tuesday, disagreed with the banning of FRAPH. He said that will just drive it underground and make it more dangerous.
''But if individual FRAPH members who committed crimes are all brought to justice, I think you'll find there won't be much left of FRAPH,'' he added.