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U.S. Troops Caught Between Popular Justice and Mob Rule : Military: Soldiers find themselves acting as judge and jury when Haitian crowds parade their enemies to the nearest American post.

October 07, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRANDE RIVIERE DU NORD, Haiti — A man described as the military regime's most notorious hired gun in northern Haiti was turned over Thursday to U.S. Special Forces by a cheering crowd in the latest act of vigilante justice that poses a growing challenge for American troops.

Leaning on two canes and suffering from a gaping wound on his hip, Jean Claude Celestin was led by hundreds of villagers to the two-story church rectory that now serves as headquarters for U.S. forces, who occupied this colonial-era town late last month.

American officers said Celestin was wanted in numerous murders in Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city about 15 miles northeast of here.

"Everyone in Cap Haitien knows him and hates him," said one of Celestin's alleged victims, Crecius St. Hilouire, who was interviewed in Cap Haitien.

Celestin allegedly burst into St. Hilouire's home in the middle of the night, pistol-whipped him, beat him with metal pipes and then stole his life savings of about $750.

Celestin had apparently fled to Grande Riviere du Nord just ahead of U.S. occupation forces and was discovered by residents who recognized and captured him.

They said he was already wounded when they found him, and there were reports that he had been beaten while briefly detained by police in Cap Haitien.

"Normally, everyone would like to see him die," said Tony La Fleur, one of those who turned in Celestin. "But we are not seeking revenge now. He should be condemned to life in prison. If it were up to the Haitian military, they would never keep him in prison. But since the Americans are here, we hope to have better justice."

This was just one of scores of incidents in which emboldened, jubilant crowds in towns across rural northern Haiti have snatched their enemies, often from their homes or on public streets, and paraded them to the nearest U.S. military barracks.

Popular justice to some, mob rule to others, such actions seem to serve as a catharsis for many Haitians who have had to repress their anger during years of brutal dictatorship. But they put U.S. forces in a tricky position as they struggle to define what is clearly an expanding police role.

Each time a new captive is delivered, the U.S. forces find themselves having to make snap judgments about potential guilt, about who is lying and who is telling the truth. When is a person being accused simply out of spite or old grudges, and when is the accused a truly heinous murderer who must be detained at all cost? Or when is it better to take the person into custody simply for his own protection?

The crowds also represent the worst nightmare for the elite and the business class. Violent vigilantism, called dechoukage in Creole, has a long history in Haiti.

Haitians recall the rampages by vengeful masses after the 1986 fall of dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, and again during the government of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Those who supported the dictatorship were often targeted for the looting or burning of their homes or businesses. Some were lynched.

"We are not going to let the crowds become a kangaroo court," said Special Forces Master Sgt. Stan Goeff, an intelligence officer who formed part of a U.S. team that occupied the remote northeastern town of Fort Liberte on Wednesday.

In Fort Liberte, Special Forces quickly arrested nine people who were identified as attaches , or paramilitary agents, and other supporters of the dictatorship. But in the hours that followed, roving bands of Haitian citizens did the rest.

Accompanied by a couple of men playing drums and other musical instruments, they took alleged attaches from their homes one by one, tied their arms and escorted them through the dirt streets to the garrison where the Americans were working.

In numerous cases, the American GIs have had to rescue and protect accused attaches or other dictatorship henchmen from enraged crowds. In the northern border town of Ouanaminthe, two Special Forces officers on Monday plucked a paramilitary agent from the center of about 400 people who had surrounded him.

As the officers placed the man in the back of their Humvee, someone from the crowd tossed them a 12-foot rope. "They wanted us to hang him on the spot," Capt. Mel Metts said.

In Cap Haitien on Tuesday, a businessman crashed his car into a pro-Aristide march, injuring seven, including a child who at first was reported to have died. It was not clear whether the act was intentional. Residents responded by looting the man's business and home.

Some Haitians in Cap Haitien and other northern towns, especially in the business sector, have begun to complain that the Americans are siding too quickly with the crowds. American officers say they are careful not to take sides.

In the Fort Liberte operation, among those arrested was Nyll Calixte, a former ambassador and head of the university law school. The Special Forces officers who took him from his home, handcuffed to his French-born wife, as a crowd cheered, said he had been identified as a prominent backer of the military regime.

Calixte and his wife were helicoptered to Port-au-Prince for interrogation. But on Thursday, the couple was released with a formal apology. "I think the American military went a little beyond the boundaries of justice," Calixte said as he sat in a U.S. military airport in Cap Haitien waiting for a ride home.

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