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Haitian Gunmen Complicate U.S. Effort to Establish Law and Order : Caribbean: American military is not geared toward dealing with crime or disarming thousands of 'attaches.'

October 30, 1994|ROBIN WRIGHT and KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For American troops in Haiti, the easy part--reinstating President Jean-Bertrand Aristide--is over. Now under way is a far harder task: establishing law and order, the foundation of democracy, in a country with only a 50-member "interim" police force still in training and without a judiciary system or prisons worthy of the terms.

The American troops, bolstered by small contingents from four other nations, are temporarily in charge. But their mandate is limited to keeping civil order and protecting themselves.

Off limits, U.S. officials insist, are dealing with crime and disarming the thousands of paramilitary gunmen, known as attaches , who were linked to widespread murder, torture and extortion under the military leaders who ousted Aristide in a 1991 coup.

Most of the 200 attaches turned over by Haitians to American forces have already been released, since the U.S.-led force is not empowered to hold them and Haiti does not yet have a system to try them. And though repressive violence has significantly diminished since the American occupation began on Sept. 19, law and order still seem far off.

Just last week, a gang of Haitians in the northern port city of Cap Haitien, claiming to be "deputies" of the U.S.-led force, gained entry into homes and businesses, only to steal valuables. They escaped by saying that the victims were attaches and that they were being punished.

The gang leader eventually was identified and detained by American soldiers, but U.S. officials said his "final disposition" is uncertain because Haiti lacks mechanisms to deal with criminals.

"Establishing law and order is one of the toughest issues we face. It's a precondition to any kind of serious economic development or political progress," a senior U.S. official in Washington said. "How many businessmen will invest if they fear being looted at any moment? It's also hard to talk about organization of political parties and free elections if people can be attacked while campaigning."

The Clinton Administration admits that the process will take at least a year and probably longer. Meanwhile, U.N. officials, made wary by the Somalia disaster, are grumbling about the risks of taking over from the United States before order is established. The hand-over is tentatively scheduled for March of next year.

Restoring law and order in Somalia became a matter of serious disagreement when U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali demanded that U.S. troops move more aggressively to disarm Somali clans before U.N. troops would take the Americans' place. Washington countered that it had never agreed to go that far.

The humanitarian effort turned to disaster when the clans took the upper hand, killing dozens of American and other U.N. personnel in a series of ambushes.

In Haiti, one of the most complex issues is what to do about the notorious gunmen.

"The attaches issue underscores the nastiest edge of restoring law and order," a senior Administration analyst said. "To really clean up Haiti, we'd have to go looking for them, which would mean deploying more widely and potentially risking American casualties.

"But it also brings up the question of the philosophy and limits of the occupying power," the analyst added. "We're releasing a lot of attaches not because we're weak-kneed but because we don't want to wind up either looking like we're doing what Haitians should be doing or being seen as a colonizing power."

The number of hard-core attaches engaged in the most wanton violence and murder is less than 1,000, U.S. officials say. But estimates of the total involved in petty extortion, other crimes and harassment range from 20,000 to 40,000.

To pacify Haiti while minimizing risks to the troops, the United States has chosen to avoid manhunts or house-to-house searches for the most notorious attaches. Instead, it is moving to find arms and break up the police and military organization behind the attaches , who usually got their power through bribery.

Since they occupied Haiti, American troops have captured or destroyed the Haitian army's arsenal of heavy weapons, including artillery, armored personnel carriers and mortars.

They have also disarmed Haitians who pointed weapons at Americans. In the most violent case, 10 Haitians were killed when a Marine platoon fired more than 1,000 rounds at a police station in Cap Haitien after an occupant brandished a gun.

American troops have confiscated dozens of small-arms caches, and an offer to buy weapons at prices ranging from $100 for handguns to $600 for heavy machine guns and mortars has already cost $637,000.

Between the two efforts, the U.S. military has collected more than 12,000 weapons, from rocket-propelled grenades to handguns. But Pentagon officials conceded that a great number of weapons remain in Haitian hands.

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