Workers painstakingly retrieve records from the ruins of the tax office,… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — Ulrick Mentor left his desk at the Haitian tax office a few minutes early on a Tuesday evening three weeks ago for an appointment. The decision saved his life. Since then, the civil engineer has been back to the federal building daily, leading a team of colleagues, working under armed guard, as they struggle to retrieve the bureaucratic foundation of Haitian society from the rubble of the four-story structure.
"We have documents in here that go all the way back to our independence -- 200 years," said Mentor, chief engineer of the government tax office. He raised his voice to be heard over the pair of hydraulic excavators that were slamming steel arms into the building's remains. "This is the history of our country."
The Jan. 12 earthquake destroyed many of Haiti's most iconic government buildings, including the parliament and the ministries of justice and finance. But it was the collapse of the Direction Generale des Impots that has most worried government officials, business operators and property owners.
In the Haitian bureaucracy, modeled on its French antecedents, the tax office's responsibilities are far broader than, for example, those of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The process by which Haitians obtain driver's licenses, passports, license plates, ID cards and other important transactions usually includes a stop at the tax office.
More important, this building was where property deeds were registered -- a crucial function in any country but especially so in Haiti, where land ownership disputes are common. And, as in many developing countries with unreliable electricity supplies, many of those transactions were recorded on paper, often by hand.
On Thursday, the building's surviving workers climbed amid the piles of concrete and towers of gnarled rebar. All around them was paper: forms in triplicate, log books and ledger pages with entries written in cursive. Hundreds of government license plates reclaimed from the building were in the back of a pickup. A stack of special diplomatic license plates rose from the sidewalk, sharing space with Haitian identity cards, notebooks and the smashed towers of computers.
"We can't let those things get into the wrong hands," said Montervit Etchoy, one of the tax office employees. He paused to pick up a red leather book, "Memoirs of the Leader of the Third World," by Francois Duvalier. Leafing through it, he stopped at a color photo of the tax office, a building that the long-dead dictator considered one of his important contributions to Haiti's march into the modern era.
Officials are still trying to determine whether any irreplaceable documents are unrecoverable.
"There's an important loss of data, no question," said Aramick Louise, the state director of public security. "But what we don't know is the magnitude of the loss."
Haiti's finance minster, Ronald Baudin, said most computer servers and other databases in government buildings appeared to be intact, or are backed up in buildings that were not affected. One of his ministry's priorities is to retrieve blank checks from the destroyed central bank building.
"We're not sure, but it doesn't seem that we've lost too many important documents," he said. "We're still trying to recover the most sensitive things."
The most valuable papers in the tax office, including property deeds, were kept in a bunker in the basement, said Mentor, the building engineer. He has crawled into an undamaged section of the building and says the bunker appears to be intact. Still, it probably will be days before the diggers reach it.
As important as the documents are, Mentor said, it's the loss of the tax office's top four directors that will be the most difficult to overcome.
The body of Muray Lustin Jr., 40, director of operations, was pulled from the building this week as his family watched from the sidewalk.
"He was bright, intelligent and very friendly," Mentor said. "That's the biggest loss, not just for those of us who worked there, but for the whole country."