Haitipolice accused in soccer killings
At a “Play for Peace” event, witnesses allege, police officers stood guard while men with machetes killed as many as 30 people.
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published August 31, 2005
It was billed as the highlight of a summer camp in one of Haiti’s poorest slums.
A crowd of some 5,000 spectators turned out on a recent Saturday afternoon to see some of the country’s top soccer stars “Play for Peace.”
They clapped when a squad of riot police showed up at the open-air dirt playing field in Martissant, perched on a hillside overlooking the downtown of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Most in the crowd likely figured the officers were there on regular security duty. After all, the event was funded by the U.S. government, in partnership with a major international organization.
The sound of a gunshot changed the mood dramatically, according to event organizers and human rights activists who interviewed witnesses. As people ran for the gates or tried to jump walls, police ordered everyone to lie down.
Exactly what happened in the ensuing melee Aug. 20 isn’t clear. More gunfire erupted, organizers say. Civilians armed with machetes appeared and began attacking those left behind.
According to one account, police stood guard as the men with machetes moved methodically through the prostrate spectators, lifting their heads to check their faces. Anyone identified as a “bandit” was cut to pieces, or shot.
It’s not clear how many died, with accounts varying from as few as six to as many as 30.
The incident is the latest allegation of police brutality under Haiti’s interim government, which took power after former President Jean Bertrand Aristide fled the country in February 2004.
Dozens of people have been killed in vigilante-style police raids on slums regarded as strongholds of support for Aristide. Violence between rival street gangs has claimed hundreds more lives, while kidnapping has also become a major problem in middle class districts.
The soccer field killings come less than a month after two other similar machete attacks, in which the police are also alleged to have participated.
“There is a larger pattern here,” said Anne Sosin, a human rights observer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a U.S.-based group that backs Aristide’s restoration to power. “The police are using civilian attaches (Haitian death squads) to carry out extra-judicial killings in popular neighborhoods.”
Despite a major security operation by 8,000 United Nations troops and police the violence continues unabated, threatening to undermine national elections later this year.
U.N. officials and Haiti’s police chief condemned the violence, promising a thorough inquiry. But previous investigations have produced few results.
Critics accuse the U.N. mission of being reluctant to put pressure on Haiti’s interim government.
“There’s no one in control. It’s pervasive for lawlessness,” said Corwin Noble, an American security consultant in Haiti. “For all the United Nations resources currently in Haiti you’d think they would be more instructional and hands on.”
The soccer match was financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides assistance in poor countries worldwide.
“This was an event to celebrate peace and tranquility in the community,” said Stefanie Broughton, who works for the International Office for Migration, which is organizing 26 peace camps this summer in nine cities across the country.
The Martissant project involved some 200 children in morning and afternoon activities at the playing fields of the St. Bernadette’s public school, organized with a local community sports association. The soccer match featured three members of Haiti’s national soccer squad.
Broughton, 28, from North Carolina, confirmed reports of a police presence. “We have heard reports … the people who carried out the violence came with the police,” she said.
While the motive of the attack was not clear, various theories abound.
Critics of the police blame a thinly-veiled campaign to eliminate pro-Aristide sympathizers in the poor slums. Others point to gangland rivalries, motivated more by turf than politics.
Some witnesses say they recognized the men with machetes as members of a gang from a nearby neighborhood, jealous perhaps of the international financing the Martissant group has attracted.
International Office for Migration has won 175 grants totaling more than $4-million for road rehabilitation, sanitation projects and building sports arenas.
The peace camps are popular in slum neighborhoods where residents are anxious to provide children with an alternative to gangs, said Broughton.
“This group has been working for the best part of a year for the improvement their community,” she said. But she said she remained optimistic.
“It’s a shame such a positive event was hijacked,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s going to derail the momentum of the community.”
The camp activities were suspended for four days but resumed last Thursday – by popular demand.
[Last modified August 31, 2005, 01:34:58]