Covering crime in New York in the early 1990s took me to every cranny of the Big Apple. Once, I was in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn interviewing the family of a man who had been shot dead. Sitting in their living room trying to extract personal info about their relative whose death happened only hours prior. At some point, they told me and my photographer that the police had recently left the apartment. Curious, I asked what they asked, and one relative said somberly, “The same ones you were asking.”
My takeaway from this exchange was that the work of journalists is eerily like that of law enforcement and intelligence professionals. The important distinction is that while law enforcement builds cases and intelligence operatives file their report for who knows what, we journalists put it all out there for the benefit of the public.
Those worlds, interestingly enough, can come full circle sometimes. I felt as much after recently reading “Zombie Files: Gangs, Drugs, Politics and Voodoo Under the Mandate of the United Nations,” a book by Max Kail, a former United Nations police officer.
The truth is the title can be cringe worthy and the book is not reader friendly in its layout and design. For this author, writing appears to be more of a hobby than a vocation and the book could use an editor. Despite these flaws, this is a must-read for every person who is even mildly interested in Haiti’s recent history because it lays the foundation for the lawlessness and chaos playing out in front of us as I write this column.
Kail took no prisoners and brought the receipts to show how Haitian parliamentarians, Prime Ministers and Presidents — from 2004 to today — were drug traffickers and arms dealers, wresting control from the oligarchs who used to operate such trades.
Monsters in the making since the ‘90s
According to Kail, the gangs were the creation of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, arming street kids at his orphanage to do his political bidding when he returned to Haiti from his first exile in 1994. Guns began to flow steadily and, Kail said, they graduated to recuperating cocaine and cannabis drops from South American drug cartels that used Haiti as a transshipment en route to Florida, their destination.
That system was adopted by successive presidents and has become standard operating procedure, perfected to devastating impact.
This is also about the time that elements in the police got deeply involved in criminality to the point that an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the Haitian National Police’s 10,000 officers are either gang sympathizers or outright members. Informants that tip off gangs to planned raids and operations, resulting in a sort of suicide mission for participating officers who end up being ambushed by armed bandits. The latest such case happened just over Easter Sunday, leaving three officers dead.
At first, these gangs were shock troopers activated anytime they were needed to sow chaos on the streets — for a fee. They typically turned out 3,000 to 5,000 demonstrators depending on the amount of money disbursed by their bosses. These mobs would ransack a target’s building to its bare bones, while a business right next door would have not even a scratch on its windows.
This arrangement worked for a while, until the gangs realized that they didn’t need a boss and became their own master. They began fighting each other for control of territory because ‘he who controls territory controls the voting bloc.’ That’s when things really went astray.
Too-little, too-late sanctions against an open secret
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but almost all the names mentioned in Kail’s book have been sanctioned by either the United States, Canada or Switzerland for their involvement in drugs, arms and other illicit activities. Kail laid out the case quite nicely.
All of this was taking place under the watchful eyes of MINUSTAH — or “Tourista” as some derisively called Haitians, because they acted more like tourists than soldiers whose mission was to stabilize the country. The blue helmet UN mission pulled out of Haiti in 2017 after a 13-year occupation.
By some accounts, the UN left Haiti in as bad a shape as it found it when it landed in 2004. It is one of the primary reasons the U.S and Canada have cold feet this time around as they decide what to do about the situation in Haiti.
The wounds are still raw, and a sector of the Haitian diaspora has widely condemned any talk of a redux. Their argument is that as bad as things are now, the UN or any other forces have not yet shown that they’ve learned from the past.
While it is an open secret that a small cabal has been enriching themselves for decades, the breadth and depth of their criminal activities remain elusive to me. The Haitian government, at its highest levels, is akin to a mob organization, robbing the population blind. It reminds me of the movie, Gangs of New York, a true story of how gangs ruled New York during the mid-19th century.
As the current sanctions put a vise on these officials and so-called leaders, squeezing the pockets and limiting the travels of these politicians and businessmen, they still remain largely unaccountable for the crimes outlined in Kail’s book. The reality is that Haiti’s nonexistent judicial system is incapable of bringing even a petty criminal to justice, let alone powerful architects of the country’s criminal empire.
I don’t remember if that homicide in East New York, Brooklyn was ever solved, but New York is no longer the dangerous place it was once, despite recent grumblings about a spike in crime.
For Haiti, on the other hand, the jury is still deliberating. We won’t know for a while longer whether Haiti fully morphs from a republic to a territory. Turning our beloved country, if you will, into a zombie itself.