Looking for Trouble (Leslie Cockburn)

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  The Leopards," said Honorat with a faint smile, "were trained by the American military mission, equipped by the American military mission." Their purpose, he said, was to replace the Tontons Macoute. Baby Doc himself was trained as a Leopard. The elite corps was a force of occupation, "to keep the population in peace and tranquillity."

There was shooting that night in Carrefour in the shantytown along the bay-front road that turned west to Léogane. In the morning heat, we threaded our way through the tap-taps, the overflowing buses painted with garish scenes of voodoo tonnelles, cockfights, saints, old market women smoking their pipes, the snake spirit Dambala, the voodoo maiden Erzulie. Carrefour, normally heaving with humanity at this hour, was silent, like an empty set. The action came moments after we arrived. Truckloads of Leopards roared toward us, enveloped in dust. They were wild-eyed and rigid with tension, as though they were gripping an electric fence. They lurched to a halt, jumped down, and fired round after round into the air. The camera was rolling.

As the soldiers fanned out into the alleyways, the cameraman stuck fast at such close quarters that I waited in horror to see if one would reel and shoot him in the face. His boldness captured arresting footage of savagery. Cracked skulls, bloody limbs, wanton shooting. Ingrid, her face knotted with tension, clutched his back as a shield against the thwack of a rifle butt. The thought kept running through my mind: Why are they allowing us to witness this? There was no rational answer. Just by chance they spared us, like insects one decides on a whim not to squash.

I called the Evening News foreign desk from the Oloffson and fed the pictures by satellite for that evening's broadcast. I also got through to Ty West, a CBS researcher who was a crack investigator, and gave him the name of an American company involved with equipping the Leopards. The company was called Aerotrade. It could have been in any city, active or defunct. West had a week to find it.

The next morning at dawn, we drove north into Haiti's back country, far off the tarmac Route Nationale No. 1, through villages that could have dotted the West African interior. Houses were roofed with palms and flamboyants, fenced with cactus. We were once more enveloped in dust, careening around deep gashes in the dirt roads from flash floods. Everyone was bad-tempered. Why exactly was I dragging everyone over backbreaking roads into the bush?

"Leslie," the cameraman said, wiping dust-caked sweat from his face, "you always take us to the nicest places."

I was looking for another priest, in a village at the epicenter of the land wars that had ravaged Haiti's Artibonite Valley, the country's rich farm belt. I wanted to see exactly what U.S. policy was protecting, whose interests and why. It was hard to imagine that America had major interests here. The industrial showpiece had been the baseball factory, which was now closed. The Haitian countryside had been stripped of lush forests, the once magnificent stands of mahogany, satinwood, rosewood, cinnamon, cypress, and sassafras, logged for export and hacked down for bags of charcoal sold for pennies by the side of the road. Whole plains were given over to Barbaresque deserts, with giant yucca. The one swath of verdant green was the Artibonite Valley.

One prominent American with an interest in that land was the scion of an expatriate family whose fortunes flourished under the Duvaliers. Butch Ashton was a lanky, strawberry-blond fixture in the fashionable Canape Verte set, where the villas of the mulatto aristocracy overlooked the American ambassador's pool. His business interests ranged from the Toyota dealership in the capital to Haiti Citrus, an expanding fruit operation targeting ten thousand acres in the Artibonite. Butch had run into stubborn farmers who refused to sell or lease their land. The problem was efficiently resolved by the Tontons Macoute.

This was a region of Haiti uncharted by journalists. I stopped our convoy to film a Ra Ra band snaking through a village, blowing conch shells, playing long hollow vaccines, petro drums, and hand-beaten tin horns. We moved off to reach the Catholic church in time for mass. It was Palm Sunday. Through the open windows, we could hear the children singing a Creole hymn set to an African rhythm. Inside they danced, in spotless white muslin dresses, twirling palm fronds. Their priest, Père Grandoit, with the face of a conquistador, perhaps an imprint of a Columbus voyage to the island, was the man I was looking for. Above his starched cassock and neatly trimmed goatee, his eyes were electric blue. Father Grandoit had witnessed the treatment of small farmers who refused to yield their plots to Butch Ashton. We waited until everyone in the overflowing church had taken Communion.

Pere Grandoit walked with us into the garden and found some chairs in the shade. He was not accustomed to interviews but began to quietly detail the conditions in his parish under Baby Doc's regime. The peasants, he said, were jailed. They were beaten and "jacked up," a special torture invented under the Duvaliers. "They tie you up. You become like a punching ball. They beat you up all over your body." The priest explained that the Macoute commander of the region had been hired by Haiti Citrus. "The commander was on the payroll," said Father Grandoit. "He was paid every two weeks by Haiti Citrus to keep tight control over the situation. To intimidate and to torture."

We filmed in the citrus groves and talked to local farmers before confronting Butch in his Port-au-Prince office next to the old baseball factory. Jane asked if he had ever hired Tontons Macoute.

"Never!" swore the American entrepreneur, pounding the table in his office compound. "There have been people" -- he paused to select his words carefully -- "the mayor of the area, who happened to be a Tonton Macoute, who was, in fact, not on the payroll, but he was on a consultant basis."

I thought it was very "eighties" to have a Tonton Macoute consultant.

"You hired Tontons Macoute to protect your fields?" Jane pressed him.

Butch scowled. "Absolutely not."

"Except this one mayor, who was a Tonton Macoute."

"The mayor was a Tonton Macoute, a known Tonton Macoute, agreed," Butch conceded. "But he was the mayor. We were aiming at the mayor. We were looking at the judicial system. Now, if part of the judicial system at the time involved the Tontons Macoute, I don't think we can be responsible for that."

Ashton lamented the passing of the Duvaliers. Even though you had a corrupt regime, he said, you knew where you stood. Today, you don't know where you stand. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. You're living day-to-day. Ashton told us he had a lot of U.S. customers and was doing the best he could to convince them to continue to keep the faith, to hang in there. "It's not very easy."

He had arrived in Haiti when he was a year old. All of his eggs, he told us, were in this basket. All of his money. All of his time. He had never stopped to try to count how much he had put in. He was afraid he would commit suicide if he did. Why did he choose Haiti? It was chosen for him by his family. His father came here as an explorer. He came here in 1940 with the State Department. Haiti, insisted Butch, had always looked toward the United States for guidance. Always followed in the United States' footsteps. Always did what the U.S. wanted Haiti to do. "We put Papa Doc in power. We kept him in power."

Ashton remembered the American training of the Tontons Macoute. He told us that in 1961-62, a U.S. naval mission here was supposedly training the army. At the same time, they were knowingly training the militia, the Volunteers for National Security, the Tontons Macoute. "Our weapons, our M-1s, our rejected weapons, were given to the militia, and our new weapons were given to the army. We knew this. We had the actual marines training these civilians. I was here during the whole period. We had something like forty or fifty men, officers of the U.S. Marine Corps in Haiti at the time. And a great part of that was used for training the Tontons Macoute. It was not hidden. It was done right on the palace grounds and in the army training camp, Camp d'Application."

Ashton remembered that the Tontons Macoute were ex-army men, retired or fired, who were used to enforce the laws. Most of them were just the average guy on the street. You had a handful that were very scary. Very. There's no question about that. "Where does the responsibility lie? Should not the United States be prosecuted? We're the ones who put this whole thing in power. We're the ones who set it up. We enforced it. We bankrolled it. We armed it. So, shouldn't we have some responsibility in it?"

I had never heard anyone speak so frankly on camera about the U.S. role. The fact that we had tracked down his own dark secret in the Artibonite seemed to have unleashed this torrent of raw candor that you normally only hear at a cocktail party behind high walls. Ernest Fitzgerald, a famous Pentagon whistle-blower, had an expression for it: committing truth.

Back at the Oloffson, I called CBS in New York. Ty West had found Aerotrade, the company I had been told equipped the Leopards. Aerotrade was in Miami. West had also convinced the owner, James Byers, to talk to us. We flew to Miami with the crew and drove to a middle-class neighborhood with well-tended ranch houses. Byers was surprised we had found him. He volunteered that he had trained and outfitted the Leopards. He had done it, he said on camera, under contract to the CIA.

Everyone seemed in the mood to confess.

"We supplied them with everything," Byers said in a deep lazy voice that flowed like swamp water in the Everglades. "Toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, underwear, socks, shaving equipment." He smiled at his thoroughness. With his meticulously groomed black hair and exposed chest, Byers was the seasoned contract operative. He displayed perfect manners and genuine affection for his work. He had trained them as a counterinsurgency group. "Ex-Marine Corps drill instructors really did a good job on these people. They had a parade after Jean-Claude had become president. When the Leopards came by, it was really something," Byers remembered. "All the foreign ambassadors were there and damned if they didn't stand up and clap."

When we asked whether they were really a first-class counterinsurgency unit, Byers's tone became confidential. "Let me put it this way." He leaned in close. "They were a hell of a lot better than anything else they ever had down there. But now what they are is palace-controlled terrorists. Killing and beating people. That's not what they were trained for. They've taken over what the Tontons Macoute were designed to do. Scare the hell out of the people and keep the people under control."

Byers's companies, Aerotrade International and Aerotrade Inc., had no trouble exporting massive quantities of arms. The State Department signed off on the licenses, and the CIA had copies of all the contracts. M-16 fully automatic weapons, thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition, patrol boats, T-28 aircraft, Sikorsky helicopters. Thirty-caliber machine guns. Fifty-caliber machine guns. Mortars. Twenty-millimeter rapid-fire cannons. Armored troop carriers. "Supposedly, that stuff was for the so-called threat of invasion." Byers smiled. "But to any nation like that, they're toys. All the dignitaries touch it and look at it and play with it. They were toys." He paused to reflect. "Unfortunately, the so-called toys that we sent and trained the Leopards with were used against the people down there."

The chief executive of Aerotrade delivered expensive gifts to Baby Doc as part of the covert military aid package. One birthday toy for the dictator was a twenty-eight-foot Magnum speedboat. Byers remembered it fondly as one hell of a boat. The dictator, he said, had a ball.

We left the arms trader lost in reverie somewhere in the heyday of the Duvaliers, the era when I first landed in Port-au-Prince, when the elite packed the casinos and clubs, fell giggling into the Ibo Lele pool, played backgammon on the giant board of inlaid wood in the floor of the Habitation Leclerc.

Back at the Oloffson, Jean-Jacques Honorat rested his head on the white wicker and sighed. "The regime hasn't changed. Only Duvalier is absent." The brutal tactics, he believed, would only get worse. "Why?" He smiled playfully. "Peace and tranquillity."

The Haitian human rights activist was so jaded by the alliance of the Haitian military with the Pentagon and the CIA that when a former CIA operative, General Raoul Cédras, fronted for a military coup five years later, Honorat accepted the position of prime minister. His justification was realpolitik. Reform from the inside. Honorat had also used this logic to extract a grant from the Ford Foundation to teach human rights to the Haitian Army. I asked him in his office near Sacré Coeur what he could possibly accomplish. "If I convince one soldier," he said, "not to beat someone to death. Is that worthwhile?"

When the film titled "Haiti's Nightmare" aired on CBS April 30, 1986, the issue of U.S. responsibility raised by the Leopard shock troops crushing skulls at close range was hotly debated in Congress. The film ran again on the congressional closed-circuit television, and the Black Caucus demanded that U.S. military aid to the post-Duvalier regime be cut off. In spite of the tempest, Ashton's fears that Washington was recklessly dismantling the edifice of Duvalierism were, in the end, unfounded. The Leopards shouldered the burden through various military juntas until the resurgence of a militia dubbed the Attaches, who found their mission brutalizing the followers of the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president.

In the falling light of a spring afternoon in 1986, on the verandah of the Gielgud Suite, the future was as plain as the pattern of a voodoo vèvè. We had just extricated ourselves from a teeming mob in the streets, hoarse with rage that the promises of democratic reform from the wedding-cake palace had been smashed by black-booted Leopards. The mob held aloft a Leopard victim whose head had been expertly split open. Blood gushed over his entire face like a ghoulish red Mardi Gras mask. He glistened in the sun. We forced our way through the bodies to an outdoor staircase and climbed for a higher vantage. There was a roar from the crowd below and around us. The eyes behind the river of blood spotted us and fixed on the camera. The crimson arms rose slowly in the air like a crucifix.
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    Excerpted from Looking for Trouble by Leslie Cockburn. Copyright © 1998 by Leslie Cockburn. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.