PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti -- Dozens of soldiers in camouflage fatigues control security in this coastal city of 125,000 people. They carry automatic weapons, and their base is a former police headquarters with a freshly painted sign that reads, "General Headquarters of the Haitian Armed Forces."
The trouble is, the Haitian Armed Forces don't officially exist.
Former soldiers from the Haitian army disbanded a decade ago ousted police in Petit-Goave, west of Port-au-Prince, and now control the town.
(Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
The force, which arrived in late August and chased away the town's eight police officers, includes mainly former soldiers from the army, disbanded by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994. The men were also part of the armed rebellion that led Aristide to resign in February and flee the country. Now they are demanding that the new government reconstitute the army and have appointed themselves the law in Petit-Goave and a handful of towns across Haiti.
"We are determined to make our voice heard," said Felix Wilso, a spokesman for the soldiers in this city 40 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The fact that an unofficial army controls Petit-Goave, unchallenged by the government and U.N. peacekeepers, illustrates how volatile Haiti remains eight months after Aristide's departure. The interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, said in an interview that his U.S.-backed government was struggling to maintain order in the hemisphere's poorest nation.
"We are just trying our best to keep the country alive," Latortue said. "It is a miracle that we have been able to keep peace. It is a miracle that we are where we are now."
The national police force of 2,500 officers is outmanned and outgunned by groups of ex-soldiers and armed gangs that control many areas of this country of 8 million people. U.N. officials said fewer than half of the 8,300 U.N. soldiers and police promised in April had arrived and that the current force was insufficient to guarantee order in the country.
Adding to the unrest and misery, Haiti has also been battered by devastating natural disasters since Aristide left. Floods in May killed at least 1,300 people, and a tropical storm last month killed about 3,000 more.
The nation remains bitterly divided between supporters and opponents of Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa. That has resulted in a new round of political violence that has left 46 people dead in the past two weeks, including five policemen, three of whom were beheaded. Two U.N. soldiers have been shot and wounded in recent days, the first casualties since the force arrived this summer.
The U.N. troops took over from a contingent of 1,000 U.S. Marines, who had arrived in February following several weeks of fighting between rebels, most of whom were former soldiers, and armed gangs loyal to Aristide. At least 300 people died in the fighting. It was the second U.S. military action in Haiti in a decade; in 1994, 20,000 U.S. troops restored Aristide to power after he had been ousted in a military coup in 1991.
U.S. confidence in Aristide slipped after he was reelected in 2000. The president was dogged by allegations of corruption, although his allies said the Bush administration was demonizing Aristide, a populist former Catholic priest who was the first freely elected president in the country's 200-year history.
In March, a U.S.-backed council of Haitian citizen leaders appointed Latortue to lead a government until new presidential and legislative elections next year. Latortue, a former U.N. development official, was living in Florida and working as a business consultant.
International officials in Haiti say that Latortue has made important strides, winning pledges of just over $1 billion in aid, including $230 million from the United States, at a conference in Washington in July.
Latortue's government has been responsible for some basic improvements in quality of life, such as better trash collection on Port-au-Prince's filthy streets. With help from the United States and Canada, it is also providing electricity for about 14 hours a day in the capital, up from two or three hours a day when it took over.