Many of Haiti's most-wanted on the loose after earthquake

After the Jan. 12 quake, thousands of prisoners escaped from the National Penitentiary. Lawlessness has risen as gangs gain confidence.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Friday, April 9, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Early one morning this month, in the buzz saw that is downtown Port-au-Prince, three men approached a police checkpoint, firing automatic weapons. When the shooting finally stopped, a seven-year veteran of the Haitian National Police lay dead, his body riddled with bullets.

Police say the killers were dispatched by a gang leader named Ti Wilson, a menacing underworld force believed to control a kidnapping-and-robbery empire who has taken to calling himself "Obama," presumably as a symbol of power. What was particularly unnerving about this killing is that Wilson would be behind bars now if not for the Jan. 12 earthquake that shattered Port-au-Prince.

On that afternoon, while tens of thousands of Haitians were being crushed to death, Wilson and more than 4,500 other inmates slipped out of a wing of the National Penitentiary, known as the "Titanic." Since then, Haitian and international police say, the most notorious of the escapees have terrorized neighborhoods, stolen aid supplies and fought ever more pitched battles among themselves that threaten the stability of a fragile society still far from recovering from one of the country's worst disasters in recent memory.

As the gangs have gained confidence, their turf wars have suddenly spiked, filling the same city morgue that swelled with quake victims with gunshot victims: at least 50 in the past few weeks. In one instance, Wilson knocked off his main rival, a gangster known as Billy, who had taken over the imprisoned gang leader's kidnapping trade in the Fort Touron neighborhood, police say.

Gangs have charged into settlement camps slashing machetes to swipe food and water delivered by aid groups, stolen money from sidewalk vendors and gunned down passersby to steal as little as a few hundred Haitian gourdes, the nation's currency, police say. Officials say the spike in violence is particularly demoralizing because Haiti had made great strides to bring the gang problem under control before the earthquake.

In a series of heavily militarized offensives that peaked three years ago, U.N. police fought gun battles block by block in neighborhoods controlled by gangs, such as the Cite Soleil slum, Boston and Martissant. The campaign crippled most of the major gangs and led to the arrest of the country's most notorious gang leaders, all of whom were sent to the National Penitentiary. Police say the kidnapping and homicide rates plummeted, but now those same gang leaders are being blamed for a resurgence of crime.

"It's like we've turned back the clock," Mario Andresol, Haiti's national police chief, said in an interview under the large, yellow-and-white-striped open-sided tent that now serves as his office. "I get frustrated. We spent four years getting them, and now they are on the run."

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The prison break essentially unleashed Haiti's former most-wanted list -- all at once. Saint Victor, a bearlike former policeman arrested for drug trafficking, fled. Another escapee, Ti Wil, is suspected of killing the French consul in the northern city of Cap-Haitien several years ago. ("Ti," which rhymes with "wee," is a common Haitian nickname that means "little.") The escapees also included Ti Blan, a charismatic gang leader from Cite Soleil, who was so brazen before his arrest that he frequently escorted foreign reporters on tours of his neighborhood. A person identifying himself as Blan called into a radio program recently, urging police not to arrest him because he had become a devout Christian while in prison.

Joseph DuPont, second in command of the Haitian National Police's downtown Port-au-Prince division, chuckled at Blan's plea. "Even in Haiti, being a Christian doesn't put you above the law," DuPont said.

The circumstances of the mass prison break remain clouded in controversy. Some exterior walls were damaged by the quake, but Andresol said that interior walls held firm. He is certain that some of the guards panicked and fled, many leaving behind their weapons, which the prisoners took. A small U.N. contingent, stationed outside the prison, also fled, Andresol said.

Even so, there is almost no way prisoners could have escaped without help from authorities, he said. One week after the quake, the warden, Olmaille Bien-Aimé, disappeared and hasn't been seen since, Andresol said.

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