By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Friday, April 9, 2010; A10
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.
"This situation makes the escape very suspicious," said Andresol, a 49-year-old former Haitian army officer who trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia.
After the quake, Andresol created a special undercover team to hunt down the escapees, some of whom are suspected of scattering to small villages far from the capital. Most of those captured so far have been minor criminals. The big killers remain on the loose, and they are well armed -- police are often outgunned by gang members wielding assault rifles, authorities say.
There are indications that some former rivals are joining forces, creating mega-gangs, Andresol said, and there are concerns that political parties might be using gangs to spread unease ahead of hoped-for elections this winter.
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Newly captured suspects are jammed into a 20-by-10-foot impromptu cell outside a downtown police office. Inmates stand with their arms dangling out the bars and paw at people passing on the sidewalk. One recent afternoon, two Haitian National Police officers chugged Prestige, a beloved local beer, while standing guard.
Earlier that day, a funeral was held at the Ebenezer Church of God in Port-au-Prince for Theophile Delva, a deacon and father of nine. Delva was shot once in the leg and twice in the chest by thugs intent on robbing him as he was leaving a religious radio station in the Martissant neighborhood where he worked.
"His death is a result of the earthquake," pastor Lochard Remy told the mourners, expressing a sentiment felt by many here.
The same week that Delva was killed, police suspect Wilson dispatched shooters from his 50-member assassin squad to kill more police officers.
DuPont's men consider Wilson one of their biggest targets. But they don't have a photograph of him -- countless records were destroyed in a fire, presumably set by inmates, during the escape from the National Penitentiary.
DuPont's officers have chased Wilson from one neighborhood in the city to another, each time coming up empty. He is believed to sleep in a different hideout every night, DuPont said.
Just then, as DuPont spoke, the radio crackled. A scratchy but loud voice came through the speaker. The officer on the other line had news to deliver: He wanted to talk "about Obama."
Special correspondent Claude Doge contributed to this report.