U.s. Targets Haitian President's Guards They're Guilty Of Atrocities, The U.s. Believes. Forty Armed American Agents Are At Work In The Palace
By Christopher Marquis, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU
POSTED: September 14, 1996
WASHINGTON -- In an action dramatizing the fragility of Haiti's young democracy, the Clinton administration moved swiftly and secretly yesterday to purge armed criminals from the presidential palace and shield President Rene Preval in a protective cocoon.
Convinced that members of the U.S.-trained presidential security unit were guilty of atrocities, the administration oversaw the transfer of the unit's two top leaders and helped Preval begin the potentially explosive task of removing guards suspected of murder and corruption.
About 40 armed U.S. agents from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Defense Department arrived in Port-au-Prince yesterday and went to the palace to insulate Preval from most of his guards.
Meanwhile, about 70 armed Canadian agents quietly secured the perimeter of the sprawling white palace, in a show of force aimed at quelling any thought of rebellion.
No violence was reported, and the streets of Port-au-Prince were quiet.
The purge now under way, which came at Washington's insistence, put Preval's life in grave peril, U.S. officials acknowledged.
It also is likely to prove acutely embarrassing for the Clinton administration, which has sought to portray Haiti as a foreign policy success just two months before the U.S. elections.
The United States restored democratic rule to Haiti nearly two years ago with the deployment of more than 20,000 U.S. troops.
By feeling compelled to retake the presidential palace, the administration underscored how shallow Haiti's democratic institutions remain after a lengthy occupation, and to everyone's dread, how endangered the lives of its leaders.
``This puts everything we have done at stake,'' said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Buttressed by an advance team of U.S. security agents, Preval took his first step Thursday, telling Joseph Moise, the head of the presidential security unit, and Milien Romage, his top deputy, that they were being transferred, U.S. officials said.
In coming days, Preval is expected to purge at least a dozen members of his 87-member security unit and possibly others from his 200-member palace guard.
The U.S. security team expects to remain in Haiti for at least two months as he completes the task.
U.S. officials portrayed their involvement in the episode as a response to an urgent request from Preval, and asserted that the U.S. agents would not supplant his own security team.
``It's a Haitian decision.
It remains a Haitian security force,'' said Joseph Sullivan, the State Department's special coordinator for Haiti.
``We provided some security assistance at the president's request.
The U.S. is not the dominant actor here.''
Still, danger signs had become apparent to Clinton's top advisers several weeks ago.
Early last month, U.S. intelligence learned of assassination plots against Preval and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and U.S. officials warned the leaders they were apparently targeted by disgruntled military men. Within weeks, U.S. combat troops - ostensibly in Haiti for routine training exercises - patrolled the palace vicinity in Humvees with machine gun mounts.
Then, the Aug. 20 slayings of two members of the right-wing MDN party tripped more alarms.
Preval's critics, including former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, charged there was government complicity in the murders of the Rev. Antoine Leroy and Jacques Florival.
Days later, the U.S. Embassy reached the same conclusion, and promptly fingered Preval's presidential security unit.