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Rural Section Chiefs

Understanding the role of the rural section chiefs is critical to fully appreciating the power of the FADH in rural Haiti. The struggle over control of rural areas appeared to play an important role in the ouster of President Aristide. The Aristide government ordered the elimination of the section chief system, which was under military control, and its replacement by a rural police accountable to the Ministry of Interior. Following the coup, this reform was quickly reversed. As a result, for the approximately seventy-five percent of the Haitian population who live in rural areas, the section chief was the government.

According to official FADH regulations, section chiefs had a duty to protect people and property, guard fields and farm animals and maintain order and public peace in their communities. When acting in a police function, they were required to take any person arrested to the nearest army post within 24-hours of arrest and file a detailed report, and they must also have a warrant from the proper judicial authorities for those persons they arrest, unless it is a case of "hot pursuit." Section chiefs are prohibited from the following activities: acting as a judge or imposing or receiving fines, imposing entry or exit taxes on peasants taking farm animals through their jurisdiction, forcing residents to pay for their freedom or rights, accepting bribes, and mistreating residents of the section.

In practice, section chiefs had unlimited authority over the residents in their communities. The section chief often served as de facto executive, legislature, and judiciary for his section. Section chiefs occupy the lowest official rung of the historic power structure in Haiti and consequently are the most visible -- and notorious -- instruments of repression and violence against the rural population.

This lack of accountability to the rule of law largely resulted from the manner in which the section chiefs are selected. Section chiefs appointments were normally given to friends and associates of the military commanders. Such patronage extended to the staff of the section chiefs as well. Section chiefs commonly obtained their positions by bribing the military commanders who appoint them, recouping their `investment' in turn by accepting money from numerous `deputies' who extort money from the peasant population.

Though the law restricted each section chief to two assistants (generally called attachs or dputs), the limitation was regularly ignored. In fact, each section in rural Haiti contained a private militia under the control of the local chief. These rural militia had no legally recognized status, but their hierarchy rivals that of the FADH. Each section chief generally appoints at least one, and up to five, secretary-marchals, who served as first deputies. They supervise the approximately 30 "adjoints" who in turn directed an average of 50 "police." The "Souket-Larouz" served at the bottom rank of the rural militia. Up to one hundred Souket-Larouz may serve in each section.

Superficially, the activities of the rural section chiefs appeared to be just another manifestation of the corruption and greed that is rampant in Haiti. Yet it would be incomplete to understand the section chief system as simply a vehicle for corruption and extortion. Although the spoils are clearly financial, the motives behind who is targeted are just as clearly political. The corruption is systematic and institutionalized and is used as an instrument of repression and punishment. Labelling it "continual extortion," the UN Special Rapporteur concluded that "[t]he situation has reached the point where these people [rural and urban poor] must pay the security forces in order to avoid persecution or ill-treatment or, in the case of arbitrary detentions, to make their imprisonment more bearable or simply to obtain their release."

Section chiefs are appointed in exchange for payments or promises of sharing in the money and goods which they will receive from the peasants in their jurisdictions. The section chiefs, in turn, extract similar payments or promises from the members of their rural militia. The unrestrained power of the section chiefs as agents of the State combined with their need to make money creates a system that runs on extortion and corruption. As the UN Special Rapporteur noted in his February 1993 report, a common form of repression is the extortion of money from peasants to avoid arrest or torture, to improve prison conditions (such as being allowed to receive food or medicine or visits by family members), or to obtain release from detention.

The identities of the victims of this corruption and extortion are clear. Those who act in opposition to the military, or in ways that can be viewed as threatening to its continued control, are most vulnerable. Since the September 1991 coup, all those engaged in the development of Haiti's civil society have been placed at risk. They have no connection to the military and have no link to the existing institutions of power. They are not friends or family of soldiers or members of the illegal rural militia.

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