Signs of disarray in the Haitian armed forces raised fears Sunday that supporters of Col. Jean-Claude Paul, the alleged drug lord who was ousted from his powerful troop command Friday, might stage a countercoup against the pro-democracy military government of Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril.
"Everyone thinks Avril has control of all of this, but he doesn't," said a foreign military analyst with close army connections. "Some very senior officers who are still on active duty are afraid they've lost control. There are too many small groups, including some from Paul's unit, who are operating independently of the chain of command."
As one sign of the command breakdown, he cited a shoot-out between opposing groups of soldiers Saturday night at the home of retired Lt. Gen. Williams Regala, ousted from his No. 2 spot in the regime of Gen. Henri Namphy when sergeants of the Presidential Guard staged the Sept. 17 coup d'etat that placed Avril in power.
A leading Haitian businessman, with close friends among Avril's officers, pointed to an episode Saturday in which three armed Haitian soldiers forced their way aboard a New York-bound airliner as another sign of fragmentation in the army. "If three of them were so frightened (of remaining here), there must be many more who are afraid for their lives," he said.
However, other sources, including a leading political figure and a Haitian with ties to the new military government, discounted the potential threat from Paul and his supporters.
They said that Paul had quietly accepted his abrupt retirement Friday night both because he was outgunned by units loyal to Avril and because Avril offered him a deal he could not refuse.
In exchange for quietly surrendering power, Paul and his family are to be protected by Avril's government from local enemies as well as from the United States, where the controversial colonel is under federal indictment for drug trafficking, the sources said in describing the deal. "He bowed to a combination of persuasion and force," said the Haitian with government ties.
But the military analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are at least 2,000 armed civilian thugs and a number of soldiers within Paul's Dessalines Barracks--long considered the toughest unit in the Haitian army--who are eager to restore the colonel to power. That position, the analyst said, includes control of lucrative smuggling operations.
He said that in February, 1986, when former dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier fled Haiti, Paul incorporated more than 2,000 Tontons Macoutes--Duvalier's outlawed secret police--into the Dessalines unit as quasi-official "attaches." Despite moves by Avril to disarm the Tontons Macoutes, the analyst said, most of them are still armed and at large.
"Those are a lot of dedicated people, believe me," he said. "This situation could really turn ugly."
Troops loyal to Avril raided two well-known Tontons Macoutes strongholds Friday and Saturday but found few weapons and only five alleged Dessalines "attaches," according to local radio and newspaper reports.
One raid was against the home of former Duvalier executioner Claude Raymond, who earlier fled with his bodyguards. By Sunday afternoon, mobs of civilians had ransacked Raymond's house, carting away many of its contents but leaving behind a trail of personal photographs and papers including bundles of canceled U.S. checks on the Banque Royale du Canada.
Despite widespread confusion over the loyalties of soldiers and armed civilian thugs, sources close to the new Avril government expressed confidence that the general--who has said he wants to put Haiti on the road to democracy--has the situation under control.
A leading political figure said Avril showed his strength when he forced a reluctant Paul to retire by confronting him with the full weight of the 1,000-member Presidential Guard and the 600-member Leopard Battalion, whose cannon-bearing armored cars and heavy weapons heavily outgunned Paul's more lightly armed Dessalines troops.
Avril has retired, dismissed or transferred more than 120 senior officers during his two weeks in power.
In addition, the politician said, Avril raised the threat of seizing Paul and putting him on a flight to the United States, where he would be arrested on drug-trafficking charges. A federal grand jury in Florida has accused Paul of using the private airstrip on his farm outside Port-au-Prince to transfer drugs shipped by the Medellin cartel of Colombia. He also has been accused of running contraband shipments into Haiti on three small cargo ships, including stolen American goods taken in payment for services to the drug cartel.
Evidence of Countercoup
The political leader said there was at least some evidence that Paul had planned a countercoup against Avril over the weekend and that Avril moved boldly to get Paul out of the way.
As a bonus for nipping Paul's possible countercoup in the bud, Avril gained credit with Washington, where Paul's continued hold on his official military position has been a major barrier to the resumption of economic aid to Haiti.
"If you want U.S. money and you're sending someone to New York and Washington looking for money, the sooner you strike against Paul the better your chances of succeeding," the politician said.