Guns-for-Cash Plan Runs Up Against Fear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As dozens of U.S. Army helicopters saturated the Haitian capital at dawn Tuesday with loudspeaker advertisements in Creole--"Bring your guns! No questions asked!"--the U.S. intervention force launched a guns-for-money program aimed at peacefully disarming a nation awash with illegal assault rifles, machine guns and pistols.

By noon, it was clear this would take more than a day.

After several hours in tents on a broiling runway at Port-au-Prince's U.S.-held airport, the Army's makeshift arms bazaar had purchased the following:

* Two rusted Saturday night specials, one of which could fire a bullet.

* Two battered World War II-vintage carbine rifles, both carved up and corroded.

* Two turn-of-the-century revolvers, which an Army weapons expert pronounced more dangerous to the shooter than to his intended victim.

By day's end, the tally appeared meager: ancient pistols, six decades-old rifles and several hand grenades.

But the problem was not merely the Army's offering price--roughly one-seventh the going rate on an open market fueled by uncertainty. It was also fear.

The first day at the U.S. Army's weapons-trading post, which will tour the city and the countryside in the days ahead, reflected the savage realities of life in the nation America is trying to tame.

"I've got guns at home--lots of guns--but what happens if I sell them and next week another secret police groups forms and hunts me?" shouted Gregory Lubin, a former Haitian soldier among the thousands of onlookers who gathered and gawked all day, to the U.S. Army translator assigned to crowd control.

"The problem is there is some uncertainty in the community about the future," explained Army Maj. Keith Haas, a civil-affairs specialist on the scene who had worked with a highly successful guns-for-money program in Grenada after the U.S. invasion there.

"There is some reluctance right now to give up a weapon--at any price."

So Army officers called the day's haul, which cost U.S. taxpayers about $2,000, a success by any measure. By the standard set just after dawn by Capt. Fred Dotson, the gun-buying program's chief architect, it was a resounding victory.

"One!" Capt. Dotson said firmly when asked how many weapons would make the day's work a success. "Any weapon we get off the street is one less weapon we have to deal with in other, less pleasant ways."

And, in fact, by the end of this first day there were heavier weapons gathered in the two Army tractor-trailers than the rusted 19th-Century pistols, which Army reserve Maj. Frederick Kraft, a Mill Valley resident and gun hobbyist, called "wall-hangers . . . not even collectors' items."

At least one of Haiti's dreaded paramilitary agents known as attaches --a key target of the voluntary disarmament program--did show up and quietly sell his Israeli-made Uzi submachine gun for the fixed price of $200.

In an interview later near his home, the former Haitian soldier and professional assassin, who identified himself as Alexis Michelet, explained one of the more bizarre aspects of the instability surrounding the U.S. occupation in this impoverished and violent land.

Most of the fear at the moment resides with the Haitian soldiers and paramilitary agents who sowed it in the past. "This gun made me a target," Michelet said. "The people know who I am. If I kept the gun, the people would come to my house, kill me, burn my house and take my gun. I'm safer without it."

That is precisely what happened Sunday in the northern town of Cap Haitien, where Haitian army barracks, police stations and soldiers' homes were attacked and ransacked by mobs of angry supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many members of the Haitian military fear a similar fate awaits them.

At least one U.S. soldier at the makeshift arms bazaar Tuesday concurred. And by the end of the day, Pvt. Amos Brown, a Haitian American and 14-year U.S. Army veteran at the front line of the crowd-control operation, was something of an expert on the subject.

"I'll tell you what the people say. All of them said that if the American military doesn't disarm the Haitian army and the attaches , they'll do it themselves," said Brown, a naturalized American who left Haiti in 1970.

A gentle man who has joked with and entertained the masses of Haitian onlookers since the first day U.S. forces landed, he said he wasn't surprised that so few of his former countrymen sold the Army their guns--in a nation with an estimated 100,000 licensed firearms and an untold number of illegal ones.

"The problem is, what the people really want is total disarmament," he said. "But they want the Americans to do it. And they don't want to do anything with their own guns until they see what the Americans do first.

"The reason why so many people are reluctant to turn their guns in is, of course, very simple. They're still very afraid."

Through his translation work in Haiti, Brown said he has come to understand this fear so well that "it is embarrassing to me, really, as a Haitian. These military people here, these attaches , if they see you with a woman and they like your woman, they put a gun in your face and take her. With their guns, they rob the people. If they like your necklace, they pull out a gun and rip it off your neck. This is the reality of life here."

Thus shopkeeper Dures Abraham conceded--quietly and well away from the television cameras at the arms-trading post--that it took a leap of faith for him to sell his .38-caliber revolver for $50 as one of the Army's first customers. True, the gun was made before the turn of the century. But Abraham, who said he had been robbed dozens of times before he bought the weapon on the street six months ago, said he had believed the rusty old pistol was the only thing standing between him and death.

Now, he said, it's only the American troops--a fact several U.S. officers here said they understood.

"This is a different situation than Grenada," said Haas, adding that his 10-week weapons-buying program there brought in an average of 50 to 100 weapons a week.

"In Grenada, the people weren't really conditioned to force. They wanted to get rid of the weapons really badly," he said. "Here, there's a history of force and violence, and the situation is a lot more uncertain than it was in Grenada. If I was a person in an uncertain situation, I'm not sure I'd want to turn over a weapon either."

And Haas stressed that the guns-for-money program is just one of several contingency plans the Army has prepared for disarming Haiti's population. If it fails, he and senior military officers confirmed, there are more forceful options at hand.

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