A Haitian Warlord Meets His Match: Hurricane Matthew

Haiti — Guy Philippe is among the most feared men in Haiti, a nation with a rich history of men worthy of fear.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration wants him for narcotics trafficking; the Haitian government for killing police officers. He led an armed rebellion that ousted a president and has survived, by his count, seven attempts on his life. From his redoubt on the rocky shoreline of southwest Haiti, he has evaded capture for nearly a decade.

Now, Hurricane Matthew has done what neither government nor armed forces have managed to accomplish: bring the outlaw commander to his knees.

“I don’t like to beg, but this time I have to,” Mr. Philippe said, touring the devastation wrought on his hometown, Pestel, an area of some 80,000 people ensconced in a natural fortress of rugged mountains. “It’s the first time in my life I feel I can do nothing for my people. They are starving.”

Like much of the country’s southern peninsula, Mr. Philippe’s hometown is writhing beneath the weight of disaster. Hardly a home is free of damage on the hourslong ride into town, nor a tree unflayed by the wind. The hurricane raked nearly every farm folded in the curtained mountains under his control, robbing 80 percent of the population of its main food source.

Hundreds of people walked hours to Pestel to receive food aid distributed by Mr. Philippe. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Hundreds of people walked hours to Pestel to receive food aid distributed by Mr. Philippe. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Villagers walk for hours to the nearest town in search of basic staples. Prices have risen sharply, emptying the pockets of those who can least afford it, forcing some into banditry to tend to their needs.

“How can we live like this?” said Mr. Philippe, who looks at least a decade younger than his 48 years. “We cannot have a country like this, where 80 percent of the people are living in poverty.”

While aid has already reached many areas in southern Haiti, especially the big cities, the remote corners have found little support from the convoys of trucks laden with food and medicine that groan up and down the highway.

This, experts say, is how it often goes at first with recovery efforts.

But Mr. Philippe has another theory for why his town has been excluded from government and international aid, despite its being the second-largest population center in the Grand Anse department. “They are punishing the people because of me,” he said in perfect English, one of four languages he speaks.

But hunger, he said, should be beyond politics. If it would make a difference, if it would make the aid groups and others feel safer, he said, he would leave the area. “If it will help, I will go to jail so that people can eat here,” he said. “Or I will leave for however long it takes.”

“Just bring food here,” he said.

Mr. Philippe’s animosity toward the current interim government is well known. In 2004, he helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office. Today, Mr. Aristide’s former interior minister, Jocelerme Privert, who was bested by Mr. Philippe’s forces, is the interim president.

In a nation as small as Haiti, the circle of power is intimate. Mr. Philippe, who was once a top police official, has been enemies or allies with most in power. “Most of them fought like they wanted to live a thousand years,” he said.

Given his reputation, and his scores of armed supporters, Mr. Philippe could easily take the aid that is passing through Grand Anse. But he knows this will only further isolate him from the legitimacy he craves.

“They would call the local radio 10 minutes later to denounce Guy Philippe as a bandit,” he said. “And in the end, it would be worse for my people.”

And besides, he has a political campaign to consider. Mr. Philippe is running for a national Senate seat, an election that has been delayed for more than a year now as the country’s political discord sows unrest.

He said he was confident of victory, given his popularity in the department. “Even if I die, I will win,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Mr. Philippe was born in Pestel to a family with political connections that ran all the way to the president at the time, Jean-Claude Duvalier. He attended the best schools in Haiti before heading abroad, to Mexico and Ecuador, to study.

His education placed him in the upper ranks of the nation’s police, before he was forced to flee the country by fighters loyal to Mr. Aristide, who claimed he was plotting a coup. He came back to the country in 2003 to lead his rebellion.

But after helping depose Mr. Aristide, he found no peace. Dogged by accusations of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings while a police commander, he settled with his family in Les Cayes. Then, in 2007, the authorities tried to arrest him; he narrowly escaped.

Afterward, he returned home to Pestel for safety. Entry and exit from the town is impossible without detection by forces loyal to him.

Today, he is the indisputable power in the town, and more broadly Grand Anse, where residents race from their homes to greet him and call him “senator” or “commander.”

Mr. Philippe, whose face is almost always angled in a smile, has a tendency to turn most things into a joke. He laughs at the totality of the disaster in Pestel because, he reasons, there is already too much sadness.

He pointed across a basin in the center of town, a wasteland of leveled homes and trees freakishly shorn of their limbs. On the opposite end was the church, its walls crumbled and roof peeled back like the lid of a can.

“Where was God when this happened?” he asked. “Maybe he was sleeping.”

Homes and trees and the contents of lives upended all vie for space on the street. With nowhere to throw things away, much is burned, and the air is filled with a dense and acrid smoke. The town is rinsed in red from the rich clay soil kicked up by the storm.

Up the mountain, it is worse, he said, his frustration building into a campaign talking point. “How is it possible that 5 percent of the population holds 95 percent of the wealth?” he asked.

Such statements tend to raise fears of a potential comeback for the warlord, one grounded in a populist message of equality. For now, though, he says he is more focused on the hunger.

Through a connection, he managed to get one shipment of aid from Food for the Poor, an aid group. On Sunday, he set up a team to distribute the goods: a few hundred bags of rice and beans, milk, water and cornflakes.

More than a thousand people were already lined up by 6 a.m. Sunday, jockeying for position as dozens of young men dressed in nurses’ scrubs orchestrated the distribution.

“I hire the tough guys in the community to do this,” said Mr. Philippe, watching from the crowd. “They do a good job, and no one messes with them.”

And how does he manage to make the toughest youngsters in the city volunteer for him? Mr. Philippe smiled and brought a fist down on his hand with a smack.

“They know,” he laughed.

Still, it was not long before the crowd grew unruly, their hunger gnawing at even the most established order. People began to approach Mr. Philippe, begging for help.

Back at his hotel, a line of seven bedraggled villagers turned up seeking food. They had left by sailboat at midnight, paddling for 10 hours on a windless sea, from the village of Corail.

Mr. Philippe asked them how much bags of rice cost, then fished 500 Haitian dollars from his pocket — enough for three large bags.

“Tell the people I am doing my best to help,” he told them.

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