PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—At 3:57 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, the clatter of gunfire broke the quiet of a middle-class neighborhood in Petionville, the upscale residential niche overlooking the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Within moments, word spread that the famous, swashbuckling, elusive rebel Guy Philippe, wanted in the U.S. on drug charges, had been arrested by the BLTS, Haiti’s recently formed Drug Trafficking Surveillance Squad.
Philippe wasn’t in hiding. He was at the radio station Scoop FM being interviewed on a live talk show about his future role as senator from Haiti’s southern department of Grande Anse.
A YouTube video of the arrest inside the studio shows Philippe having jovial exchanges with the anti-drug-squad members, giving them the high-five and hugging a few. The whole scene was more like a post-New Year’s reunion…
Guy Philippe had come out of the tropical woodwork again.
A U.S.-trained military officer, Philippe had served in Haiti’s Armed Forces (FADH) until it was disbanded by President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1995. He went on to become police commissioner of Port-au-Prince, but his frothing hatred of Aristide got the better of him and soon he was plotting to overthrow the little radical priest-turned president.
Philippe first went into hiding in the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s, escaping arrest for plotting a coup in Haiti and a sealed U.S. indictment for cocaine trafficking and money laundering.
In February 2004, then-President Jean Bertrand Aristide was facing increasing local and international pressure to resign, which he was refusing to accept. Phillipe sneaked back across the border, formed a rebel army in the north, and held a press conference at the Hotel Mont-Joli in Cap Haitian on Feb. 24, 2004, declaring his intent to overthrow Aristide.
It was his first appearance and word spread quickly to the capital Port-au-Prince. In Haiti, rumors are the news, taking on apocalyptic, if not messianic, overtones. Guy Phillippe became an overnight celebrity—and heartthrob—his beaming smile and allure could have landed him the cover of MEN.
Five days later, in the early hours of Sunday, Feb. 29, 2004, Aristide was forced onto an unmarked plane headed first to Jamaica, then to South Africa for a second exile. Ironically, it was Guy Philippe’s 36th birthday.
Philippe’s motley caravan of pickup trucks and SUVs, packed with heavily armed Haitian militiamen coiffed with oversized salad-bowl looking helmets, plus Rambo-styled foreign mercenaries, careened toward Port-au-Prince, but not in time to see Aristide leave.
On the morning of March 1, we journalists who were there watched the “road-warrior” convoy enter Port-au-Prince, arriving at full speed at the old Military Headquarters near the Presidential Palace.
There, after pacing around the 18th century colonial edifice before a crowd of bewildered Haitians and the international press, Philippe declared himself in charge, ordered everyone back into the vehicles and within minutes the caravan had left everyone in the dust in a Hollywoodesque exit, brandishing weapons and burning rubber as it screeched full steam uptown, to Petionville, home to foreign embassies and Haiti’s elite.
We scrambled into our vehicles and chased the convoy up the hill, effectively turning Philippe’s caravan into a full-fledged cortege. Word spread that he was going to hold a press conference at El Rancho Hotel, the flamboyant, extravagantly luxurious home to Haiti’s most notorious underworld. Its infamous casino had been the “quartier général” of former gun-packing Duvalierist military henchmen plotting under the dim-lit roulette and poker tables to get Aristide.
At El Rancho, the scene was straight out of Graham Greene. Unbeknownst to everyone—ourselves included—in a wing overlooking the grandiose figure-eight-shaped pool, U.S. Ambassador James Foley sat in a suite. He was waiting to meet with Guy Philippe and propose he consider running for president. It was to be a secret meeting. And as things go in Haiti, ultimately nothing was unknown.
Rumors were at an all time high, when suddenly Philippe’s run-amok caravan swerved into the parking lot of the hotel. His Haitian militiamen scrambled out, following Philippe, who led them to the pool and its adjoining bar. Within minutes, his men emerged, barely balancing automatic rifles with styrofoam boxes of hamburgers and glasses of whisky.
We watched Philippe lead the charge, his men in tow, clinging to their rifles, hamburgers and whiskies as they broke into frenzied non-stop single-file marathon dancing around the pool.
The U.S. ambassador left. Philippe never held a press conference.
As the sun set, all of Philippe’s men lay drunk by the pool. Philippe, for his part, sat on a couch, glassy-eyed staring at the floor, while a Haitian man named Amos, claiming to be the unique go-between tried to sell us interviews with the incoherent man of the hour.
Days later, another meeting was arranged at the Ibo Lele, a fancy hotel higher up in the mountains. Philippe sat in a very sparse small hotel room where he waited for hours to meet with The Ambassador. Occasionally we could see Philippe pacing up and down the hallway followed by dubious-looking acolytes who had no clue as to the importance of the event.
When questioned about Philippe’s reason for being at the Ibo Lele, they told us it was his headquarters. Not quite. Though we were not allowed to witness it, the meeting eventually took place, a very brief encounter. The anticipated thank you for helping overthrow Aristide had turned into a curt handshake (according to the inevitable flies on the wall, eager to flap “inner-circle” wings before the assembled crowd that now lined the staircases and the beleaguered front desk), while Philippe paced back and forth, out of sight. In the end, the message was that Guy Philippe had the blessing of the United States.
Soon, violence between pro-Aristide supporters and Philippe’s heavily armed rebels convulsed the capital into days and weeks of violence, persecutions and assassinations. The U.S. finally had to call in the Marines and tell Philippe to get lost. Which he did, but not before staging a lavish banquet at The Montana Hotel, surrounded by Haiti’s top models.
Philippe eventually slid into the tropical foliage again, the U.S. having turned its heels on its would-be presidential candidate and resurrected the old sealed indictment to get rid of a flamboyant liability to American policy. But Philippe was out of reach.
He had settled on the Southern peninsula, and from there he appeared an imperious warlord à la Haitien as he played commander to the ragtag army of former FADH soldiers … and eventually ran a political campaign while still on Washington’s wanted list.
Last December, he successfully weathered two rounds of vote counts to earn the seat of senator for the largest department in Haiti’s south, the Grande Anse. His headquarters was his hometown Pestel, an inaccessible fishing village on the northern coast of the peninsula where locals say he commands a large rebel army, heavily armed. No one went to find him there. Clearly.
Philippe had been slated to take office for a six-year term this month, giving him legal immunity from criminal proceedings. He was also a supporter of incoming President Jovenel Moise, whom the international community has endorsed. So the sweep on Radio Scoop seemed farcical at best, as the YouTube video showed. Did the DEA just wake up after New Year’s and realize they had to scramble if they really wanted to get Philippe? (The Haitian Constitution stipulates that immunity takes effect only after an official is sworn-in.)
A photo released by the Haitian National Police showed a very exasperated Guy Philippe, a little older and heavier, inside a police station, sitting behind a well-polished mahogany table, a few armed guards standing much to the side.
He looked confident, as ever.
But the latest word on Friday night was that he’d been quickly, quietly, definitively extradited to the United States.
Has Haiti seen the last of Guy Philippe? Could be. But few in Port-au-Prince would count on that.