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  • Hugh Locke

Firsthand Gangland Encounter in Haiti

“Ayiti Mêlée 2021” by Haitian artist (and my good friend) Thony Loui.

With gangs in near total control of Port-au-Prince and the country in a state of emergency, I am reminded of my first encounter with a gang leader there in 2005. This was long before my current work with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, and the Yéle Haiti organization referred to closed its doors more than a decade ago, but the experience has stayed with me and is recounted in the following preface to my 2012 book The Haiti Experiment.


HAITI, 2005. Bright morning sunlight glinted harshly off the rolls of barbed wire topping the barricades on either side of the road as we entered the notorious slum of Cité Soleil, deep in the heart of Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince.


Suspicious, youthful eyes peered at us above bandana masks, the wearers’ bravado pumped up by the guns they casually, but deliberately, brandished. They had been instructed to let the four men in our red car enter without shooting at us. Happily, all seemed to have got the message. Inside the car with me were three of my Haitian employees, who went by the names of Riro, Jimmy O, and Beaudy. We were all nervous but quiet as we passed through the barricades and followed a masked man on a motorcycle who was to guide us to our destination.


We were on our way to meet Amaral Duclona, the infamous gang leader, known throughout the country by his first name—the most wanted man in Haiti. His bloody reign of terror had kept the police and UN peacekeepers out of Cité Soleil and rival gangs at bay. I was meeting with him to negotiate terms for allowing Yéle Haiti—the organization I had co-founded earlier that year with musicians Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis—to continue bringing in free rice for the local residents who were suffering for lack of food.


We reached Amaral’s compound and were escorted into a courtyard. As we entered, about a dozen teenagers toting machine guns were chatting or leaning against the courtyard walls. One of them informed us that Amaral would come out shortly. With dark clothes, sunglasses and wool caps they were clearly intending to look tough, an image not quite matching their youthful appearance.


My long training in protocol, honed over many years by contact with various royal families and a considerable number of heads of state, suppressed any fear that might reasonably have guided my actions. Without thinking, I immediately went around the courtyard and shook hands with each gang member, being sure to make eye contact in the process. My Yéle colleagues chose not to follow my lead and looked on in stunned silence. An interesting detail: holding a machine gun requires both hands, something I quickly realized when each of the gang members had to set down his gun in order to respond to my gesture. A small but useful addition to my protocol experience.


Amaral emerged and greeted me and my colleagues. He was just under six feet tall, rather pudgy, with very dark, pock-marked skin, short hair, and a neatly trimmed beard. I have to admit that I was intrigued to meet someone who was, by action and reputation, the very incarnation of pure evil, who held sway over so many thousands of people. Physically, he did not look the part, but when he began to speak, he exuded both power and charisma.


The meeting with Amaral had been set up from New York by Wyclef Jean, Yéle’s co-founder, and one of the few people at that time with the moral authority to reach out to those on all sides of the conflict that had paralyzed Haiti. I knew that Wyclef had spoken by phone in advance with Amaral, but the latter was clearly surprised when we met. It had been arranged that I would call Wyclef on my cell phone. The connection went through and I handed the phone to Amaral. I only learned later that Wyclef had neglected to tell Amaral in advance that I was white. So his first thought on meeting me was that I could not possibly be representing Wyclef, and might even be part of a plot by the UN to capture him. Thankfully, Wyclef was able to convince him that I was, indeed, his trusted representative. I shudder to think what might have happened if cell phone reception had been bad at that moment.


NOTE: The above extract is from my book The Haiti Experiment, but the published work includes the following subtitle which has become the motto that still inspires me to this day:  


“Amid the wreckage of a country once rich beyond measure, a chance to rebuild.”

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