By Gabriel Stargardter
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Thirteen years ago, a Brazilian general named Augusto Heleno led hundreds of United Nations troops into a Haitian slum to bring a powerful gangster to heel.
Over the course of a seven-hour gun battle, the peacekeepers sprayed more than 22,000 bullets into the impoverished Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cite Soleil. Their target, a warlord known as Dread Wilme, was killed.
The operation, dubbed “Iron Fist,” was the capstone of Heleno’s mission to restore order in Haiti after its president was ousted by insurgents. Heleno declared the raid a success.
But various human rights groups called it a “massacre,” alleging dozens of bystanders were killed in the crossfire, many of them women and children.
The episode, largely forgotten outside Haiti, may provide a road map for the security strategy of Brazil’s next president, far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro. He has tapped Heleno to be his top national security advisor and wants the former general and other ex-Haiti hands to tame Brazil’s favelas using methods employed in the slums of Port-au-Prince.
Brazil suffered a record 64,000 murders last year, the most in the world. Bolsonaro has promised no mercy for lawbreakers.
“We are at war. Haiti was also at war,” Bolsonaro said in a recent TV interview. “(In Haiti), the rule was, you found an element with a firearm, you shoot, and then you see what happened. You solve the problem.”
Haiti looms large in Bolsonaro’s cabinet.
His proposed defence minister, former Gen. Fernando Azevedo e Silva, served there under Heleno as an operations chief. Bolsonaro’s incoming infrastructure minister, Tarcisio Freitas, was a senior U.N. military engineer in Haiti, arriving shortly after Heleno left in 2005. Retired Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, Brazil’s next government minister, led U.N. troops in the Caribbean nation in 2007.
Neither Heleno nor Azevedo e Silva responded to requests for comment about the Cite Soleil raid.
It remains to be seen just how heavy-handed Heleno’s approach might be in Brazil, particularly in crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro state. But other crackdowns there have not produced lasting results.
Those efforts include a massive security push in some of the city’s favelas ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, and a more recent state-wide military intervention launched in February. In Rio state, violent deaths are up 1.3 percent during the first nine months of the latest occupation compared with the same period last year; the number of people killed by security forces jumped more than 40 percent, with about four people slain daily.
Rio’s current intervention is slated to finish just before Bolsonaro takes office on January 1. Neither Heleno nor Azevedo e Silva have ruled out extending it.
In recent weeks, Heleno has expressed support for a radical crime-fighting strategy promoted by Rio state’s incoming right-wing governor, Wilson Witzel. That plan would put snipers in helicopters to take out favela gangsters.
Heleno said in a recent radio interview that his rules of engagement in Haiti were similar to those proposed by Witzel, adding that key parts of the Rio military intervention “can serve as a model for the rest of the country.”
Those views alarm some members of the armed forces, who fear protracted urban warfare could sap troop morale and stoke public resentment against one of Brazil’s most respected institutions.
And some public safety experts worry Brazil’s new leaders will double down on a failed strategy.
“Rio is a laboratory which illustrates that these types of policies do not work,” said Ignacio Cano, a Rio de Janeiro State University professor who has written extensively on security issues.
Reuters interviewed more than a dozen people with knowledge of the July 6, 2005 raid, including diplomats, NGO workers, Haitian officials and Cite Soleil residents. Reuters also reviewed U.N. reports, U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, press articles and Heleno’s own words from the time. Together, they paint a detailed picture of the pressures weighing on Heleno to get tough in Haiti.
Brazil assumed military control of the U.N.‘s mission to stabilise Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, in mid-2004. Heleno, Brazil’s first MINUSTAH military commander, arrived shortly after the ouster and exile of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The general was tasked with stabilizing the country to allow for peaceful elections.
Standing in his way were powerful criminal gangs operating violent kidnapping, carjacking and extortion rackets. As months passed, the United States, in particular, expressed impatience with Heleno’s progress.
“MINUSTAH has failed to establish security and stability here,” James B. Foley, then-U.S. ambassador to Haiti, wrote in a June 1, 2005 cable to Washington. “As much as we may pressure the UN and Brazilians to take the more forceful approach that is needed, I do not believe ultimately they will be up to the task.”
Five weeks later, Heleno ordered 440 U.N. troops, supported by 41 armoured vehicles and helicopters, into Cite Soleil to detain Wilme, whom U.S. cables described as Haiti’s most powerful gangster.
Heleno’s team initially said Wilme and a few henchman had died, resulting in five or six fatalities tops, according to press accounts. But reports of civilian injuries and deaths quickly surfaced.
“We have credible information that U.N. troops, accompanied by Haitian police, killed an undetermined number of unarmed residents of Cite Soleil, including several babies and women,” Renan Hedouville, the head of a local nonprofit, Lawyers Committee for the Respect of Individual Rights, said at the time.
The then-head of Medecins Sans Frontiers’ mission in Haiti told reporters that its doctors treated 27 people with gunshot wounds, most of them women and children.
U.S. diplomats also cast doubt on MINUSTAH’s version of events. A July 26, 2005 cable said “22,000 rounds is a large amount of ammunition to have killed only six people,” and noted some local human rights groups had put the estimated death toll as high as 70.
A spokesman for Haiti’s current government did not respond to a request for comment about the raid or the Brazilian leadership of MINUSTAH troops.
But some Cite Soleil residents cannot shake the memory of that day. Street vendor Anol Pierre said she was at home when the firefight began.
“I hid under the bed with my children as the bullets flew through the walls,” she said. “We just prayed to Jesus. I remember a pregnant woman, with two kids, who died. Lots of families were victims.”
Juan Gabriel Valdes, MINUSTAH’s civilian chief in Haiti at the time, said Heleno’s soldiers were permitted by U.N peacekeeping rules to return fire after they came under attack. MINUSTAH said Cite Soleil remained so volatile that it was impossible to conduct a full investigation to ascertain the death toll.
Responding to allegations of excessive force, a U.N. Special Rapporteur asked MINUSTAH for clarification on what happened. The Rapporteur’s report found MINUSTAH’s explanation for its actions “largely satisfactory.”
Heleno expressed disdain for those who questioned his actions, according to Seth Donnelly, a human rights worker in Haiti at the time. In a written report about the assault, Donnelly said Heleno told him and his fellow activists that they “only seemed to care about the rights of the ‘outlaws.’”
Heleno’s views on public security have not softened since leaving Haiti. In 2008, while still in uniform, he publicly criticized Brazilian policies granting indigenous tribes autonomy over ancestral lands as a threat to national sovereignty.
When he retired in 2011, Heleno defended Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship as a bulwark against “the communization of the country.”
In a radio interview earlier this month, Heleno said human rights should be reserved for “righteous humans.” He said criminal gangs are transforming Brazil into a “narco country” and that aggressive measures must be employed to stop them.
“It is absurd to treat this as a normal situation,” he said. “It is an exceptional situation that requires exceptional treatment.”
(Additional reporting by Robenson Sanon and Andres Martinez Casares in Port-au-Prince, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Marla Dickerson)