PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti's poorly trained and equipped police -- accused of crimes ranging from brutalizing suspects to trafficking in drugs -- is putting up little resistance as rebels move against the government.
Rebels trying to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) launched a bloody uprising two weeks ago, marking the police as prime targets. Of the more than 60 people to die so far, about 40 have been police. Meanwhile, many have fled to neighboring Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
"We do not know who we are protecting," said Cpl. Louis Larieux, 40, a rookie policeman in the capital, Port-au-Prince. "Things are bad. We don't have the reinforcements."
Although they look menacing in their black knee pads, helmets and bullet proof vests, the fear is visible on their faces when dealing with rioters.
Confronted by rebels including ex-soldiers from Haiti's disbanded army, their inclination has been to run.
Paid the equivalent of $125 a month, they number fewer than 4,000. But it's not known exactly how many remain on the job because droves have abandoned police stations in more than a dozen towns.
Last week, about a dozen rebels drove 50 officers out of Hinche (search) in the central Artibonite district, where about 1 million of Haiti's 8 million people live. This week, police began deserting outlying posts without a guerrilla in sight.
Aristide has conceded that the police may not be able to halt the rebellion. He told officers at a ceremony that he was ready to die to defend Haiti, and asked them to be courageous. But stony-faced officers did not respond.
In Cap-Haitien, the last major government bastion in the north, police officers stripped off their uniforms in the street when word spread this week that a boat approaching the harbor was filled with rebels.
The day after that false alarm, some two dozen officers barricaded themselves into their station, leaving the streets to armed Aristide thugs who terrorized the populace.
One officer admitted they did not have the men or arms to repel a rebel attack and admitted they were frightened: "Of course we are," he said. "It's a natural reaction after what happened."
Aristide asked U.S. and Caribbean officials this week for help to "professionalize" the police force.
But U.S. officials say it was Aristide who politicized the force they helped train: Civilians loyal to Aristide were appointed over professional commanders. Commissioners known to be trafficking in drugs were never punished. Officers have been encouraged to attack anti-government protesters. or stand by while Aristide militants attack them.
In August, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights said the government had created special brigades of auxiliaries who rob, rape and murder, creating a climate of fear reminiscent of dark days under military dictatorship.
The government denied the report's findings, calling it a "partisan" account.
It also has defended itself against Amnesty International's charges that police commit summary executions, make arbitrary arrests and brutalize arrested people.
A police corporal in Port-au-Prince (search) said on condition that he not be named that he was not risking his life: "The government wants us to protect Aristide, but they don't tell us why we should. We put our lives in danger, and for what? This killing is senseless."