The community of Passe-bois-d’orme is a rural, farming community made up mostly of families who live along the single dirt road that follows the southern coast of the island of Haiti. There is no gas station. There is no supermarket. Most people in this town live on what amounts to a few US dollars each day. The town hasn’t changed much in the 19 years I’ve lived here. All of Haiti suffers from a constant absence of functioning government. The sad state of this country’s government means that communities like this one are pretty much on their own. There’s not a police station here. No hospital. There’s no post office. Along the 44 kilometers of dirt road that stretches through fifteen or so communities along the coast, there is one public school. Families live in two or three-room houses the size of your basement. They eat one or maybe two meals a day - - cooked with charcoal. They use a kerosene lamp to light the house at night. And they carry water to their houses in plastic buckets. Many of them have never owned any personal item more expensive than a horse. Not long ago I knew a sixteen year-old boy who carried all his worldly possessions in a book-bag.
Into this poor community came hundreds of thousands of dollars. It happened in June of this year. Haiti lies between Columbia and Miami and is a drug traffic highway. Planes carry cocaine from Columbia into Haiti where dealers receive the illegal substance by the bale and then smuggle it into the USA. In June, people from this community managed to lure a drug plane down toward a tiny landing strip. At the last moment, the Columbian pilots recognized it to be a trap and tried to pull up. The plane hit trees and crashed. The pilots didn’t survive (at least not after the local people showed up to the crash site with machetes).
Young men of this community scavenged the plane. It’s hard to tell how much cocaine was actually onboard, but it was enough to be divided among the fifty or sixty young men who showed up. Each of them came away with at least a kilogram or two of cocaine to be sold. Some of the major players came away with as many kilos as they could manage to pile onto a motorcycle. In a matter of days the cocaine was sold to dealers who will buy cocaine no questions asked. A portion of our community was instantly incredibly wealthy.
The politics of the days immediately following the heist were fascinating. Friendships vanished as people stole from each other. Families ended up divided according to who was not willing to share with whom. Young men couldn’t figure out who to trust and who not to trust. People walked the streets visibly angry so that no one would approach them asking to ‘get in on’ their part of the action. People who had left this poor community never looking back suddenly looked back and came to town seeking a chance to get in on the deals going down.
A few weeks after the incident, I passed through the intersection closest to the crash site. What struck my eye was the amount of trash. People went on a spending spree buying bottled drinks and food in Styrofoam boxes. There was no collection plan for the huge increase in refuse, so the intersection looked like a garbage pit.
Local vendors took advantage of the new-found wealth and began stocking all kinds of items. Business was great, at least for a while. Now three months later, spending has died down to some degree. But this small town is now home to enough motorcycles to carry a marching band. Seventeen years ago every head turned if a motorcycle went by. Now you need to look both ways before crossing the little dirt road. And the drivers fly at high speed as if they’re angry. Unsurprisingly, accidents become an almost daily occurrence in the weeks after the event. One child was hospitalized. One lady’s leg was broken. Several young men suffered injuries. No deaths…as of yet.
One of the things that young rich men chose to purchase was handguns. This community never had to deal with that before now. A man was shot in the shoulder after a discussion about payment for repairing a motorcycle.
A month after the drug event, a man cut off the head of his estranged wife with a machete. It happened in broad daylight in the middle of this community. But what happened after that was perhaps more telling as to where this community is now headed. Young men began showing up visibly angry and talking about how an act like that can’t happen without vengeance. The man was tied up in the yard where he committed the crime. The same group of young men that lured the Columbian plane and effectively killed the two pilots was now ranting that this crime warranted death. A single car full of police officers and a judge showed up in town about 8 hours after the crime. They asked a few questions and the crowd proceeded to take the man from them and drag him down the road where they burned him to death and buried him. Haiti has a reputation for killing thieves and political enemies this same way, but it had never happened in this community…never before. And what was disturbing was the fact that the same men who had killed the foreigners where the ones pushing for another death…and in the name of justice. The thirst for money was not satisfied even by hundreds of thousands of dollars. That thirst is turning instead into a thirst for power. These armed men are suddenly leaders in the community without ever receiving a vote from anyone. They killed a man for killing his wife. What if they catch a man stealing? Or lying? Or disagreeing with them?
This poor rural community is beginning to feel more like an inner-city situation. Dress has gone from conservative and humble to near exhibitionism. Language has deteriorated. Respect for authorities has diminished. Young folks and children sit around staring at cellular phones playing video images that would have never been seen here a few years ago. The local schools show a noticeable decrease in student performance.
A boy was caught stealing money from a neighbor…$1000 Haitian from a dresser. People were shocked that one so young would think of and commit such a crime. But all people have talked about the last three months here was the way the town got rich and the plans they’re making to do it again. Why would they be shocked that a boy imitated them?
Our town jumped from poverty to wealth. A few of the men have used the money to build a house for themselves and their families. And probably a few have saved the money somewhere. But we’ve been down this road before. A majority of the cash that came into this poor, underdeveloped, hungry town will be wasted on pleasure. It will disappear almost as quickly as it appeared. There will be no hospital built. There will be no development projects undertaken. In nine months there will be an outburst of new babies being born, and they’ll be born to folks not interested in being parents. And two years from now, the rich will be poor…again.