Tonton Macoutes in Haiti, an Evil Legacy of the Duvalier Dynasty

Tonton Macoutes, a militia force put together in 1959 by President François Duvalier, translated, means Uncle Gunnysack, referring to a bogeyman that captures children in a gunnysack and eats them for breakfast. Duvalier created the militia, because he felt threatened by the Haitian army. When his political foes attempted to oust him, Duvalier broke up the army and scattered the police. He then had all the Military High Command generals assassinated.


Tonton Macoutes wore a uniform of straw hats, blue denim shirts, and sunglasses, and were armed with machetes. It's a chilling image, because--if not for the machetes-- one would think they were heading to a picnic or barbeque, which renders them all the more sinister-looking, an appearance that is the personification of pure evil.

Duvalier used the Tonton Macoutes as an instrument to strike terror into the hearts of anyone, who advocated a progressive agenda. Those who openly opposed Duvalier disappeared at night, never to be seen again. They frequently stoned people and lit them on fire, showing off their corpses to all, a grim reminder of the fate that awaited should they commit the smallest perceived infraction against the Duvalier regime.

Luckner Cambronne was one of the dreaded figures of the militia, head of the death squad in the 60s and early 70s. He made money, and lots of it, by sending corpses to U.S. medical universities, which earned him the apt title "Vampire of the Caribbean". Many of the prominent Tonton Macoutes practiced voodoo, a ritualistic religion, which imbued them with magical powers as viewed by the Haitians. And the militia used this leverage to make a connection between their perceived otherworldly power and Duvalier. The militia preyed upon people, who supported Duvalier's political opponents, or declined to contribute money for a government project, which provided graft for dishonest officials, certainly supporters of the Duvalier regime.

During their reign of terror, the group slaughtered more than 600,000 Haitians.

The group thrived during the years Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, ruled, until he was forced into exile in 1986. Massacres continued unabated, though, through other militia groups, an outgrowth of Tonton Macoutes. The most dreaded of them, FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti), ruled the land with their bloodshed, in the 1990s.

As Tonton Macoutes continued to butcher thousands of Haitians, the U.S. practiced a form of isolationism, preferring not to interfere in the army's unbridled barbarism. Washington's political agenda regarding Haiti's struggle for democracy valued Duvalier's seeming contribution as an abolisher of Communism in the Caribbean, over the rights of the Haitian people, who sought a democratic form of government and a leader, who respected democratic principles. Even more alarming, a U.S. business man, who'd profited during the Duvalier rule by starting a car dealership in Port-au-Prince, insisted the U.S. Marine Corps trained the Tonton Macoutes, with the tacit approval of some of the highest office holders in American government.

Since the fading of the militia, the Human Rights Watch said in a report on Haiti, in 2004, "The United States . . . showed little enthusiasm for the prosecution of past abuses . . . it impeded accountability . . . removing to the U.S. thousands of documents, from military and paramilitary headquarters, allowing notorious abusers to flee Haiti, and repeatedly giving safe haven to paramilitary leaders."

The black cloud of Tonton Macoutes, FRAPH, and other Haitian death squads still loom over Haitian-U.S. foreign relations. Activists called out the Obama administration in 2010, for ignoring criminal abuses carried out against pro-Aristide loyalists during the 2010 Haiti elections. These abuses were instigated by Guy Philippe, an ex-militia leader and convicted drug trafficker and money-launderer.

It's a well-established fact that militia violence is the norm in Haiti, no matter who is heading the government. New elements that are fueling the splinter groups of the militia and FRAPH include all manner of social ills, among them, drug-trafficking, endemic poverty, and the selfish desires of the rich. Tonton Macoutes and their descendents are organizations designed to exploit the most vulnerable among the Haitian population: the poor, the unschooled, and the activists, who are Davids trying to slay Goliath. Their aim is true, but the odds are stacked against them.

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