A Tonton Macoute was a member of the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by dictator François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier. In 1970, the militia was officially renamed the Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (Militia of National Security Volunteers or MVSN, probably taking name from the homonymous Italian Fascist paramilitary organization). Haitians named this force after the Haitian Creole mythological Tonton Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack) bogeyman who kidnaps and punishes unruly children by snaring them in a gunnysack (macoute) and carrying them off to be consumed at breakfast.
Reign of terror
The force was created in 1959, only two years after François Duvalier became president, due to the threat the dictator perceived from the regular armed forces. After an attempted coup d'état against him in 1958, Duvalier disbanded the army and all law enforcement agencies in Haiti, and executed all high-ranking generals.
Duvalier authorized the Tontons Macoutes to commit systematic violence and human rights abuses toward his ends; they were responsible for unknown numbers of murders and rapes in Haiti. Duvalier employed the Tonton Macoute in a reign of terror against any opponents, including those who proposed progressive social systems. Those who spoke out against Duvalier would disappear at night, or were sometimes attacked in broad daylight. Tontons Macoutes often stoned and burned people alive. Many times the corpses were put on display, often hung in trees for everyone to see. Family members who tried to remove the bodies for proper burial often disappeared themselves, never to be seen again. They were believed to have been abducted and killed by the MVSN, who were called the "Tontons Macoutes" as a result. Anyone who challenged the MVSN risked assassination. Their unrestrained state terrorism was accompanied by corruption, extortion and personal aggrandizement among the leadership. The victims of Tontons Macoutes could range from a woman in the poorest of neighborhoods who had previously supported an opposing politician to a businessman who refused to “donate” money for public works (which were the source of profit for corrupt officials and even the dictator himself). Tontons Macoutes murdered more than 60,000 Haitians..
Luckner Cambronne was a particularly fierce head of the Tonton Macoute throughout the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. His cruelty earned him the nickname “Vampire of the Caribbean”. He profited by extortion carried out by his henchmen and by supplying corpses and blood to universities and hospitals in the United States. After Duvalier's death, he was ordered into exile by Duvalier's widow Simone, and son, Baby Doc Duvalier. Cambronne left Haiti in 1971 for Miami, Florida, where he died on 20 September 2006 at 77.
Some of the most important members of the Tonton Macoute were vodou leaders and this religious affiliation gave the Macoutes a sense of unearthly authority in the eyes of the public. From their methods to their choice of clothes, vodou always played an important role in their actions. The Tontons Macoutes wore straw hats, blue denim shirts and dark glasses, and were armed with machetes and guns. Both their allusions to the supernatural and their physical presentations were a tool to instill fear.
The Tontons Macoutes were an ubiquitous presence in a rigged 1961 election in which Duvalier was unanimously reelected to another term, and once again in 1964 when Duvalier held a rigged referendum that declared him President for Life..
The Tontons Macoutes remained active even after the presidency of Papa Doc Duvalier's son Baby Doc Duvalier ended in 1986. Massacres led by paramilitary groups spawned from the Macoutes continued during the following decade. The most feared paramilitary group during the 1990s was the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haïti (FRAPH) which Toronto Star journalist Linda Diebel described as modern Tonton Macoutes and not as the political party they claimed to be.
- L'Homme sur les quais (1992), athen film by Raoul Peck that mentions the Tonton Macoute
- Secret police
- Police state
- The Serpent and the Rainbow, film which mentions them
- The Comedians (1966), a book by Graham Greene which outlines the struggle of a former hotel owner against the Tonton Macoute; made into a film of the same name, with Elizabeth Taylor, in 1967.
- The Dew Breaker a 2004 novel by Edwidge Danticat which features the Tonton Macoute as major parts of the plot.
- Heaven's Prisoners a 1988 novel by James Lee Burke which mentions them.
- Justified (TV series) (2014, Season 5 premiere) compares a Haitian character in Florida to the Tonton Macoute.
- [Robert Plant refers to the "Ton Ton Macoute" in his song, Heaven Knows from his 1988 disc Now and Zen.]
- The Tonton Macoutes: The Central Nervous System of Haiti’s Reign of Terror. Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)
- Filan 2010, p. 21.
- Sprague, Jeb. Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti. NYU Press. p. 314. ISBN 978-1-58367-303-4. Retrieved 28 February 2013.
- "Luckner Cambronne", Obituary, Miami Herald
- Andrew R. Murphy (10 March 2011). The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence. John Wiley & Sons. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-4443-9572-3. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- Gretchen Elizabeth Kellough (2008). Tisseroman: The Weaving of Female Selfhood Within Feminine Communities in Postcolonial Novels. ProQuest. p. 202. ISBN 978-0-549-50778-9. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- Filan, Kenaz (2010). The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. ISBN 978-1-59477-995-4. Retrieved 28 February 2013.