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A Tonton Macoute was a special operations unit within 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, perhaps named after 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
After an attempted coup d'état against President François Duvalier in 1958, he disbanded the army and all law enforcement agencies in Haiti, executing numerous officers. He created a paramilitary force in 1959, Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (Militia of National Security Volunteers or MVSN), two years after he became president, that answered only to him. He perceived a threat to his regime from the regular armed forces.
Duvalier authorized the Tontons Macoutes to commit systematic violence and human rights abuses to suppress political opposition. They were responsible for unknown numbers of murders and rapes in Haiti. Political opponents often disappeared overnight, or were sometimes attacked in broad daylight. Tontons Macoutes stoned and burned people alive. Many times they put the corpses of their victims on display, often hung in trees for everyone to see and take as warnings against opposition. 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). Analysts estimate the Tontons Macoutes murdered more than 60,000 Haitians.
Luckner Cambronne led the Tonton Macoute throughout the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. His cruelty earned him the nickname as “Vampire of the Caribbean”. He profited by extortion carried out by his henchmen. After Duvalier's death, Cambronne was ordered into exile by Duvalier's widow Simone, and son, Baby Doc Duvalier. Cambronne left Haiti in 1971 for Miami, Florida, USA where he died on 20 September 2006 aged 77.
Some of the most important members of the Tonton Macoute were vodou leaders. This religious affiliation gave the Macoutes a kind 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 tools to instill fear.
The Tontons Macoutes were a ubiquitous presence at the polls in a rigged 1961 election, in which Duvalier was unanimously reelected to another term. They appeared in force again at polls 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 Tontons Macoutes and not as a legitimate political party, as they claimed to be.
Representation in other media
- The Comedians (1966), a book by Graham Greene which outlines the struggle of a former hotel owner against the Tonton Macoute.
- The Comedians (1967), adaptation of the book as a feature film, starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness.
- The Dew Breaker (2004) is a novel by Edwidge Danticat that features the Tonton Macoute as important in the plot.
- 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.