Mass Atrocity Monday, 3/17/2014

In Haiti, generations of children have been warned to be good or else Tonton Macoute (“Uncle Gunnysack”) will come along and pop them in his sack to eat for breakfast. In 1959, the fable suddenly took on real-world significance. That was the year that president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, nervous about the possibility of a coup attempt, disbanded the entire Haitian security sector and created his own personal police force.

Papa Doc used his secret police to terrorize the Haitian population into submission. Anyone suspected of opposing the regime might be tortured, killed, or abducted and never heard from again. The rash of disappearances quickly earned the organization the nickname “Tontons Macoutes”.


The Tontons Macoutes are suspected of brutally murdering tens of thousands of Haitians. The inclusion of voodoo practitioners in their ranks lent their bloodthirstiness a supernatural quality. Ghoulishness like their leader Luckner Cambronne’s brisk blood and cadaver export trade added to the horror.

Papa Doc Duvalier died in 1971, but the reign of the Tontons Macoutes continued under his son and successor, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Baby Doc’s rule, like his father’s, was characterized by widespread and systematic torture and disappearances. Political prisoners were incarcerated, and frequently extrajudicially executed, in a notorious network of prisons known as “the triangle of death”.

Unrest over rising food prices forced Baby Doc to resign in 1986 and flee into French exile. In 2011, he returned to Haiti, where he was immediately slapped with corruption charges for his apparent embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars while in power. Victims of his human rights abuses seized the opportunity to file complaints for violations of international law. After extensive legal back-and-forth, these cases may finally be allowed to go forward. Last month, an appeals panel ordered further investigations into allegations that Duvalier was responsible for crimes against humanity. Victims will have the opportunity to present their testimony to an investigating judge, who will decide whether to proceed to trial.

Meanwhile, Baby Doc’s lawyer has resorted to the tried-and-true strategy of announcing that a civil war will break out if his client is convicted.

* Tonton Macoute photo from

Kate Cronin-Furman

One Comment

  1. Countering the “a civil war will break out” strategy seems like a good justification for extraterritorial jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

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