Ortega murdered by US Marines in Haiti: A Reporter’s Notes
by Kevin Pina
The family of slain Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega recently held a press conference in Madrid, Spain where they presented evidence that he was killed by U.S. Marines in Haiti and not by gunmen associated with ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) immediately seized upon the opportunity to release the following statement, “The investigation at first focused on armed supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide but in addition to the autopsy carried out in Spain, witness accounts gathered by a journalist colleague on Antena 3, Jesus Martin, who was sent to Haiti six months later, confirmed the thesis that the shooting had come from US troops…”
I found this utterly disingenuous and contemptible given that RSF had been the main proponent of the theory that gunmen associated with ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide were responsible for Ortega’s killing. RSF’s assertion would be uncritically repeated ad nauseum in the international press, and ultimately used by the U.S.-installed government that replaced Aristide, to justify a wholesale campaign of slaughter and mass arrests against his supporters in the following months and years.
I was living in Haiti and reporting almost daily on the situation there when Ortega was gunned down. The day before his murder on March 6, 2004, I was busy organizing photos I had taken of a Lavalas demonstration a day earlier that condemned Aristide’s ouster and the landing of U.S. Marines in Haiti. The demonstration was important as it showed press reports of Aristide having lost popular support, repeated over and over again to justify his ouster, were simply not true. I worked in earnest, as I knew the next day Andy Apaid and the Group 184 were planning a ‘celebration’ of Aristide’s departure. My sources told me a lot of money was being spread around the streets of Port au Prince to insure a large turnout.
After reporting on the unceremonious departure of Aristide on Feb. 29, 2004, the U.S. Embassy literally received thousands of inquiries about my safety as a journalist. I had become, as one consular official put it, “A real pain in the ass.” That’s why I wasn’t too surprised when I received a call from them on March 6. The voice on the other end said, “Mr. Pina, you know we’ve received a lot of calls on your behalf and folks here are worried you might go down to cover tomorrow’s demonstration. Don’t do it! They’re gunning for you and I’ve heard a report there’s going to be trouble. Just stay away from it!” I thanked her and said I wasn’t exactly sure how to cover the demonstration, threats notwithstanding. After that call, I contacted two friends I knew were unknown to Apaid’s crew and who I could count on to report on the next day’s events. They agreed and we met later that evening to make plans.
On the morning of March 7, I received a call from one of my field reporters in Petionville where a large truck had pulled up in front of the Mayor’s office. They described a very professional sign painting organization from the back of a large flatbed truck that was mass producing hundreds of placards for the demonstration. I was amazed as he read off some of the signs that said things like “Denounce Jesse Jackson” and “Denounce Maxine Waters.” They also included slogans like “Judge So Anne” whose real name was Annette Auguste. U.S. Marines would later arrest her on May 10 based on the incredible accusation that she was organizing with Muslims in Haiti to attack U.S. forces. He also said they had several placards that read “Denounce Kevin Pina.”
Throughout that morning I received calls at regular intervals describing the size of the crowd and identifying the leadership of the demonstration on March 7. They also gave accounts of the role and tactics of the U.S. Marines who clearly had the leading role in providing security that day.
In the early afternoon shots were fired near the old Rex Theatre on the edge of Champ Mars. My source told me U.S. Marines were on the rooftops of the area at the moment the shooting started and he could not see anyone else with guns in the vicinity. Later that day we would learn the Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega had been killed by several gunshots to the chest. In the confusion others were killed and wounded by similar and seemingly indiscriminate gunfire.
The next day on March 8, 2004, the organization Reporters without Borders would state, “”Unfortunately, the safety of journalists in Haiti will not be guaranteed as long as armed militias are free to operate without any control by a recognised central authority.” They continued, “Witnesses said the shots were fired by pro-Aristide gunmen known as chimères. The demonstrators had been calling for Aristide followers to be brought to trial.” To make sure there would be no uncertainty about who was responsible for the gunfire RSF concluded, “Several foreign journalists have been targeted by Aristide supporters in recent weeks…several dozen journalists have been threatened or physically attacked by pro-Aristide chimères in recent years.” Following RSF’s conclusions the international press, with few exceptions, repeated the assertion that Ricardo Ortega and others had been felled by ‘pro-Aristide chimères’.
In the days and weeks following the events of March 7, 2004, RSF and others would contribute towards an increasingly intolerant and incendiary political climate. I soon discovered that providing critical radio interviews from Haiti to the U.S. and Canada made me a larger target. Daniel Morel published a photo of a demonstrator from March 7 holding a placard that read “Condemn Kevin Pina” in the rightwing newspaper Le Matin. Morel knew the notorious Boulos family owned it. He also knew I had reported they were behind the Haiti Democracy Project, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C., and had been questioned in the assassination of Haitian journalist Jean-Dominique. Following the appearance of that photo, I personally received several death threats and was forced to go into hiding with my Haitian wife and our three month-old son.
That something was wrong with RSF’s portrayal of the events of March 7, 2004 became utterly clear to me later that summer. After resurfacing and on one of my many visits with political prisoner Annette Auguste (called So Anne by her followers) in Petionville, I was corralled by a group of women. They said there was a prisoner who was a former police officer who was suffering terribly and desperately needed medications his guards were denying him. The prisoner was Jean-Michel Gaspard, the former chief of the police station known as La Ville in the old section of downtown Port au Prince. When I asked him why he was arrested he explained that he had been accused of being one of the ‘Lavalas intellectual authors’ of the violent attacks on March 7, 2004.
As Gaspard and I talked it occurred to me that I had several reports in my notes by the likes of the Associated Press and Reuters who wrote the U.S. Marines had shot and killed one of the purported Lavalas gunmen on March 7. It bothered me for some time that no one had pushed for the release of the identity of the man killed by the Marines. Nothing else was ever mentioned about it and it was as if it had never occurred.
This especially troubled me given that RSF had released another statement on July 6 stating, “Attacks and threats against the media and attempts to kill journalists climaxed in the weeks before the regime [of Aristide] collapsed on 29 February 2004. Seven days after that, an outburst by Aristide supporters caused the death of Ricardo Ortega, of the Spanish TV station Antena 3.”
I told Gaspard that if he wanted to mount a defense he should have his lawyer call the U.S. Embassy and demand that they disclose the identity of the gunman killed by the Marines. I left for a nearby pharmacy and returned to Gaspard’s jail cell with his medications. I gave him my telephone number before returning home.
I was surprised when he called me later that same evening after having been released. He said his lawyer came by shortly after I left and he told him what I had said about pressing the U.S. Embassy for the identity of the gunman. His lawyer called the U.S. Embassy and incredibly Gaspard was released within the next two hours. Gaspard made it clear the quid pro quo was he would never raise the question of the Lavalas gunman again. His last words to me at the time were, “Thank you Pina! They are also restoring me to the police force with full honors.” Much to my horror, Gaspard would turn up again a year later as one of the main leaders within the Haitian police of the infamous “Lame Ti Machete” or Little Machete Army that was responsible for several massacres of Aristide supporters.
Gaspard would be arrested again in late 2005 for the real crimes he committed in places like Gran Ravine and Bel Air. I can only suppose he was acting on instinct when I was among the the first people he called after his second arrest.
As for the credibility of RSF, it would find itself ostracized by even the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). The international body withdrew its sponsorship from the group after declaring, “The conduct of RSF does not fit the profile or the purposes of UNESCO, and the group has once again shown itself to be sensationalist in its eagerness to set itself up as a court of inquisition against developing nations.”
Kevin Pina is a journalist and filmmaker who has been reporting about Haiti since 1991. He lived in Haiti from Jan. 1999 to Feb. 2006 and is currently the editor of the Haiti Information Project, a non-profit news agency providing news and analysis. Pina and the Haiti Information Project are recipients of the Project Censored 2008 Real News Award for Investigative Journalism. He can be heard regularly on the radio program Flashpoints broadcast on the Pacifica Network’s flagship station KPFA in Berkeley, CA, or worldwide on the web at http://www.flashpoints.net.