Giving "The Devil" His Due

For several years in the early 1990s U.S. intelligence maintained close ties with a Hatian named Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, the founder of a savage paramilitary group that has been held responsible for a prolonged wave of killings and other atrocities. Toto Constant today walks the streets of Queens, a free man. How did he come to find refuge in the United States? Who has been holding up his deportation?
More

N o one remembers who first saw him in the neighborhood, but one day last summer Emile Maceus was nearly certain that Emmanuel "Toto" Constant—the man everyone called "the devil"—was standing on his front stoop. The man was six-foot-three, maybe more; he wore a coat and tie, and his hair—a tightly curled Afro—was neatly combed. He had come, he said, to show a client Maceus's house, a three-bedroom in Queen's Village, New York. He was a real-estate agent, he said, and had seen the pink for sale sign on the front lawn.

Maceus stared at him. The man's face was pudgier than Maceus remembered from Haiti, during the military regime of the early 1990s. Back then he had been bone-thin and ghostlike, sometimes appearing with an Uzi or with a .357 Magnum tucked under his shirt. To help keep the junta in control he had terrorized the population with his paramilitary squad— a legendary outfit of armed civilians who, together with the Haitian military, allegedly tortured, raped, and murdered thousands of people. "Can we look around?" the man asked.

Maceus wasn't sure what to do. Maybe it wasn't Constant. He was bigger than Maceus recalled, more genial, and before Maceus knew it, the man was walking through his house, poking his head into each room, looking at the floorboards and the toilets, taking note of the overhead space in the kitchen, and commenting in Creole. In the living room the man passed a poster on the wall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide—the once and future Haitian president, and the paramilitaries' archenemy—but didn't give it a second look. Maybe he was just a real-estate agent after all, just another Haitian immigrant trying to survive in New York.

But as the real-estate agent was leaving, Maceus kept thinking, What if he is Toto Constant? Maceus knew that in 1994, after the United States overthrew the military regime, Constant, a fugitive from Haitian justice, had been allowed, inexplicably, to slip into the country. Maceus had heard that after Constant had finally been arrested and ordered deported, he had in 1996 mysteriously been released under a secret agreement with the U.S. government—even though the Haitian government had formally requested his extradition and U.S. authorities had found photos of his group's victims, their bodies mutilated, pasted to the walls of his Port-au-Prince headquarters like trophies. As the man was opening the front door, Maceus's curiosity overcame him. He asked in Creole, "What's your family name?"

The man hesitated. "Constant."

It was Toto Constant. For an instant the two Haitians stood there, staring at each other. Then Constant and his client sped off in a car. Maceus went inside and found his wife. She was trembling. "How could you bring that devil in my house?" she shouted. "How could you?"

News of the encounter spread through the city's sprawling Haitian community, from Flatbush to Laurelton to Cambria Heights to Brooklyn, as it would have in Haiti—by teledjòl, word of mouth. Constant had ventured out into the community several times since the U.S. government had set him free, but never with such audacity—selling houses to the same people he had driven into exile. When he first arrived in Queens, he seemed to emerge only periodically. He was spotted, someone said, at a disco, clad in black, dancing on the day of Baron Samedi, the voodoo lord of death who guards cemetery gates in his top hat and tails. He was seen at a butcher shop and at a Blockbuster. Haitian-community radio and local newspapers reported the sightings—"haiti's grim reaper partying in u.s.," announced one headline—but he always managed to vanish before anyone could locate him. Finally, in 1997, the rumors led to a quiet street in Laurelton, Queens, near the heart of the Haitian community, where for years exiles had hoped to shed the weight of their history—a history of never-ending coups and countercoups—and where Constant could be seen sitting on the porch of the white-stucco house he shared with his aunt and mother. "The whole idea of Toto Constant living free in New York, the bastion of the Haitian diaspora, is an insult to all the Haitian people," Ricot Dupuy, the manager of Radio Soleil d'Haiti, in Flatbush, told his listeners after Constant moved in.

It was not long before residents draped the street's trees and lampposts with pictures of Constant's alleged victims, their hands and feet bound with white cord or their limbs severed by machetes. Neighbors shoved one of the most horrifying pictures—a photo of a young boy lying in a pool of blood—under Constant's door. But a few days later Constant was back on his porch. Locals came by and spat at his bushes; they stoned his door. Then, last summer, after Constant's appearance at the Maceus house, an angry crowd appeared around his home, yelling "Murderer!" and "Assassin!" At one point, as they were gathering, someone spotted a figure down the road—a well-known ally of Constant's, "a spy," as one person cried out—and the crowd chased after him. When he disappeared and there was still no sight of Constant, the crowd marched to the real-estate office, four miles away, where it threatened to drive the Haitian owner out of business unless he fired his new employee.

By last November, Haitians had created permanent Toto Watches—networks that tracked Constant's every whereabouts. At about this time I met Ray Laforest, one of the Toto Watchers, and he agreed to show me where "the devil" could be found. He told me to meet him at Binnette's Hair Palace, on Linden Boulevard, next to the real-estate office in front of which Constant had been seen smoking on his lunch break, and we would look for him.

The barbershop was in the center of Cambria Heights, across the street from a Haitian restaurant and next to a Haitian grocer. It was a small, cramped space, with a TV in the corner. Customers sat in old chrome seats with their heads tilted back, while barbers in white smocks trimmed their hair. As I waited for Laforest, one of the barbers, a young man with a gold chain around his neck, looked at me suspiciously. I explained that I was doing a story on Toto Constant. He said that Constant was a "vampire," someone who sucked the life out of people.

An older barber, who had been working at his chair on the opposite side of the room, walked over to a closet and pulled out a shovel. It was long, with a thick metal handle, and in a bit of showmanship he lifted it in the air like a club. "This is what they do to the devil people" like Toto, he said, banging it against the floor.

A few minutes later Laforest walked in. He was a large man, with a beard and sunglasses. He carried with him several Wanted posters of Constant, one of which he unfurled, revealing an old black-and-white photograph of the reputed death-squad leader. A moustache curled down around the corners of his mouth, and several crooked teeth showed between his lips. In bold letters the poster said wanted: emmanuel "toto" constant for crimes against the haitian people.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Did I Study Physics?

In this hand-drawn animation, a college graduate explains why she chose her major—and what it taught her about herself.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In