When Esau Marcellus arrived in a remote rural market near the Haitian-Dominican border to pick up an escaped fugitive early this week, the Haitian National Police inspector was happy with his catch.
But little did he know that the prized catch — alleged kidnapping kingpin Clifford Brandt — was only a few phone calls, and mere hours away. Marcellus’ quick thinking led to the capture of Brandt, the country’s most-wanted fugitive who was among 329 inmates to escape a Port-au-Prince prison a few days before.
Marcellus was making the rounds early Tuesday at the Savane Bombe market, spreading the word to shoppers and merchants about Sunday’s prison break when residents told him of several suspicious-looking men who had recently passed through the area.
He quickly dialed several informants to ask if they had seen strangers lurking around the rugged, barren frontier.
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“They told me they saw three suspicious individuals,” he told the Miami Herald. “I asked them to describe them. They said, ‘One was light-skinned and the others were black.’ I told them to follow them to see where they are going. Finally, they reported back they were headed in the direction of the Dominican Republic.”
Still unaware of who the men were, Marcellus warned another informant on the Dominican side to be on the look out, and to ask Dominican soldiers to detain the men.
Brandt and his traveling companions were arrested by a Dominican Army patrol assigned to the Cacique Enriquillo post around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. But it would be hours before they or even Marcellus realized exactly who it was they had in custody.
Arriving at the border post with a justice of the peace, two other police officers and the prisoner he had picked up that morning, Marcellus got out of his vehicle, stepped into the holding cell and asked the men to identify themselves.
“He didn’t hesitate,” said Marcellus, 49. “He said, ‘My name is Clifford Brandt.’”
Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe has congratulated Marcellus, a 19-year-veteran of the police force, on a job well-done while acknowledging that cooperation over the arrest signal a new chapter in the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“A lot of people doubted that we would arrive at this result that we have today,” Lamothe said about Brandt, who was flown back to Port-au-Prince. “We knew the results would be positive. But we are not yet satisfied. We will be satisfied when we have re-caught every escapee.”
The arrest of Brandt, the best-known fugitive from Sunday’s prison break, has provided a glimmer of hope amid an embarrassing episode for Haiti’s government.
But confusion and questions over the prison break remain as hundreds of other criminals, including possible Colombian drug traffickers, remain at large and the public still has no idea who they are, or what they look like.
“We are focusing on Brandt, but there are others, dangerous criminals, drug traffickers who also escaped,” said Pierre Esperance, the head of Haiti’s National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNNDH).
And while some, including Haiti’s police, believe the goal of the prison break was to free Brandt, his disheveled appearance and the manner in which he was captured has raised questions about whether he was the real mastermind, or simply took advantage of an opportunity to run after 22 months in pretrial detention inside the overcrowded jail.
This week, Lamothe called for Haiti’s prisons to be reinforced with cameras and for every detainee to be fashioned with an electronic bracelet. He has also called for a deepening of the investigation into the prison escape and the submission of a daily report on the arrest of escapees.
“This escape has hit all of us,” he said, appealing to Haitians for support and understanding. “We will all put our hands together, put our determination together to get everyone who escaped.”
Esperance said while he welcomes the government’s determination, an example needs to be set to prevent a repeat of Sunday’s episode.
“Over the years, you always have prison guards who from time to time organize escapes, but sanctions are never taken against them,” Esperance said. “They are never judged. Reinforcing the security measures is fine, but what needs to be done today, what is important, is that sanctions have to be applied against all the prison guards who were involved. Justice needs to do its job.”
Esperance said his group believes the prison break was an inside job and that Brandt left the facility with at least a dozen other prisoners about an hour-and-half before the mayhem that allowed hundreds of other prisoners to escape happened.
“What we at RNNDH know is that in the moment that Brandt was leaving the prison, there was no fight,” he said. “It was like a door opened and Brandt and a dozen other people walked out.”
Details of the incident are as murky as Brandt’s life on the run.
A police officer at the scene told the Herald that it was only after shots were heard that officers at the nearby Croix-des-Bouquets police station realized something was wrong. It was the officers, he said, who stopped many more of the 899 prisoners from escaping.
“Guns were distributed inside the prison; who distributed we don’t know but they were not from the guards,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the incident. “The prisoners had 9 mm, even an M-4. This was something that was planned a long time ago from the inside.”
Police back-up from other Port-au-Prince stations, the officer said, didn’t arrive until two hours later.
Haitian authorities have removed the head of the Croix-des-Bouquet police station — whose officers arrived too late to prevent the prisoners from escaping — despite lauding the efforts of police.
For his part, police inspector Marcellus said he was simply doing his job.
“When you are a police officer,” he said, “you can’t be a coward.”
Special Correspondent Ezra Fieser contributed to this report from Santo Domingo.