PESTEL, Haiti – Fishermen gathered eagerly at a rickety wooden pier to welcome a boat carrying Haiti’s most divisive and provocative political candidate.
The crowd quickly cleared a path as Guy Philippe stepped to shore and began shaking hands and slapping backs. More people emerged to see the man whose face adorns campaign posters on one-room shacks in a community isolated from the rest of the country by forested mountains and rutted roads.
Philippe is reviled by some Haitians as a leader of the 2004 rebellion that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He is wanted on decade-old drug-trafficking charges by U.S. authorities. And last week, a Haitian judge questioned him about a deadly May raid on a police station after he rebuffed previous subpoenas.
Yet Philippe appears to be revered in the rural Grand’Anse region of southern Haiti. Many already call him “senator” as he seeks to win a seat in a runoff election scheduled for Oct. 9 — a victory that would give him immunity from arrest and prosecution in his homeland as well as political power that he has long craved.
“He’s like a father for this area,” said Christin Pierre Louis, who was among those welcoming Philippe to the village.
Elsewhere, many see him as a troubling symbol of Haiti’s wider problems.
“There is an accountability vacuum in Haiti that means people implicated in past human rights violations can run as popular candidates with no fear of investigations, much less prosecutions, of alleged abuses,” said Amanda Klasing, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The fugitive candidate, who looks much younger than his 48 years, allowed news agency journalists to spend a day with him in his Pestel stronghold. It’s a remote municipality in the rugged mountainous region that has been his refuge since U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents barely missed capturing him in a 2007 raid at his house in the south coast city of Les Cayes.
He says he wants to bring prosperity to Haiti’s mountainous southern peninsula, which features clear blue waters and lush forests but has scarce electricity, little infrastructure and widespread hunger.
Philippe insists he is innocent of any crimes, blaming the accusations on enemies trying to silence him. He has particular rancor for Haiti’s caretaker president.
“The path I chose, the way I chose, is not easy. But I chose it and I’m willing to die for it,” Philippe said, who made the teeth-rattling drive to his stronghold along a dirt road that has been lined with boulders so barricades can be erected at a moment’s notice.
In Pestel, where his father served as mayor, Philippe is the undisputed boss.
Downing bottles of Prestige beer, he held court at the town’s only hotel, which he owns. He occasionally barked orders to supporters, socialized with a coterie of hangers-on and doled out favors.
At a gazebo he built for the town on a waterfront promenade, he made an open invitation to former soldiers to relocate to Pestel. Haiti’s military was abolished in 1995, but veterans like Philippe and their supporters have long demanded the army be reconstituted.
“They can come to Pestel — land of liberty,” he said, flashing a grin.
While Philippe insisted he holds great respect for law enforcement as a former police commander and soldier, he warned that any uniformed officials trying to capture him in his tropical outpost will be met with force.
“We’ll consider them as mercenaries and we will fight them,” he said.
Philippe denied reports he has stockpiles of weapons, but two T65 assault rifles and a pair of M-1 carbines were visible inside a roadside shack where a lookout stood guard.
Philippe’s candidacy for a Senate seat is the latest chapter in a colorful life.
In 2000, he was police chief of the northern city of Cap-Haitien, the country’s second largest city, when he bolted to the neighboring Dominican Republic after accusations he was plotting a coup. While in exile, he was accused of masterminding attacks on Haitian police stations and other targets.
He returned in 2004 to join an uprising against Aristide, taking over a band of rebels that captured Cap-Haitien. Aristide left the country aboard a U.S.-supplied jet before Philippe’s rebels reached the capital.
After rolling triumphantly into Port-au-Prince, Philippe proclaimed himself “military chief.” But he gave up his arms as a U.N. stabilization force geared up.
He ran for president in 2006, finishing a distant ninth.
A year later, heavily armed U.S. and Haitian anti-drug agents raided his home in Les Cayes but found only his family and a maid. U.S. agents came in several Black Hawk helicopters.
A fugitive poster from the DEA said he is wanted on charges including conspiracy to import cocaine into the U.S. But the decade-old U.S. indictment charging him is sealed and federal prosecutors decline to discuss the case.
Philippe faces questions about a May 16 assault on the Les Cayes police headquarters. As many as 50 armed men wearing camouflage or faded green uniforms attacked the station, stealing guns and killing one police officer and wounding another.
His lawyer, Reynold Georges, confirms that Philippe is named on a Haitian warrant involving the attack, but says his client had no involvement.
Philippe says he is living a simple life and is focusing on his campaign. Jovenel Moïse, a presidential candidate chosen by former President Michel Martelly, recently campaigned with Philippe in Pestel.
His American wife and two children live in the U.S., and he says he seldom ventures out of Grand’Anse.
Philippe warns of trouble if he loses the Senate runoff.
“I will fight if I lose this election because I’ll know the government did it illegally,” he said between swigs of beer. “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”