The Cacos’ insurgency occurred in two distinct phases. The first, in 1915, was a spontaneous reaction to the American occupation, more of a wide-spread crime wave than an organized campaign, it was badly coordinated, widely scattered and most of all lacked the guidance of a recognized leader. The Wilson administration acted swiftly to contain it, dispatching two additional regiments of Marines whose aggressive patrols succeeded in putting the lid back on…temporarily.
More alarmed by what the first wave of Caco violence MIGHT have become than by what it WAS, the United States took several important steps to assure the movement remained quiescent. First, the State Department strong-armed through a new treaty with the feeble central government in Port-au-Prince, which gave the Marine occupation force full authority over internal security issues. The Marines, armed with this new mandate, took an important first step: they disbanded what remained of the “official” Haitian Army, whose assistance in containing the 1915 Caco disturbances had been “less than minimal”. Reduced to a rump remnant of 9,000 men, (of whom 370-odd officers had managed to buy their way to the rank of “general”), it had become useless for any serious operations.
To replace that failed institution, the Marines started with a clean slate, forming a new force designated the “Haitian Constabulary” or “Gendarmerie d’Haiti). Administration and training were turned over to tough, no-nonsense Marine officers and NCOs; recruiting standards were high, discipline rigorous, and training was, if not quite up to Paris Island standards, sufficiently tough to turn the new recruits into a reasonably honest and competent paramilitary force.
As it happened, they didn’t have long to wait before going on active duty.
For the second and far more dangerous wave of Caco activity broke out in mid-1918, and this time it proved far more organized and dangerous. The reason was simple: the insurgents had found a leader who possessed both charisma and a sure instinct for waging guerrilla war. His name was Charlemagne Peralte, and he adopted the bombastic title of “Chief of the Revolutionary Forces Against the American Occupation of Haiti.” He imposed fierce discipline, mixing it shrewdly with elements of “voodoo” superstition.
He told his increasingly numerous followers that any Caco warrior who returned from action with traces of a white man’s brains on his rifle barrel would be granted excellent marksmanship; that if they cooked and ate the hearts of their victims, they would acquire lion-like courage, and if they barbecued the livers, they increased physical strength. By mid-1919, Charlemagne’s rag-tag bands had become a ferocious, wily, and unspeakably cruel opponent, motivated by the same mixture of black-magic-theater and patriotic fury that would later characterize the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya.
Arson, pillage, and murder were the Cacos chosen tactics of spreading fear and expanding their influence throughout the rural population, and Charlemagne compensated for his inferior numbers (vis-à-vis the 1500-man Marine brigade, augmented with growing effectiveness by an auxiliary force of 2500 Gendarmes), by methodically developing a superb intelligence system among the civilian population in the regions where he operated. The columns sent out to hunt him were invariably spotted long before they got anywhere near one of his jungle camps; this enabled the Cacos to avoid forces they couldn’t hope to beat in a stand-up fight, and to ambush isolated patrols and small garrisons where they could bring overwhelming numbers to bear.
His strategy was later and very perceptively described by a Marine veteran, and it bore an eerie resemblance to the Viet Cong methods a later generation of Marines would confront in Vietnam:
The Caco is basically a bandit, but his status is more subtle and more ambiguous than that designation would suggest. He is regarded either as a Robin Hood figure with the agenda of a revolutionary, mainly disturbing the property and forces of an oppressive regime, or as a murderous outlaw, depending on your point of view. The Haitian agitators and nationalists have their reasons for resenting the American presence and have often hailed the Cacos as gallant fellows. But to the to the small farmers in the hills, who comprise the majority of the population, the Caco is viewed without romantic sentiment, yet also without violent opposition, for he rations his actions to petty thievery and only burns or loots in lightly or undefended places owned by the rich or created for the benefit of remote authorities who have, for many decades, shown no interest in bettering the lives of the common peasants.
In his style of warfare he is untrammeled by any of the restraints of convention. He will not stand and fight unless the odds in his favor are at least ten-to-one, and he will not attack unless he can bring even heavier odds to bear. Too closely pressed, and his armed bands simply dissolve, so that a pursuing column finally catches up to his presumed location, it finds not an armed rebel but a peaceful farmer, scratching with his machete at his vegetable plots, and surveying the newly arrived Blancs with naïve and seemingly innocent curiosity, even though his rifle is hidden nearby in the bush.
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