CITE SOLEIL, Haiti (Reuters) - Heavily armed gang members who once ran Haiti's largest slum like warlords have returned with a vengeance since Tuesday's earthquake damaged the National Penitentiary allowing 3,000 inmates to break out.
The pacification of Cite Soleil had been one of President Rene Prevail's few undisputed achievements since taking office in 2006, until the quake devastated Port-au-Prince.
"It's only natural that they would come back here. This has always been their stronghold," said a Haitian police officer in the teeming warren of shacks, alleys and open sewers that is home to more than 300,000 people.
He and other policemen, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the volatile situation in Cite Soleil, said notorious armed gangs had been making their presence felt here since the quake.
If large-scale violence erupts here amid the chaos and looting that has grown by the hour in Port-au-Prince since the temblor, it could pose a major challenge to efforts to reestablish law and order throughout the Haitian capital.
Cite Sole's gang leaders are larger-than-life criminals. The stuff of urban legend and popular Haitian rap songs, they are now seen as a breed apart from other Haitians in that they alone benefited from the Tuesday's disaster.
Mounted on motorcycles, and brandishing assault rifles and guns thought to have been stripped from prison guards during the quake, the gang members include one stone-cold killer known only by the street name "Blade."
Word on the street is that they swept down on the rubble of Haiti's collapsed Justice Ministry on Saturday morning and set it ablaze to destroy any records of their incarceration or criminal history.
When Reuters reporters clambered through broken bars to tour the cavernous National Penitentiary on Friday, there were few if any remaining records of inmates housed there. Many may have been burned in a small and windowless cell. It was still brick-oven hot days after the temblor.
Whatever actually happened inside the prison, it did not appear to have been seriously damaged by the quake. There were no bodies inside and the only sign of life came from two lame dogs holed up in a cell packed with old mattresses.
Of the 3,000 inmates who escaped on Tuesday, overpowering an unknown number of guards, many were violent criminals with past links to Cite Soleil, a seaside slum that has long been a potent social symbol of the poorest country in the Americas.
"They got out of prison and now they're going around trying to rob people," said Cite Soleil resident Elgin St. Louis, 34. "Last night they spent the whole night shooting," she added.
"We dread their return," said another resident, a younger man who gave his name as Forrestal Champlain. "They're armed, they have no morals and they could do anything."
Despite such vocal opposition to the gangs, resentment against the government still runs high in Cite Soleil, which was a bastion of support for former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist champion of the poor.
The mostly cinder-block homes are still pockmarked from pitched battles between gangs and U.N. peacekeepers, who have been in Haiti since June 2004 and were used by Preval to establish control over Cite Soleil after he took office.
But as one resident put it on Saturday: "Preval's not in charge here. No one's in charge except the (gang) bosses."
Haiti's National Police Chief Mario Andresol had a different opinion, even as he acknowledged the escaped gang members posed a serious security risk.
"My message to all those armed bandits that are trying to take advantage of this situation is that we will arrest them just as we did in the past," Andresol told Reuters.
"We are in the process of taking appropriate measures to hunt down these criminals," he said.
Writing by Tom Brown; editing by Anthony Boadle and Todd Eastham