Tonton Macoutes (properly Tonton-Makout or Tontonmakout, sing. and pl.), a Haitian term that describes an old folktale character (Uncle Knapsack) who snatches children into a knapsack or basket (makout) and often eats them alive. In the late 1950s, Haitians applied this term to the masked goons working for François Duvalier's secret police, a largely middle-class organization set up to control urban opposition.
Although at first the regime denied the existence of the secret police, in 1962 it presented the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (VSN), a new civil militia composed primarily of peasants, as the official version of the dreaded Tonton Macoutes. In fact, although most VSN leaders were members of the political police, most Tonton Macoutes did not formally join the militia as milisyen.
Nevertheless, the regime did its best to merge the identification of the two organizations, already linked by leadership. For more than ten years, the secret police operated away from the public eye, which was constantly distracted by a colorful militia whose main role was symbolic. Throughout the 1960s, unarmed milisyen showed their support in government-sponsored parades. Their uniform—blue de-nim shirt and pants, straw hat, and a red sash—evoked the traditional costume of the peasant god Zaka, the colors of the Haitian flag before Duvalier, and peasant armies of the nineteenth century.
The secret police grew behind this symbolic shield. So did the power and training of selected groups of milisyen who came to constitute a real counterpart to the traditional power of the Haitian army. The regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971–1986) reinforced the links between the most active branches of the political police, the militia, and selected segments of the army devoted to the Duvalier family: the Leopards anti-insurgency corps, the Presidential Guard, the Port-au-Prince police. By the mid-1980s, the 9,000-strong VSN counted members of these various groups. Even some ministers of government wore the VSN uniform.
By the late 1980s, the name Tonton Macoutes applied to milisyen, informers, and torturers alike. After the 1987 overthrow of the dictatorship, the ambiguity of the name protected middle-class members of the secret police who had never worn the VSN uniform: summary justice was applied primarily to lower-class folk, at least some of whom had been milisyen.
Bernard Diederich and Al Burt, Papa Doc: The Truth About Haiti Today (1969).
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State Against Nation. The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (1990).
Jean Jacques, Fritz. Le régime politique haïtien: Une analyse de l'État oligarchique, 1930–1986. Montréal: Éditions Oracle, 2003.
Tonton Macoutes (tŏntŏn´ mäkōōt´) [Haitian Creole,=bogeymen], personal police force of dictator Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) of Haiti. Unpaid volunteers who were directly responsible only to Duvalier, they were given virtual license to torture, kill, and extort. They murdered hundreds of Duvalier's opponents, sometimes publicly hanging the corpses as warnings. After Papa Doc's death (1971), his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) changed their name to the National Security Volunteers, though they continued to terrorize the citizenry. After the overthrow of Baby Doc (1986), although officially disbanded, the group continued to spread terror.