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U.S. force battling language, voodoo

Earlier this month, U.S. Special Forces responding to a murder report rolled out of their compound to search for the dead body. They found the victim _ a goat.

A mix-up in the translation from Creole to English made the American soldiers look for a human victim. But they're taking the murder case seriously, because a goat is precious property in Haiti.

With some knowledge of French and a lot of patience, the few dozen U.S. soldiers stationed in Les Cayes are muddling through a whirl of hearsay, feuds and a vacuum of local authority.

"When I get back to the United States, I'm probably going to hug a lawyer, because they just don't have them here," Capt. Greg Larson said at police headquarters.

The U.S. troops think this south coastal city of 100,000 people will be secure enough this weekend for them to lift an all-night curfew. Crime had surged with the Oct. 15 return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after three years of military rule.

They are still looking for five military-backed thugs, some of whom they think are responsible for the Oct. 3 shooting of Staff. Sgt. Donald M. Holstead, 25, of Tampa. Holstead was shot in the abdomen but is recovering.

When they get a reliable tip, the Special Forces conduct a raid, but often the information is old. More time is spent patrolling the streets, on foot or in Humvees, and settling disputes.

Part of the job is being sensitive to Haitian culture.

In one case, a woman said two men stole money from her in April after giving her "voodoo dust" _ a mixture of tranquilizers and a "zombie cucumber," a locally grown vegetable that has hallucinogenic properties, said Sgt. Scott Morden of Port Huron, Mich.

On Wednesday, the woman recognized the men and called her brother, Morden said. A crowd quickly gathered and beat up the suspects until American soldiers rescued them. They will appear in local court.

"It's a fishy story," said Morden. "If she was under the influence of voodoo dust, how does she recognize them?"

The Americans also handcuff prisoners with their hands in front because slave traders centuries ago bound them behind their backs, said Maj. Doug Wisnioski of Florida's Big Pine Key. "It's worse than degrading," he said.

When the U.S. soldiers arrived in Les Cayes last month, they found appalling conditions in the local jail. Some prisoners hadn't had showers in four years and were packed so tightly in one cell they couldn't lie down.

The Special Forces have cleaned up the jail, and the few remaining inmates only have a few complaints. "The rice has no salt," said Pierre Clausel Vaval, who has been accused of stealing.

Looting is still a problem in Les Cayes, where there is virtually no local authority and poverty is widespread.

U.S. soldiers routinely set up roadblocks, lecture drunken drivers and search cars for weapons. The Special Forces also patrol the marketplace to make sure there is no price-gouging.

"The people don't have money to buy," said Robert Compere, 25, selling sticks of sugarcane from a wheelbarrow. "I'm selling because I don't want to stay home and do nothing."