Experts warn that foreign armed forces headed to Haiti will face major obstacles
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — An international armed force slated to fight violent gangs in Haiti this year will face multiple challenges including shifting gang allegiances and widespread corruption among police, politicians and the country’s elite, a new report warned Friday.
The multinational force, which will be led by Kenya, has yet to deploy as it awaits a court ruling in the east African country. If given the green light, a small team of Kenyans is expected to arrive in Haiti early this year, with a total of up to 5,000 personnel eventually participating in the mission.
Burundi, Chad, Senegal, Jamaica and Belize also have pledged troops for the multinational mission.
“Major challenges lie in wait for the mission once it is on the ground,” the report by Belgium-based International Crisis Group stated. “Haiti’s gangs could ally to battle it together. Fighting in Haiti’s ramshackle urban neighbourhoods will put innocent civilians at risk. Links between corrupt police and the gangs could make it difficult to maintain operational secrecy. For all these reasons, preparation will be of critical importance.”
Some 300 gangs control an estimated 80 per cent of the capital of Port-au-Prince, with their tentacles reaching northward into the Artibonite region, considered Haiti’s food basket.
Last year, gangs were suspected of killing nearly 4,000 people and kidnapping another 3,000, a spike compared with previous years, according to UN statistics. More than 200,000 people also have been forced to flee their communities as gangs set fire to homes, killing and raping their way across neighbourhoods controlled by rivals.
Haiti’s National Police is no match for them: less than 10,000 officers are on duty at any time in a country of more than 11 million people. Ideally, there should be some 25,000 active officers, according to the UN.
“The police are completely outnumbered and outgunned by the gangs,” said Diego Da Rin, with International Crisis Group, who spent nearly a month in Haiti late last year to do research for the report.
He said the people he interviewed were very skeptical that the force would even be deployed, given that it was approved by the UN Security Council last October, a year after Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested the urgent mobilisation of an international armed force.
International Crisis Group also warned that authorities need to determine what will happen to gang members as the forces carry out their mission. It noted that prisons are severely overcrowded, and that Haiti’s broken judicial system will be unable to handle thousands of cases once suspected criminals are arrested.
Da Rin said he interviewed a Haitian security expert who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation whom he quoted as saying, “Where are the prison facilities to put thousands of gang members? Is the international community suggesting that we kill thousands of lads? What structures are in place to reintegrate these young people into society? I’m appalled by what’s left unsaid.”
International Crisis Group also interviewed unidentified people it said were privy to deployment discussions who were quoted as saying that gang leaders might unite to face foreign armed forces and attack them if they perceive the mission as weak. However, they said gang leaders would be willing to talk about possible disarmament if it appears the mission could overpower them.
Last August, Jimmy Chérizier, a former police officer considered Haiti’s most powerful gang leader, said he would fight any foreign armed force if it commits abuses.
The mission also faces other challenges, according to the report.
Protecting civilians will be tricky because gang members control Port-au-Prince’s crowded slums and can easily blend in since they don’t wear uniforms or have any distinctive symbols. In addition, collusion between gangs and police will likely cause leaked information that would stonewall operations, the report stated.
International Crisis Group said it separately interviewed two sources within Haiti’s National Police who were quoted as saying that senior commanders previously managed to prevent the capture of a powerful gang leader because of his alleged links to politicians or police.
Even if the mission is successful, officials must stop the flow of weapons and ammunition into Haiti, the report stated, and sever “the strong bond between gangs and Haitian business and political elites.”