Haiti police desperately in need of help as battle against gangs escalates

Police chief Frantz Elbé has seen his house burnt down, while armed gangs have seized control of many parts of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince

Gangs stormed the neighbourhood of Haiti’s police chief, Frantz Elbé, in March, broke into his house, set it on fire and killed his dog.

Elbé and his family were not home at the time, and he did not want to discuss what happened in any detail. But the attack sent a chilling message through police ranks and to residents of the country’s embattled capital, Port-au-Prince.

“It symbolised that no one was safe,” said Reginald Delva, a Haitian security consultant and former Haitian government minister.

The torching of the police chief’s house deepened fears among Haitians that their country was on the brink of collapse in the face of an onslaught by a coalition of armed gangs that had seized control of many parts of Port-au-Prince and were threatening key institutions, such as the National Palace.


But today, Haiti’s outgunned and outnumbered police have managed – at least for now – to hold their own against the gangs in some fights and defend the few remaining government buildings under state control.

As a result, the police have gone from a much-maligned force, considered by many analysts to be inept and corrupt, to acquiring a newfound respect among some Haitians.

“The police have made important efforts,” said Gédéon Jean, director of the Haiti-based Centre for the Analysis and Research on Human Rights. “It’s still insufficient, but now they have the population on their side.”

The police are focused on protecting key government buildings and infrastructure, experts say, leaving residential parts of the capital exposed to hit-and-run attacks by the gangs in what one US official compared to a game of whack-a-mole.

Gangs hold the upper hand in many parts of Port-au-Prince, controlling entire neighbourhoods. They have engaged in extortion and kidnapping to finance their operations and have also demanded a say in Haiti’s political future.

The police have helped ease the stranglehold gangs had on the capital’s airport, allowing military aircraft to land. Commercial flights are scheduled to restart this month for the first time since early March.

And last Wednesday, the police also retook control of access roads to Port-au-Prince’s port from gangs, providing a chance for ships to dock and unload.

Prime minister Ariel Henry was prevented from returning to the country from an overseas trip after gangs attacked the capital’s international airport, and was eventually forced to resign.

Haiti’s police are supposed to receive help from abroad in their campaign to quell the lawlessness: a 2,500-member multinational force led by Kenya that was approved by the United Nations and financed largely by the United States.

But the contingent was put on hold because Kenya’s leaders said they were waiting for a new Haitian government to be installed.

A transitional council tasked with bringing political stability to Haiti has taken over, part of a process to form a new government and pave the way for a general election.

Haiti has not had an elected leader since its last president, Jovenel Möise, was assassinated three years ago.

But Kenya has still not said when the multinational force will leave for Haiti, so for now the country’s police will have to continue taking on the gangs on their own.

“They’ve been begging for help for months now,” said William O’Neill, the United Nations expert on human rights in Haiti. “I’m amazed they’re still hanging on. It’s a minor miracle.”

Haiti’s police force has about 9,000 officers on duty on any given day for a population of 11 million, according to government figures, roughly one-third the force strength recommended by the United Nations for a country of that size.

In Port-au-Prince, a few hundred officers are typically on duty, experts say, though officially about 2,400 are assigned to the capital.

Many officers have been killed, resigned or simply walked off the job, Elbé, the police chief, said. But, he added, a significant number had left Haiti under a US humanitarian parole programme for Haitian migrants introduced last year by the Biden administration.

On the other side are up to 200 gangs across the country, with about two dozen operating in Port-au-Prince, experts say. They range from small groups of a few dozen young men who share pistols to crews of roughly 1,500 men armed with automatic weapons.

US officials say some gangs also have large-calibre rifles that can fire ammunition capable of penetrating fortifications. They also use drones to monitor the police. Police weapons consist mostly of rifles and handguns.

The Biden administration, which has given Haiti’s police about $200 million in assistance in recent years, is spending an additional $10 million on training and equipment, including weapons, ammunition, bullet-resistant vests and helmets.

“We’ve provided them with sufficient material, I would say, for the time being, but every day matters, and this is a holding action,” Brian A Nichols, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an interview. US officials have repeatedly stressed the urgency of having the multinational force on the ground in Haiti.

At the same time, human rights groups in Haiti say the police have also committed abuses, including apprehending people on unspecified or false charges and beating detainees, according to a US State Department report released in April.

The assault on the police chief’s house came as gangs stepped up their level of violence – in the first three months of this year, more than 2,500 people were killed or injured in Haiti. Beside forcing the closure of the country’s main airport, gangs also shut down Haiti’s main port to shipping.

Against this grim backdrop, Elbé, who is not prone to making public appearances, released two videos reassuring Haitians that his officers were doing their best to protect them.

“They have stood strong in defending the population and have prevented the country from completely falling apart,” he said in one video, wearing a protective vest and surrounded by elite anti-gang officers.

He also appealed directly to fellow police officers. “I’m asking you to join in this struggle to prevent the country from dying,” he said.

Still, some officers living in neighbourhoods overrun by gangs have joined the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have fled their homes.

Gangs have deliberately targeted the police as a display of power and to sow terror, according to experts.

“They brutally murder or mutilate the bodies of police officers,’’ said Diego Da Rin, who monitors Haiti for the International Crisis Group.

The head of the police union, Lionel Lazarre, said: “The police are victims, just like the rest of the population. Morale is not high.’’

Since January, at least 24 officers have been killed and another five disappeared after being ambushed by gangs, according to Elbé. About 220 officers have resigned and 170 abandoned the ranks without explanation, he added.

Given the enormous challenges and risks officers face, some US officials said the force had shown remarkable commitment and resilience.

Specialised Swat teams and anti-gang units have managed to repel several attacks on key government buildings downtown, including the interior and justice ministries and the supreme court, in what Elbé described as “urban guerrilla warfare by heavily armed gangs”. At least 22 police precincts in Port-au-Prince and its suburbs were destroyed in recent weeks.

A team of 14 advisers and trainers from the US state department is embedded with the Haitian police to provide support, including tactical advice. Senior Haitian police officers have also received training through the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, which is part of the Organisation of American States.

Still, in their battle against gangs, Haiti’s police are at a disadvantage, experts say, because they lack good intelligence capability and equipment, such as armoured patrol vehicles, helicopters or drones, to target heavily fortified gang bases.

The fragility of the police worries experts who warn that the gangs will not be easily defeated even with the arrival of the UN-backed multinational mission.

“The international deployment will have to be specifically trained to conduct operations in dense urban environments, where gangs will also likely employ guerrilla tactics that increases the risk to civilians,” said Lewis Galvin, a senior Americas analyst with Janes, the defence intelligence firm. - This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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