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Thursday, May 16, 2024

‘The gangs are in charge’: Haiti’s outgunned police fight a desperate rear defence | Haiti | The Guardian

‘The gangs are in charge’: Haiti’s outgunned police fight a desperate rear defence

"With violent insurrectionists in charge of 80% of the capital, Haiti’s police cling to their mission in the face of deadly odds

Masked Haitian police officers carry rifles on patrol
Haitian police patrol the capital, Port-au-Prince. The police union says 17 officers have been killed and ‘many’ wounded in the first four months of 2024. Photograph: Mentor David Lorens/EPA

Nine hours and countless bullets after gunmen began bombarding Stanley’s police station in Port-au-Prince, the twentysomething officer started fearing he would not make it out alive.

“If you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m dead,” he wrote on a family WhatsApp group by way of goodbye.

The officer’s sister shivered as she read her sibling’s parting text and – when he didn’t answer her messages – rang one of his closest friends desperate for news. “I’m going out of my mind,” she sobbed.

Contrary to his prediction, Stanley* did survive the recent assault on his fortress-like base but was left badly shaken. “What scared me the most was the idea of a needless death – that I might die and it would change nothing,” the police officer said as heavily armed gangs continued to sow terror in Haiti’s capital despite the creation of a transitional government that is supposed to lead the country out of its latest crisis.

Other members of Haiti’s embattled national police force have not been so lucky in the face of a coordinated gang insurrection that began in late February and has plunged Port-au-Prince into anarchy and forced the prime minister to resign.

Lionel Lazarre, the spokesperson for Haiti’s police union Synapoha, said 17 officers had been killed and “many” wounded – mostly by gunshots – in the first four months of this year.

In the worst attack, five officers were killed when armed criminals stormed a police station in the city’s north on 29 February. Videos of the mutilated victims spread on social media, the newspaper Le Nouvelliste reported. In one, it wrote, “the corpse of a policeman is seen lying on a wheelbarrow, his uniform soaked in blood”. Another shows an officer being beheaded. In a brazen show of defiance, criminals later returned to the station to demolish it with a Chinese front-end loader.

“It’s clear the [previous] government failed in its security mission. Everyone says the police are overwhelmed by the recent events,” said Lazarre. “There are neighbourhoods we used to go into easily but no longer can.”

William O’Neill, the UN’s top expert on human rights in Haiti, voiced amazement that Haiti’s outgunned and under-resourced police force had avoided being completely overpowered by criminals boasting a military-grade arsenal, largely smuggled in from the US. “It’s a minor miracle they’re still hanging on. I don’t know how they do it,” said O’Neill, who believes Haiti needs a 5,000-strong international security force to help the police restore order.

A UN-backed “multinational security support mission”, reportedly led by 1,000 Kenyan troops, is expected to be deployed to Haiti in the coming weeks to bolster the fight against the gangs although questions remain over how the force will be funded.

Part of the answer to how Haitian police are clinging on lies in the mettle of officers such as Stanley who are on the frontline of a lopsided struggle against gangs that run about 80% of the capital. For their troubles such officers generally receive no more than $100 (£79) a week.

A police officer sits inside his bullet-ridden vehicle in Port-au-Prince.
A police officer sits inside his bullet-ridden vehicle in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Ramón Espinosa/AP

That measly salary earns them a front row seat to a security collapse that has seen more than 2,500 people killed or injured this year alone and forced the airport and seaport to close.

Last weekend, another 4,500 people were forced to flee their homes in the capital, according to the UN migration agency, taking the number of people displaced by the chaos to about 100,000.

“The gangs are in charge,” admitted one former senior security official who believed things were so dire combat drones should be imported to eliminate gang leaders from above, “like in Afghanistan”.

A spokesperson for another police union, SPNH-17, this week called for the head of Haiti’s national police, Frantz Elbé, to resign over the “critical and catastrophic” situation after another attack on a police station, accusing top police officials of being complicit with the gangs.

Peter, another Port-au-Prince cop in his mid-20s, recalled being ambushed during a recent patrol by fighters with assault rifles. “It seemed like bullets were coming from everywhere at the same time,” said the police officer, who fled his vehicle with three colleagues and took shelter beside walls and street lamps.

The officers managed to repel the assailants after a long shootout but one was injured and taken to hospital. After the gun battle, Peter returned to his bullet-riddled vehicle and continued patrolling but he spent the next fortnight off work, rattled by the near-death experience.

“I realised it could have been me who was injured or even killed,” he said. “Thank God it wasn’t me that day … I still haven’t told my mother.”

Lazarre admitted Haiti’s national police force was woefully ill-equipped for its battle against outlaws who flaunt their increasingly sophisticated arsenal in slick social media videosresembling those posted by Mexican cartels.

“If the police had more weapons they could respond better to the criminals,” said Lazarre. “The police is about to celebrate its 29th anniversary but they don’t even have one or two helicopters to fight the current battle.”

Peter said a lack of basic equipment meant some colleagues bought their own bulletproof vests or armour plates, shipping them to Haiti with the logistics company DHL. In the last three years, more than 3,000 officers have left their jobs as the security situation unravelled after the 2021 murder of President Jovenel Moïse. Many have abandoned the country altogether.

Haiti’s police have faced criticism for disappearing from the streets of Port-au-Prince since the rebellion began and abandoning citizens to their own fate. But the union spokesperson said officers were doing their best to fight back, “even though times are tough”.

Lazarre called for more “offensive action” to regain the initiative from armed groups. “When you’re in a football team, you can’t just defend. You have to attack too … You can’t play a 90-minute game just defending. Eventually, you’ll let in a goal.”

Stanley and Peter said they were determined to fight on and were proud to be part of Haiti’s police force, despite the dangers. “We are the armed arm of the citizens. We are their shield,” said Stanley.

But in a city now almost entirely controlled by criminals, the shadow of death was never far away, said Peter, who is his household’s sole breadwinner. “And when a policeman dies in service what’s left for the family?” he asked."

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

‘The gangs are in charge’: Haiti’s outgunned police fight a desperate rear defence | Haiti | The Guardian

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