Haiti climate of insecurity presents no good options

Robert S. Hays

Citizens are afraid to leave their homes. The security forces are weak. Armed gangs, known for kidnappings, extortion and random killings, act with impunity as they tighten their grip throughout Haiti.

With the brazen kidnapping of 16 Americans and one Canadian over the weekend on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince highlighting Haiti’s disintegration into chaos, Washington and its international partners are realizing that there are few good options in confronting the deadly surge in gang violence and for-ransom kidnappings.

The Biden administration has already faced one crisis after another in the Caribbean nation: an electoral crisis with no parliament or locally elected officials; an assassinated president; a devastating earthquake; a surge of Haitian migrants at the U.S. southern border and now the taking of American hostages.

Haiti’s deteriorating security climate, reflected in the weekend’s kidnappings, and the inability of its weak government and police force to control a proliferating gang problem has once more raised the specter of another intervention by foreign forces in the country.

What those forces would look like, who should control them and who pays for them remains a matter of debate in a divided nation where the only thing Haitians seem to agree on is that the status quo cannot remain, and drastic change is needed.

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A man walks through a street empty of traffic due to a general strike in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Workers angry about the nation’s lack of security went on strike in protest two days after 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group were abducted by a violent gang. Odelyn Joseph AP

“It is true that foreign interventions have left a trail of sorrow and have at best been a short-lived palliative that never addressed the deep inequalities of Haiti’s political economy that are in fact the cause of the nation’s current predicament,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political scientist at the University of Virginia who closely monitors the country. “That said, it is clear that the country’s climate of impunity nurtured by a total void of legitimate authority cannot last long.”

While most Haitians would likely reject a foreign “peace-keeping” mission in Haiti, Fatton said, it remains a strong possibility if the situation continues to deteriorate and Haitian political factions fail to achieve a historic compromise to forge a different future.

On Monday, fed up with the security situation, Haitians stayed home as part of a nationwide general strike that kept the streets of Port-au-Prince empty. The strike was called by the country’s business and transportation sector last week, but took on greater meaning after Saturday’s abductions of the group of 17 missionaries, which included five children.

The missionaries worked for Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, and were taken hostage while returning from visiting an orphanage east of Port-au-Prince, the charity said in a statement. Members of the Mennonite community, many are new to Haiti, according to a source who knows some of the missionaries who were grabbed at gunpoint.

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A man pulls a loaded shopping cart through a street, empty due to the general strike in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Odelyn Joseph AP

White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is in touch with the families of the abducted, and that the FBI is working toward their release. There was no word if the gang, which was also behind the abduction in April of Catholic clergy, has requested a ransom.

“The president has been briefed and is receiving regular updates on what the State Department and the FBI are doing to bring these individuals home safely,” Psaki said. “The FBI is part of a coordinated U.S. government effort to get the U.S. citizens involved to safety. Due to operational considerations, we’re not going to go into too much detail on that, but can confirm their engagement.”

Biden has been briefed with increasing frequency by his national security team on Haiti ever since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But a presidential briefing on the weekend kidnappings reflects the size and significance of the crisis.

“The only country the gangs are afraid of is the U.S. If the U.S. doesn’t do anything to get the missionaries out without paying a ransom, it will open the door for I don’t know how many kidnappings a day,” said Alex Saint Surin, a popular Miami-based Haitian broadcaster. “There will be no exceptions, not even for diplomats. The U.S. will be giving a blank check to the gangs, saying ‘go ahead and do it every day.’ ”

The United Nations said in the first eight months of this year, police recorded 328 kidnapping victims compared with 234 for all of 2020. But a human rights organization tracking abductions, the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, said the numbers have increased by 300% between July and August.

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A protester takes a selfie at a burning barricade set by protesters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Odelyn Joseph AP

According to the State Department, over the past decade the U.S. has provided $312 million in assistance to strengthen the Haiti National Police’s law enforcement capacity and to maintain peace and stability throughout the country.

But patronage of gangs by politicians and businessmen, corruption in the police force, poor morale and pay have all helped undermine most of that effort, and the police today are unable to stop the scourge of kidnappings, much less arrest the country’s most wanted gang leader.

The return of a U.N. peacekeeping mission is among four possible solutions that have been floated in recent weeks as Haiti further disintegrates into chaos. All are flawed and come with their own set of challenges, from delays to cost to political trade-offs.

“There’s no really obvious or good options right now,” said Keith Mines, director of the Latin America program at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “The point is somebody’s got to come in and apply some measure of force hopefully or where the threat of force is enough to get things to a better place.”

Mines, who has taken part in nation-building efforts as a special forces officer, diplomat and a United Nations official, said the most appropriate and easiest option would be the return of a robust, U.N. peacekeeping mission that draws lessons from its past failed international response in Haiti.

But even Mines acknowledges that few like the idea, given the last U.N. peacekeeping mission’s role in introducing a deadly cholera epidemic and revelations that its blue-helmeted soldiers had fathered hundreds of children before the mission ended in 2017 after 13 years.

“Nobody wants to hear about peacekeeping, so the range of tools have been much reduced,” Mines said.

Even outside of the U.N.’s tarnished image, there are questions about whether the U.S., which supported the departure of the U.N. mission despite concerns that Haiti wasn’t ready to take on its security challenges, is willing to go head-to-head with China.

Last week, Beijing, which has been very critical of the U.N.’s role in Haiti, threatened to veto an extension of the mandate of the current U.N. political office in Port-au-Prince after disagreeing with Washington over how long it should last. Washington wanted a year, and China, which eventually got its way, wanted nine months and an assessment of the mission’s work.

Another idea that has been floated is a peacekeeping-type mission headed not by the U.N. but by the Organization of American States, with regional security forces from the Caribbean and Latin American nations. Though unprecedented for the western hemisphere, a similar effort has been attempted by the African Union.

But OAS involvement would face opposition. It inspires even less confidence than the U.N. for many Haitians, and would face opposition from even some of the biggest Haiti supporters with the OAS.

“That is not a decision that the secretary general can make on its own, nor a decision that the secretary general and a handful of states can make on their own,” said Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s representative to the OAS. “This would be a serious commitment including both human resources and treasury. I don’t know where that would come from and there is no mechanism at the OAS for mounting any kind of military operation.”

If anything, shoring up the security of a nation in trouble, Sanders said, is the role of the U.N., and “that is where it should come from.”

Before his surprised resignation as U.S. special envoy to Haiti last month, Daniel Foote spoke of the creation of an anti-gang unit within the Haiti National Police to tackle the surge in gang violence, which the U.N. on Monday said is affecting relief operations related to the massive Aug. 14 earthquake.

Though Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the McClatchy Washington Bureau that Foote had proposed sending U.S. troops into Haiti, which the administration opposed, those familiar with Foote’s position said he proposed using U.S. special forces to train Haitian police officers in gang operations.

While novel to Haiti, U.S. special forces have historically trained national police forces in the hemisphere. The idea, however, was quickly nixed by the White House, which had already turned down a request from the Haitian government to send in U.S. troops after the assassination of Moïse.

Last week, a senior Biden administration official told reporters that rather than use U.S. military forces to train the Haiti National Police, the U.S. would rather use “our civilian tools to support them, whether it’s in providing assets, equipment and even training.”

“We think that particularly given some of the debates that are taking place in this country about the militarization of the role of the police and the standards of the police in terms of treatment, standards of the use of force, we believe it’s better for us to provide that sort of training from a civilian perspective that reflect the lessons that we’re learning in the United States,” the official said.

The problem is there aren’t civilians waiting around to be shipped off to go train another country’s police force. There are private U.S. military companies that are either owned by or headed by former special forces that do provide security, and could be used to recruit trainers, should the State Department decide to take that route.

But that option faces its own set of challenges and acceptance in Haiti, where former Colombian military are currently being held in jail in connection with Moïse’s murder. Also, prior to his death, Moïse, who had reached out to both the OAS and U.N. for help with security, hired private security contractors to go after gangs.

The decision did not sit well with some police officers and many Haitians, who saw it as undermining an already beleaguered and demoralized force.

“I wouldn’t write it off. I know obviously it’s discredited but frankly right now, everything is discredited,” Mines said, adding that the concept has been employed outside of the region.

Among the countries in which private contractors have been used to shore up a security force, he said, is Darfur. Americans were sent in to work with the African Union because they needed to learn how to process intelligence, he said.

“They wouldn’t have to be Americans … You’d have to kind of figure out the right way to do it and they would have to be internationally sanctioned somehow,” Mines said.

On Monday, Psaki declined to comment on whether the administration would consider sending in U.S. forces to help rescue the kidnapped Americans.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’ office said he is very concerned about the dramatic deterioration of the security situation and said it is incumbent on the government of Haiti to focus on the security challenges, including by redoubling efforts to reform and strengthen the national police.

This story was originally published October 19, 2021 7:00 AM.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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