Haiti National Police officers marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince Wednesday, demanding the corpses of several fallen comrades killed in an ill-fated police operation in one of the city’s most dangerous slums.
The protest turned violent as demonstrators trashed a local police station and released several people from jail, including a handful of officers marchers believe were illegally detained.
“It’s anarchy,” said journalist Marvel Dandin during his afternoon program on Radio Kiskeya. “The country is neither being governor nor administered. Who benefits from this?”
The chaotic events come as anger mounts over the botched raid in the Village de Dieu, or Village of God, slum in Port-au-Prince. At least four officers were killed and eight injured Friday during the operation. Another officer remains missing. Video clips shared on social media show gang members dragging and desecrating the corpses of two of the officers. They also posed with an armored vehicle belonging to the officers and weapons that were seized.
Five days later authorities have still not recovered the remains of the dead officers.
Officers fed up with their nation’s mounting crisis pointed their anger at the government and police brass, whom they accused of not doing enough to protect those in uniform. Adding to the heightened tensions were rumors on social media that authorities had paid and negotiated with the armed gangs to recover one of the two armored vehicles seized during the raid.
“Instead of mounting an operation to go recover the bodies of the police, they opted to give their equipment more importance,” said Jean Elder Lundi, coordinator of the Haiti National Police Union. “They gave an armored vehicle more importance than the police officers. It’s the result of all these things that led to what happened today.”
Haiti National Police Director General Léon Charles said late Wednesday officers did not engage in any negotiations with the Village de Dieu gang, but did retrieve the armored vehicle after being informed it had been abandoned. He said the institution is committed to recovering the bodies of the slain officers and urged those protesting to let the inspector general determine how a “well-planned operation” went wrong. A senior officer has been detained as part of the probe.
“I am asking all police officers who are in the streets to return to their base,” Charles said.
President Jovenel Moïse meanwhile issued a state of emergency in certain gang-controlled neighborhoods for a month during which some citizen rights can be suspended and the government can deploy the Armed Forces of Haiti alongside police to regain control.
The protesters included active police officers, recruits and members of a rogue police force known as Fantom 509 demanding the resignation of Charles. Fantom 509, which includes active and former cops, vowed to continue targeting police stations and jails until all imprisoned officers are released — including those detained as part of an alleged coup against Haiti’s unpopular president in February.
Authorities have not provided any details of what happened in the Village de Dieu slum, and the United Nations, which has a police advisory unit in the country, has demanded clarity on the circumstances leading to the failed operation.
As protesters gathered in the streets Wednesday, there were several reports of looting, including at a Nissan car dealership, where at least one vehicle was set on fire along with parts of the building, though it was unknown who was behind the incidents.
The violent demonstration took place as ambassadors at the Organization of American States adopted a draft resolution recognizing that the situation in Haiti is grave and offering the Permanent Council’s assistance in facilitating a dialogue between the government and the opposition and civil society.
The unrest comes amid the country’s deepening political crisis, widening insecurity and an alarming spike in kidnappings. The deadly raid left many officers feeling even more demoralized, said Rony Abelson Gros-Nègre, who pushed for the creation of the police union before leaving the force to head a civil society organization. He said nine officers were recently killed in the span of three days while on the job.
“It’s the entire country that is in battle,” Gros-Nègre said, describing the police protest as an act of civil disobedience. “The message that we launched today is that every Haitian, whether in the country or in the diaspora, needs to come together. We cannot accept what has happened.”
William O’Neill, a human rights lawyer who worked for the U.N. in the mid-’90s when the organization took the lead in rebuilding Haiti’s police, said the ongoing meltdown of the force saddens him, although he isn’t surprised. There has been an overall lack of accountability and leadership in Haiti, he said.
“This bespeaks of the total political crisis, the paralysis,” O’Neill said.
Moïse recently stated on Twitter that he has reached out to both the OAS and the United Nations for help in handling Haiti’s security problems. He also announced a new decree to facilitate cooperation between the army and police. He did not elaborate on what that cooperation would look like, but it has raised concerns in Haiti and in the U.S. because the police force was created in 1994 to be independent from the army. Haiti’s police, which graduated their first class 25 years ago, receives U.S. funding that cannot be used for the military.
According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 14,997 police officers in the force, including 1,581 women, a number considered extremely low for Haiti’s population of 11 million.
O”Neill said fixing Haiti’s security woes alone won’t resolve the broader crisis.
“Every corner of rule of law in Haiti, police, courts and prisons, is in a disastrous state,” he said. “You are not going to fix this just by bringing in some experts on how to deal with policing and kidnapping.”
In February of last year, members of the army and police got into a deadly clash when heavily armed officers marched into Port-au-Prince’s main public square on Carnival Sunday to protest their low pay and lack of government spending on the police. The two sides engaged in a six-hour gun battle that left a soldier and a protester dead and more than a dozen others injured.
Lundi, the union leader, said Wednesday’s protest was the culmination of years of frustration in which officers have been unable to access such basic services as health insurance and are forced to travel on the same public buses as gang members to get to work, putting them at risk.
“What you saw today is 25 years of frustration being unleashed,” he said.
Concerns about the Haiti National Police were recently raised during a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, in which several civic leaders testified about officers being outgunned by armed gangs and reports from kidnapping victims that their abductors were dressed in police uniforms.
“The politicization of the police, the militarization of the police, is preventing the police from functioning,” Lundi said. “This is why we are asking the United States, and all of the countries in the international community that participated in the creation of the police to help, and we are asking them: Is this the force they envisioned for Haiti?”