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Haiti’s Police Protests Highlight Armed Gangs’ Ties to Government

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The human rights and security situation in Haiti is getting so bad – worse every day – that now even the police are protesting. And for good reason: During a period of about 18 months between July 2021 to this January, at least 78 police officers were murdered, an average of five a month, according to data compiled by the organization I lead in Haiti, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH). In January alone, at least 16 police officers died and two others are missing.

The culprits are the armed gangs that have taken chaotic control of the capital Port-au-Prince and much of the surrounding area of the Western Department (one of Haiti’s administrative units). But the root of the problem lies in the corruption of successive governments and their increasing use of gangs to suppress public protests, provide personal protection, and ultimately to retain their hold on power.

Frustration over government corruption came to a crescendo in the summer of 2018. That’s when Haiti erupted into protests of frustration over soaring inflation, a government plan to increase fuel taxes, and building outrage over an audit report for the Haitian Senate released the previous November that outlined how the previous government of President Michel Martelly allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of oil-import savings that was to be spent on social programs under the Venezuelan-sponsored PetroCaribe program. Another report in August 2020, from Haiti’s High Court of Auditors, put the misspending at almost $2 billion between 2008 and 2016.

Since Ariel Henry took power in July 2021 as de facto prime minister after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, security in Haiti has only deteriorated. The armed gangs, reinforced by Henry’s government as they were under his predecessor, have become better-equipped and ever more formidable, overpowering Haiti’s police force, leaving them and citizens defenseless. In the past year, the gangs have begun targeting police officers for assassination.

Haiti has more than 200 armed gangs, according to United Nations and Haitian National Police figures. Most of them operate in the Western Department, and they don’t even try to hide their activities. They observe a truce only when they receive an order — and a lot of money — from government authorities.

These repeated connections between state authorities and armed gangs (in particular the gang that calls itself “G-9 Family and Allies”) are evident in a number of ways. Many police officers are linked to certain gangs such as G-9, led by the United Nations-sanctioned former police officer Jimmy Cherizier,  and “Kraze Baryè,” a gang led by Vitelhomme Innocent, who is on the U.S. FBI’s Most Wanted list and has connections to key Haitian officials and politicians. The U.S. State Department in November offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his arrest and/or conviction.

The Haitian National Police is the only body authorized by the country’s Constitution to use force. As of the end of 2021, there were approximately 16,000 active police officers, but that number has plunged to just 10,000 today, according to police figures. Because of the increasing attacks on police and corruption inside the ranks, many police officers have left the force and even fled the country since 2021. Some go to the United States, others to Panama and Mexico. For a country with a population of 12 million, that leaves 1 police officer per 1,200 citizens, about half the ratio in the United States, which had 2.4 officers per 1,000 people in 2018.

The Haitian National Police has several specialized units, but while the force had been well-trained and somewhat reliable in the past, these units have become increasingly – and corruptly — tied to specific government officials or private business tycoons, leading to an overall deterioration of the whole institution. The force also doesn’t regularly review and renew the vetting of its officers, such as to scrutinize them for their treatment of citizens and for possible signs of ill-gotten gains or other corruption.

The highest authority overseeing the police force is the National Superior Council (CSPN), which consists of the prime minister, the minister of justice, the minister of the interior, the director general of the Haitian National Police, and the chief inspector general. This means that the police decision-making body is composed of three political authorities, the majority of whom are often in collusion with criminals.

Separately, an illegally created military force ostensibly was established to improve security, as the police were increasingly losing control. But that’s not what has happened. The army was created under former Moïse in 2018, outside of any legal framework and in violation of the Constitution. Recruits are not vetted properly, citizens don’t know them as they do the police officers assigned to their neighborhoods, and there is great tension between the two forces. Because there is no transparency related to how the force operates, countries such as France, the United States, and Canada, and international organizations such as the United Nations do not support this army.

In addition to the deterioration of security in Haiti and the decline of the police force under Ariel’s administration, Haitian citizens face constant abuse of their civil, economic, political, and social rights. Judicial protection is not guaranteed, as the judiciary itself is corrupted. Since 2018, Haiti’s courts have operated only three months of the year. For the judicial year 2021-2022, only nine of the 18 trial courts have held criminal hearings and only 328 people have been tried criminally. Consequently, the proportion of the prison population of more than 11,600 who are still awaiting trial rose from 82 percent to 84 percent during that year.

But all of this boils down to Haiti’s underlying political crisis and the absence of democracy and proper governance. And that requires a political solution. Henry has appealed to the international community to send in a multinational peacekeeping force, but such a force cannot possibly be effective in the current political chaos. Henry effectively rules on his own, with no Parliament, as just last month, the mandate of the 10 remaining members of the Haitian Senate expired for lack of elections in recent years. And yet, elections make no sense in the current tumult.

A coalition of civil society organizations has reached agreement with key political figures on a potential path forward, but Henry has refused to engage, and the international community has failed to press him hard enough to do so. It is this political crisis that must be resolved to begin the process of re-establishing the rule of law in Haiti. It’s not possible to solve the security problem without addressing the political dysfunction to restore the governance that Haiti really needs.

IMAGE: Armed police officers walk through town during a demonstration after a gang attack on a police station which left six officers dead, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 26, 2023. The attacks, which left six officers dead, occurred on January 25 in the town of Liancourt, when officers had to repel four attacks by the gunmen as they tried to take over the station, according to local news. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)

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