Who Will Wrest Haiti From the Grip of Gang Rule?

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There’s no way ignoring the gang problem in Haiti anymore. The armed bandits, who since 2004 have sprouted under the watch of United Nations peace missions, now control most activities in the country. So, finally, there’s great concern by members of the international community about what’s happening in the Caribbean-island nation.

At a meeting of the Security Council on October 4, Helen Meagher La Lime, head of the United Nations Integrated Bureau in Haiti, or BINUH, was quite alarming, as she stated, “insecurity has become rampant in Port-au-Prince, as kidnappings are once again on the rise and gangs have extended their control over large swaths of the city.” Since she lives in the Port-au-Prince area, she only mentions the capital.

America’s former American special envoy, Daniel Foote, was more to the point in his scathing resignation letter. Sent September 22 to Secretary Blinken, the epistle read: “The people of Haiti [are] mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances.”

To underscore the gang problem, on Monday, Izo, the gang leader in control of the Martissant area, showed he was not joking when he warned, on Sunday, that people should stay away from the area. Those who failed to heed his warning paid the price, as more than one hundred people were taken hostage with their vehicles, while the police were totally absent.

Last week, gangs also seized several gasoline-laden trucks. They’ve started their own business selling the precious products at high prices creating a “tsunami,” as it was dubbed in the headline of the daily Le Nouvelliste, which interviewed the de facto prime minister who blamed the gangs for soaring fuel prices.

Since Ambassador Foote’s resignation, Washington has sent two high level missions to Port-au-Prince. After a two-day fact-finding mission on October 1, Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and Juan Gonzalez, deputy assistant secretary, were back in Washington, making no public statement.

Then on Tuesday, Uzra Zeya, under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, landed in the Haitian capital. After visiting a Police academy, she said “I was honored to meet motivated women and men cadets. The U.S. is committed to strengthening the Haitian National Police’s institutional capacity, including basic training, defending human rights, and countering impunity.”

Are we to believe that war is being declared against the gangs?

That same day, Secretary Blinken announced that Kenneth Merten, a veteran State Department hand and a former ambassador to Haiti, is the new chargé d’affaires, replacing Ambassador Michele Sison, under whose watch, the gangs have flourished.

If a policy change is in the offing, the agent of that change leaves much to be desired. Most Haitians are scratching their head about what are Washington’s intentions. Mr. Merten was ambassador in Port-au-Prince when Secretary of State Clinton engineered the “election” that made vaudeville singer Michel Joseph Martelly, self-styled “Legal Bandit,” president.

It’s Mr. Martelly and his prime minister, Laurent Salvador Lamothe, who organized and armed the gangs, providing them with ammunition. Initially, they carried out punitive missions in certain neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince considered hostile to the new regime. With gang support, the PHTK, or Bald-Headed Political Party, envisaged holding onto power for half a century.

Let us be clear of what is at stake now. The more than 100 gangs throughout the country dispose of more firepower than the police. They even kidnap and kill policemen. They invade churches, kidnapping preachers at the pulpit and gunning down anyone who opposes them. That happened September 26 to deacon Sylner Lafaille, at the First Baptist Church of Port-au-Prince, a block away from the national palace. Gangsters disappeared with his wife, now widow Marie-Marthe Laurant, as awed congregants watched in disbelief.

On April Fool’s Day, this year, a heavily armed bandit of the Krisla gang, closely connected to the assassinated President Jovenel Moise, kidnapped an Adventist Minister at the altar and three parishioners near Martissant. That made the rounds on social media because the service was being recorded for Facebook. Since the bandit was not masked, his identity was no secret to the Police. No one was arrested.

Not discriminating about religion, the gangs in Croix-des-Bouquets, 15 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, followed a week later, kidnapping a group of ten Catholic missionaries. Among them were two priests and two French citizens. They were held hostage more than two weeks until an undisclosed amount was paid for their release.

How could all this be happening under the watch of the United Nations? It was in part the problem of the official gangs that led, in 2004, to international intervention in Haiti in the first place. That caused the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who went into exile.

Then, the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti, known as MINUSTHA, came in and, according to former legislative deputy Jerry Tardieu, $10 billion was spent on the UN missions. It seems it could have been better used to train and equip the Haitian police and reorganize the Haitian armed forces. Who will be brought in in their place and who will lead the country on an interim basis during what might well be its greatest crisis?


Ambassador Joseph, a former Haitian ambassador in Washington, is the owner with his brother Leo of the Haiti Observateur and between 2002 and 2008 was a columnist of The New York Sun.

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