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They lack guns, bullets and body armor. How are Haiti’s cops confronting gangs?

Miami Herald - 7/9/2022

When a bloody gang war erupted in a busy business district east of Haiti’s capital not far from the U.S. Embassy, Haitian police officers were forced to mount a military-style assault just to reclaim one intersection.

Armed with rifles and bulletproof vests, they marched in behind a bulldozer, clearing tires, wooden tables and even an overturned trailer used by the gangs to block the road.

But weeks later, holding the ground is a strenuous effort.

On a recent weekday, three officers in the specialized Motorized Intervention Brigade, or BIM, joined regular officers in checking passing cars at a checkpoint at the strategic traffic artery at Butte-Boyer 75 in Croix-des-Missions. The traffic-heavy intersection borders two gang strongholds on the eastern outskirts of metropolitan Port-au-Prince.

Dressed in camouflage, the rapid-reaction BIM officers were armed only with standard-issue 9mm pistols strapped around their legs. None wore bulletproof body armor, which like the ammunition for their guns is hard to come by.

Police fear it’s only a matter of time before members of the powerful 400 Mawozo gang, armed with U.S.-made assault-style rifles, retake this strategic intersection — or completely turn the vast Cul-de-Sac Plain of agricultural land, commercial businesses and private homes into a no-man’s-land of kidnappings, carnage and gang war like the southern entrance of the capital.

“We are not afraid,” a 20-year veteran of the force, Inspector Arne Vitto Georges, said about taking on the country’s powerful gangs. “But we are policing with our bare hands.”

As Haitian police struggle to reclaim this teeming capital’s streets amid rising gang violence and kidnappings, officers say they are badly outgunned and lack the basic equipment they need to keep order. Bulletproof vests, even work boots, are difficult to get. Ammunition? Nearly impossible. So are high-powered automatic rifles.

While the gangs have been able to acquire assault rifles and ammunition through illegal trafficking at Haiti’s ports — like the 120,000 rounds police seized on July 1 from a boat arriving from the U.S. — the police have been barred by U.S. arms restrictions and red tape from purchasing their own. Other nations also have been reluctant to sell the police force weapons out of fear of running afoul of U.S. laws — or that the guns will end up in the hands of bandits, due to a history of arms disappearing from government stockpiles. So police use weapons seized from gang members or acquire them through government workarounds.

Armored vehicles also are not readily available or reliable. Two days after Vitelhomme Innocent, the leader of a gang in nearby Torcel, forced the U.S. Embassy to restrict employees’ travel in June with his automatic bursts of gunfire, only three of the police’s 15 armored vehicles were working. The rest were in need of repairs.

That meant police were forced to patrol from the back of open pickup trucks, and left to respond at checkpoints with just their rusty Uzis and Galils, if they were fortunate enough to have them.

“It’s not easy,” said Livenston Gauthier, 48, the police commissioner for the Tabarre district. “You can’t have semi-automatic weapons if you’re battling with a guy who has an automatic rifle.”

A 25-year veteran of the Haitian police, Gauthier talks about policing in Haiti today in much the same way an army general speaks of being on a battlefield in war.

“At this moment, if we don’t see ourselves as military soldiers, you would allow the violence to spread and no one would be able to come here,” he said, as he prepared to lead a Miami Herald reporter and photographer on a police ride-along through his district, which has increasingly become a gang target. “Now we’ve had to adapt to the situation at hand in order to allow the population to function. But it’s not our mission. Our role is to control circulation, to protect people’s property and their lives.”

Gauthier arrived in Tabarre late last year when it was still relatively quiet. He had been posted in nearby Croix-des-Bouquets, the stronghold of 400 Mawozo. His officers jokingly call him “the man of the streets,” because of his reputation as a boots-on-the-ground leader, with a penchant for unexpectedly showing up at checkpoints.

“You have to accompany them, you have to always be encouraging them,” Gauthier said of the force, which suffers from low morale. “If you are not in the streets, you will get maybe only 10 percent of their effort.”

Haiti police vs. gangs

For months now, Gauthier and his counterpart in Croix-des-Bouquets, Principal Police Commissioner Roger Lamartinière, have been trying to fight off gang control. The lowland valley serves as a gateway to five regional departments — the northeast, northwest, north, the central plateau and parts of the southeast — as well as the border with the Dominican Republic.

Having already taken over the farmland to the east, 400 Mawozo is trying to expand its territory into Tabarre and its surroundings.

Tabarre is home to the U.S. Embassy and its residential compound, the residence of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the United Nations’ International Office for Migration. Also located in the suburb are the headquarters of the Haiti National Police and the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police, whose officers investigate crimes. They are next door to the international and domestic airports.

Behind both police headquarters is the country’s leading cigarette manufacturer, Comme il Faut. It is smack in the middle of the territory of the “Chen Mechan” gang, which was the target of the deadly assault 400 Mawozo launched in late April, setting off weeks of violence.

By the time it subsided 12 days later, thousands of residents had been forced from their homes. At least 191 men, women and children had been shot to death, burned, and in some cases chopped up with machetes, their body parts thrown into wells and latrines, according to the National Human Rights Defense Network in its latest report on what it’s now calling the “Carnage of the Cul-du-Sac Plain.”

“In addition to the human and material losses recorded during this carnage, relatives have witnessed the execution of their offspring, others were murdered in the presence of their children, most of whom are young,” the human rights group said. “Many people have been forced to abandon their loved ones, and at least one spouse has witnessed the repeated rape of his partner.”

Gauthier said the violence and lawlessness have left police with no other option but to engage in head-to-head combat with well-armed gang members, even when the police are under-equipped and the institution is underfunded.

“The police weren’t trained for these kinds of missions,” he said. “But we had to totally adapt to the situation.”

Adapting has meant blanketing the district with police checkpoints with officers deployed from all the specialized units and even rookies.

The U.S. Embassy is located 1.5 miles from the base of 400 Mawozo, the gang that threatened to kill 16 Americans and a Canadian it was holding hostage if their Christian aid organization didn’t pay $1 million per hostage.

Even though the gang’s leader was extradited in May to the U.S. to face kidnapping and weapons trafficking charges, the violence and turf war by the gang and its Torcel affiliate have continued. On Thursday, U.S. prosecutors charged a second member of 400 Mawozo, Jean Pelice, with hostage-taking for his role in the kidnapping of the missionaries. Pelice was transferred to the U.S. on May 16 and made his initial appearance Thursday afternoon in the federal court in Washington, D.C.

Less than a mile from the embassy, down the same dusty 15 October Boulevard, are the Magistrates’ School and the National Police Academy, where judges and new police officers are trained. Both are located in the Pernier/Torcel neighborhood where gang leader and 400 Mawozo ally Innocent has been gaining control as gang members step up abductions of Haitians and foreigners alike.

Police say their beefed-up presence here isn’t about protecting the embassy, but rather about guarding the last “safe spaces” in a country where gangs are increasingly controlling large swaths of the capital.

“We are present in all of the spaces,” said Gauthier, standing a stone’s throw from the U.S. Embassy, pistol in his back waist and a heavily armed female officer at his side. “We are trying to maximize our presence as much as possible.”

U.S. yet to start training of new police unit

The challenges Haiti’s police face have been the focus of three high-level international meetings since last year, following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. Members plan to meet again Friday.

After France hosted an April meeting, the U.S. State Department noted that it had provided 60 vehicles to the Haitian police and was working with its leadership ”to develop an elite unit capable of high-impact arrests and anti-gang operations, as well as expand its community policing efforts to regain the trust of citizens in gang-affected neighborhoods.”

But as of July, no training by the U.S. had begun, even though the State Department had said Haitians could expect to “see visible progress by mid-summer.” France, which made a similar commitment to help create a new SWAT corps, has already started its training.

Haiti’s acting police chief has put together his own strike force, made up of officers capable of rapid response. But whether the unit can hold ground with a force that is thinning almost daily and facing multiple gang uprisings remains in question.

On the books, there are 15,459 registered police officers — far fewer than the 20,000 officers the International Crisis Group estimated back in 2011 the force needed to be fully operational and to protect a then-population of 10 million.

In reality, according to the U.N., there are only some 12,800 active officers as of May 31.

“It’s not a secret for anyone: Village de Dieu, Grand Ravine, Torcel, where it has just started, Canaan, La Tremblay, several neighborhoods have gangs in them,” Frantz Elbé, the director general of the Haiti National Police, told the Herald in an interview. “As a result, the police are fighting every day against bandits in these different zones.

“In the old days, the gangs used handguns to commit crimes,” Elbé said. “Today, the gangs have access to automatic arms, high-powered weapons.”

There is only so much the police can do on their own without help in stopping the illegal-arms trafficking and without government investment in areas now controlled by gangs.

“It requires the involvement of different actors in the country,” Elbé said.

Elbé acknowledges that hundreds of officers have abandoned their jobs in recent months. Chatter among the rank and file says most, including those with the elite anti-drug-trafficking brigade, have left for the United States and Canada.

Those who haven’t fled have found themselves unable to go home at night, sleeping in police stations because of the violence.

Elbé, who is anxiously awaiting the government’s new equipment order for the police, said when he came into office he found a divided police force.

“The police officers lacked motivation,” he said. “From time to time we visit the police bases, the substations, the departmental offices, the specialized units. We visit them, we talk to them about problems they have. However, we must show we care and take their concerns seriously.”

Foreign troops vs. Haitian police

In June, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the future of its presence in Haiti, which has been without a Parliament for two and a half years and on Thursday marked a year since the still unsolved assassination of Moïse.

There was talk going into the meeting that Haiti, which saw its main courthouse seized by a gang just days before, would ask for U.N. troops and a strike team. Instead, Foreign Minister Jean Victor Géneus asked for the international community to reinforce the police. That would involve U.N. training of the police and U.N police accompanying them on missions, both of which are unlikely to happen.

“With the limited means at our disposal, we are doing our best,” Géneus told the Security Council. “The difficulties encountered by the Haitian administration to obtain armored vehicles and lethal equipment continue to put the [Haiti National Police] in a situation of inferiority compared to the gangs, which manage to obtain supplies through smuggling.”

Géneus did not offer any details on the government’s difficulties. Interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, however, has been expressing frustrations over delays and blockages in trying to outfit the police. (The U.S., which has provided more than $250 million to the Haitian police since 2010, has said that while the International Traffic in Arms Regulations do not regulate the purchase of arms, they do regulate the ability to export such arms to Haiti. The U.S. maintains a policy of denial with respect to applications for authorization to export any defense articles or defense services to Haiti.)

The lack of enthusiasm on the part of foreign governments to help Haiti’s police combat gangs is evident in the tepid response to a recently created U.N. multi-donor “basket fund.” Of $28 million being requested for intelligence gathering, professionalization of the force and other needs outlined in a 2021 Haitian government audit, only $7.8 million has been pledged, the U.N. said.

Kesner Pharel, a Port-au-Prince economist, said while many factors have contributed to the struggles of the police, the lack of investment spending by multiple Haitian governments and the international community is a major culprit.

His analysis of the money allocated to the force over a 10-year period shows that while the police were recruiting new officers each year, the institution remained underfunded with no additional money to strengthen the force.

“The spending was just flat,” Pharel said. “In one fiscal year, it was zero. They didn’t get anything to build police substations, or to get additional guns.”

Most of the spending, he said, has gone for salaries, which remain low.

“You have a police force that is not getting paid on time, and exposing their lives, so temptation is there,” he said, alluding to allegations that corruption is rampant within the institution and officers often collude with gangs and are involved in the ongoing kidnapping racket.

The police, Pharel said, suffer from a host of problems, and lack of money is just one of them.

“You have to have a vision. You have to have a strategic plan for security,” he said. “And you need an action plan.”

‘We have the will to do the job’

Back on the tension-filled streets in Tabarre and nearby Croix-des-Bouquets, officers say that even though they have many grievances — late salaries, low pay, lack of raises and no equipment, to name a few — they want to work, and they want to take back the streets from the gangs.

“We have the conviction, we have the will to do the job,” said Angelo Gerald Dieujuste, 26, on patrol in a red zone with two rookies and three veterans. “We are prepared to work. We just need the proper equipment to advance.”

As he spoke, Dieujuste held an M-4 assault rifle. Next to him, a fellow 26-year-old rookie holding a rusty Uzi kept a close watch on the road as honking vehicles zigzagged around muddy potholes.

Turning to his partner, who graduated from the police academy with him in December, Dieujuste noted that while the officer had on a bulletproof vest, it did not have an armor plate inside.

“We need more materials, more equipment so we can strike back,” he said.

The streets of Tabarre are busy this particular day. Overnight rain has turned the road into a muddy river, with garbage floating downstream. Despite the heavy traffic, tensions remain high.

“Everybody is scared to come out and drink,” said Jean Raymond Dorcely, 47, who runs a bar and nail salon. “When I first opened this business, every night I used to sell like two cases of beers. Now I can’t even sell like half a case the whole day.”

While grateful for the breathing room the police presence has provided, Dorcely said Haitians know things can change at a moment’s notice.

“Everybody has guns,” he said. “You never know who is going to come and take you away.”

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