The latest round of violence in Haiti has gotten so fierce that the armed gangs that have terrorized large parts of the capital are targeting the police themselves and their stations.
In the past week, nine police stations have been attacked, at least 15 weapons stolen and a Haitian police inspector killed. Seven other officers have died in metropolitan Port-au-Prince amid violent clashes between warring gangs that have forced thousands of Haitians to flee from their homes along the southern edge of the capital since the start of this month.
The attacks, six of which occurred almost simultaneously on Saturday night, come as a five-member delegation from the Organization of American States arrives in the volatile country Tuesday for a two-day visit. Members include the permanent representatives of the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a representative of Secretary General Luis Almagro. The hemispheric organization has said it hopes to facilitate a political dialogue between the government, members of the opposition and civil society amid the deepening political and constitutional crisis and worsening violence.
But the OAS, which was invited by President Jovenel Moïse, is not held in good standing in Haiti and its mission isn’t clearly defined, critics say. Supporters of Moïse have been portraying the visit as solely for fact finding. This and confusion over whether the OAS will take on the role of negotiator have led to doubt about its ability to help break the crippling political impasse that could derail presidential and legislative elections this year, which the Biden administration has been insisting on.
And now, the recent gang flare-up and deadly attacks have not only left police officers dead and multiple police stations ransacked, but thousands displaced after they were forced to flee under barrages of gunfire. Haiti’s government, which remained silent during much of the violence, finally announced Sunday that the neighborhoods involved, Martissant and Fontamara, were back under police control and police were intensifying efforts to fight gangs. The director general of the national police confirmed two of the attacks and the death of an inspector.
The attacks and gang violence, which also spilled out into several other gang-controlled neighborhoods late Sunday in the Delmas community, have sent a wave of panic through the rank and file of the Haiti National Police’s already beleaguered force. They have also raised questions about the department’s ability to provide security during an election or a controversial referendum on a new constitution that Moïse has been insisting on. Late Monday, Haiti announced that it was postponing the controversial June 27 referendum due to the ongoing COVID-19 surge, and said arrangements would be made for a revised electoral timetable.
“The government of Haiti has failed in its primary duty as a sovereign state: to protect its people. It now seems to not even be trying to protect the population,” said William G. O’Neill, an international human-rights lawyer who worked for the U.N. in the mid-1990s as it rebuilt the police force. “I agree with some commentators who say this is now worse than it was under the Duvaliers, a damning indictment of the current government. What will the U.N., the OAS and other international actors do now?”
Should the referendum, which is opposed by a broad section of Haitian society including the Catholic Church and private sector, actually take place, the vote would be the first overseen solely by the Haitian police since the departure of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in 2019 after 15 years.
“I’m perplexed by the [Biden] administration’s lack of focus on this issue considering that they should know this is going to get worse, and it’s going to get worse dramatically if someone, or a collection of countries, don’t step in quickly,” said Georges Fauriol , a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “In that context, the OAS mission is in some ways an unfortunate distraction because I can’t imagine it’s in a position of changing anything on the ground. It lacks any credibility.”
Fauriol believes the OAS mission “is doomed to fail.” He said given the recent violence in Haiti, he assumed the OAS would have canceled the visit.
On Sunday, after the government’s Office for the Protection of the Citizen, the country’s ombudsman, condemned the violence in Martissant and Fontamara, Haiti’s justice minister and acting prime minister finally broke their silence on the unfolding violence.
In a press conference, both acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph and Haiti National Police Chief Léon Charles said that police had restored control of a major road leading south from the capital that had been blocked by the gang clashes. Joseph spoke of visiting the area near where the violence occurred and said that he had convened three security meetings in 72 hours to address the situation.
During the press conference, Charles condemned the assassination of police Division Inspector Myradel Adolphe, who was killed Saturday evening during an armed attack against the Drouillard police station at the entrance of the Cité Soleil slum. Another officer was injured in the attack.
By Sunday night, however, seven other police officers were also killed in clashes with gangs, said Pierre Esperance, the head of the National Human Rights Defense Network. His human rights organization has documented the attacks on the nine police stations and officers between June 1 and Monday.
“Three police officers died in Portail St. Joseph and four others, who were part of an intervention brigade, were in a vehicle on Grand Rue and they were attacked [Sunday] afternoon,” Esperance said. “They blanketed the vehicle with gunfire, and those police officer died. When the police chief was talking at the press conference, the attack at Portail St. Joseph and Grand Rue had not yet happened.”
Esperance said 32 police officers — almost five a month — have been killed in Haiti since the beginning of the year. HNP spokeswoman Marie Michel Verier did not respond to a request from the Miami Herald for comment, or confirmation of the deaths.
“There isn’t a minimum of security for citizens to circulate; so how can you expect there to be a minimum of security for voters or candidates to go campaigning?” Esperance said. “It’s the gangs who are in control. They operate when they want, and when they are operating, it’s the police who are on the run.”
Violence by armed groups, who are also behind an alarming spike in kidnappings, has proliferated in Haiti in recent years as the country wrestles with growing political unrest and economic collapse. Better armed than the police, the gangs are routinely involved in clashes over territory.
A report by the Harvard Law School and a Haitian crime observatory recently accused the Haitian government and police of providing resources such as money, weapons, government vehicles and police uniform to gangs that carried out deadly massacres in three poor neighborhoods between 2018 and 2020. The massacres targeted the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of La Saline, Bel-Air and Cité Soleil.
The government has denied allegations that it is colluding with armed gangs, and has accused opposition groups of financing the armed groups.
Videos shared on social media during the recent Martissant attacks showed several armed gunmen brandishing automatic weapons with police uniforms and bulletproof vests belonging to specialized police units. Videos also showed images of young women and men who had been killed during the conflict.
Esperance said the death toll of the conflict remains unknown. His office has so far confirmed that at least 100 homes were either burned or destroyed in Martissant.
On Tuesday morning, automatic weapon fire could still be heard in Martissant. Haiti observers say the situation remains volatile, and it’s the police who are caught in the middle and will end up being among the victims.
“Attacks on police stations are emblematic of the depth of the mess — a direct challenge to all authority. This is a movie we’ve seen before,” said Fulton Armstrong, a Haiti expert and senior faculty fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.
Armstrong said he personally has no confidence that the OAS will find a solution because, among other reasons, “Almagro takes his guidance from the regional right wing, especially Washington, and even the right wing has no idea of what to do.”
“The fact is that the referendum has made even the [U.S. government], which is extremely tolerant of attacks on democracy in Haiti, uncomfortable — even if not uncomfortable enough to lean on Moïse in strong ways,” he said, adding that “the security situation is such that voting will take place under a dark shadow and in a deep fog.”
Jacky Lumarque, the rector of the University Quisqueya, who took his frustration to Twitter, said while Haitians are responsible for what is happening, the international community is not without blame. Referencing its heavy hands in the last two Haitian presidential races, and the Biden administration’s insistence that Haiti hold elections, Lumarque said the conditions are not there for any kind of vote.
“The conditions don’t exist to do neither a constitutional referendum nor an election,” he said. “The gangs are not against the government, they are inside the government and they are inside the police at all levels.”
Lumarque said he welcomes the OAS mission to Haiti, and would like to invite them to hold their meeting in downtown Port-au-Prince, just yards away from the violence, or Martissant, or better yet, in the south, which had four of its departments cut off by the gang clashes during the six days.
“Let’s head to the south to have a consultation,” he said, “it’s not only the Republic of Port-au-Prince that should be the concern of the OAS.”