On eve of Kenyan delegation visit to Haiti, gang violence soars, bodies litter streets

A powerful gang leader is threatening retaliation. Government negotiations are deadlocked over how the country, which currently has no elected leaders, should be governed. Thousands of people are on the run. When a Kenyan security-assessment mission arrives in Port-au-Prince next week to assess whether the East African nation should lead a multinational mass deployment of law enforcement to help a violence-wracked Haiti, the delegation is going to find a country at a tipping point. Whether the Kenyans ultimately agree to send 1,000 police officers into Haiti to disarm deadly gangs and protect strategic installations will depend on what they see and get from the visit, which will take place amid another wave of brutal gang violence following a rise in vigilante justice.

A people-driven movement led to the lynchings of at least 350 people, including 310 alleged gang members and a police officer, since April, according to the United Nations. But it also led to a temporary drop in for-ransom abductions, and caused financial losses to gangs controlling Haiti’s lucrative kidnapping market after police blocked one of the main arteries into two powerful gangs’ kidnapping lairs. Now the gangs are back, and they are seeking revenge.

In the last few days, several neighborhoods of metropolitan Port-au-Prince — Carrefour-Feuilles, Croix-des-Bouquets and Solino —have come under persistent attacks as heavily armed groups seek to expand their territories, taking over neighborhoods block by block. On Friday, a barrage of gunfire could be heard only a few feet from the prime minister’s private residence in the Vivy Mitchell neighborhood. Armed men with the Kraze Barye gang, led by Vitel’homme Innocent, also reached within several feet of the police academy before being pushed back by cops. The same day, as automatic gunfire rang out less than 400 feet from the U.S. embassy, corpses littered the street in the Lilavois neighborhood, just north. A day before, armed men invaded the community and chased police away. A local gang warlord known as Jeff, who controls nearby Cannan, announced that he plans to control Lilavois and other parts of a Croix-des-Bouquets because they are the only open route leading to the north of the country. Further south near downtown Port-au-Prince, the soaring violence has led thousands in the Carrefour-Feuilles district to flee after months of resisting an invasion by the Grand Ravine gang and its allies, which includes a group of former and current corrupt police officers. The armed groups’ control of the hilltop district would provide uninhibited access to middle-class Port-au-Prince neighborhoods and open a new route for the kidnapping gangs to move hostages through.

Fleeing their homes with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, the displaced are now scattered throughout the Haitian capital, sleeping on cardboard in school yards and on the Champ de Mars public square across from the presidential palace. The brutal attacks started on Aug. 12, and have added to the misery. The International Rescue Committee announced this week that its Haitian aid groups, including mobile health clinics, are temporarily shutting down due to the violence. The U.N. said Friday that 200,000 people have now been internally displaced due to the extreme violence, and more than 2,400 have been killed over 900 others injured since January. Among the dead were a local municipal representative, his wife and child who lived in the Decayette section of Carrefour-Feuilles. They were shot and killed in their home, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

Hours earlier, five men and two women from the same family were burned alive when their home was set on fire by the Grand Ravine gang. All were reportedly targeted “because of their support for a local self-defense group” set up to confront the gangs, U.N. Human Rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said. While gang violence has escalated since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, observers believe that several elements are feeding the current cycle of violence.

There is the prospect of outside intervention, which the U.N. Security Council will consider following the visit by Kenya’s police assessment team, and pending general elections in Haiti. After months of not mentioning Haiti’s long-delayed elections, the United States and members of the 15-member U.N. Security Council are increasingly discussing them as they call for an end to the Caribbean nation’s political impasse. “The insecurity, forced displacement and the question of the gangs cannot be detached from what’s happening politically in terms of the coming elections,” said Gédéon Jean, a human-rights lawyer whose Port-au-Prince-based Research and Analysis Center for Human Rights, has been closely tracking the violence.

Jean said that armed groups have been consolidating and reinforcing their power since late last year. That partly explains the latest assaults on the population, which spread from Carrefour-Feuilles this week to the eastern and northern outskirts of the capital. As the violence escalated, a powerful gang leader who had not been heard from in months entered the dynamic. Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former cop who is now a gang leader, vowed to fight any international armed forces deployed to the country if they commit abuses like rapes or introducing diseases like cholera, which U.N. peacekeeping forces were accused of doing after arriving in 2004. “We Haitians will stand up and fight against them until our last breath,” Chérizier said. He accused Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government of being responsible for the violence and for “sending for an international force under the pretext of insecurity to consolidate their power.”

Chérizier said gangs would welcome the international force if it were to arrest Henry and corrupt politicians, police and oligarchs who are selling guns in Haiti’s slums. Under sanctions from both the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council, Chérizier is accused of carrying out several massacres. GANGS WILL FIGHT Keith Mines, who directs the Latin America program at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, said any foreign force deployed to Haiti should be aware that it will face skepticism from citizens and be challenged by gangs, which now control at least 80% of the capital. In the case of the Kenyan officers, most of whom. do not speak French or Creole and have a poor human-rights record, they will need to have “a strong capacity to engage on a certain level with gangs as well, given how entrenched they are and in many cases their political connections,” Mines said. “Many foot soldiers and some leaders will be willing to stand down if properly incentivized, but they will fight if threatened,” he added. “Community engagement will be key.”

A lot is riding on the Kenyan visit even as some Haiti experts wonder if a police force known more for containing protests and riots can take on Haiti’s heavily armed, brutal gangs. But if not them, then who? “The police can’t do it,” said Jean, the lawyer. “The people will die, because who is going to secure them?” The Haitian police, which some accuse of being unmotivated and not responding to the latest rash in violence, has only 3,300 officers on active public-safety duty throughout the country at any one time, according to the U.N. There are even fewer on anti-gang operations; one specialized unit has been running operations nonstop since Jan. 29.

“They don’t have the means, technology, equipment or guns,” Jean said. “They don’t even have a helicopter.” The U.S. says if Kenya agrees to lead a force into Haiti, it will jump-start the process of improving security by ultimately prompting other countries to send thousands of additional personnel to secure infrastructure sites and allow the embattled Haitian police to increase their focus on battling gangs. However, only the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda have publicly pledged to contribute police and military officers so far. The coalition that restored democracy in Haiti in 1994 numbered 21,000 officers; the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti that returned a decade later to quell tensions numbered 13,000 at its peak, Mines noted.

“Given the complexity of the mission it is difficult to see how it would be effective with less than 10,000,” he said. Too small a number of international police officers, Mines argues, will increase the risk that the force will be challenged and possibly fail. “There is a lot of work still to do to design and deploy a multinational force that is effective,” he said. “The Kenyans will need to be insistent on not going at it alone, and clear on what their needs are to succeed. This is much easier when done through the U.N. system, or when led by a country like the U.S. that can provide the core of the force, and logistics, intelligence, operational planning, etc. up front. Absent that, it must be cobbled together, and I can’t think of when it has been done quite like this.” A YEAR OF ASKING Kenya’s announcement last month that it has “accepted to positively consider” leading a force into Haiti came nearly a year after Henry and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on the international community to help. Though the Biden administration supported the call for a non-U.N. security mission to Haiti, it has made clear that it doesn’t want to be the one leading it.

This, some Haiti experts believe, is the reason Haiti’s Latin American neighbors with armies and experience battling armed groups on the country’s complicated terrain have declined to take on the leading role. “The U.S. has traditionally been the sheriff leading the posse,” Mines said. “It now wants to round up the posse and send them on their way, while it monitors things from the saloon.” Jorge Heine, a former Chilean diplomat, said “it is extraordinary that in the Americas there is nobody, there is no country, no government that is willing to step up” to help.

“People talk about something called ‘the Community of the Americas’ and here you have Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, and nobody is willing to step up? The prime minister has to call on Africa, and Kenya steps in?” Heine said. “What does that tell us about the condition of the Western Hemisphere… that nobody is willing to do anything, starting from the United States, but also Brazil, Chile, Mexico? I think it’s a disgrace.” Heine, who is currently a research professor at Boston University’ Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, said the lack of volunteers from the hemisphere “reflects very badly on U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.” He recalled how in 2004, a call from Secretary of State Colin Powell led to countries sending forces to Haiti, including Chile, which “within 72 hours, had 300 men” in Port-au-Prince. “Here you have a very serious crisis and nothing is happening,” he said. “The notion that you can simply forget about Haiti …is in my mind quite native. Haiti is becoming a failed state and failed states just don’t fail by themselves.”



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