US is training Haiti police to combat gangs, but that’s not only security worry

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Kidnappings are rampant, averaging one every six hours last year, while killings are up, with 2,200 homicides in 2022, a dramatic increase over the previous year.

The size of Haiti’s national police force is less than half of what it needs to be. Corruption and collusion with gangs are serious problems. Morale is low and so is the pay. Last year, during a training exercise, officers didn’t even have bullets for target practice. And rampaging gangs made last month the deadliest for Haitian cops in recent memory, killing 14 officers.

Todd Robinson, the Biden administration official in charge of helping Haiti equip and bolster its police force, is under no illusions about the challenges he faces in helping a country root out kidnapping gangs that control at least 60% of its capital.

“We recognize that they are in a really challenging environment,” Robinson, 59, said about the Haiti National Police after seeing some of the chaos for himself during a visit to the country last month in the middle of police rioting to protest the death of six officers.

A former journalist before he became a career diplomat in the State Department, Robinson has a reputation for taking on tough assignments and delivering tough messages, especially on the topics of democracy and human rights in the region.

As ambassador to Guatemala in 2014-17, he faced expulsion threats more than once for speaking out. As chargé d’affaires in the U.S. embassy in Venezuela, a year later, he was booted out of the country by leader Nicolás Maduro after the Trump administration called his presidential victory “a sham.”

Other diplomatic posts have included the neighboring Dominican Republic, Bolivia, El Salvador and Colombia. Before becoming assistant secretary of state in charge of the Bureau of Narcotics and International Law Enforcement Affairs in September 2021, Robinson once served as its deputy assistant secretary.

His resume also includes stints as director of the International Student Management Office at the National Defense University and in the Bureau of the Western Hemisphere in Washington as a senior adviser for Central America.

Haiti, however, may prove to be one of his toughest assignments yet.

The day before Robinson landed in Port-au-Prince, six police officers were killed in a gang ambush during three successive attacks on a station in Liancourt, a rural municipality in the Artibonite Valley. A seventh officer later died, bringing the total of number of slain cops for January to 14 — and at least 78 since July 2021, when the Biden administration began spending in earnest to bolster Haiti’s National Police following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Since then, the U.S. has spent $92 million, said a State Department spokesperson. The amount has gone for training as well as new armored vehicles and equipment like ballistic vests and helmets.

“We have some vehicles coming. We are working to get more armored vehicles delivered over the next few weeks. All of this should be assigned to those that want to fight against violence and chaos in Haiti,” Robinson told the Miami Herald after inspecting some of the equipment being delivered.

The U.S., he said, will continue to do what it can to outfit the police and to get others in the international community to contribute. Vetting, he noted, is a top priority and every member of a new SWAT unit his bureau is training underwent rigorous background checks before being allowed into the program.

“Is it enough? No,” Robinson acknowledged, stressing that the U.S., like the rest of the international community, doesn’t control all of the factors that go into making Haiti’s police force a viable institution capable of securing the country on its own. “But it’s what we can do right now and we’re doing everything we can in our power to be helpful.”

Haiti is just one security challenge

Haiti is at the extreme end of the security challenges for the U.S. in the hemisphere. However, its unprecedented gang violence isn’t the only issue Robinson and his team face in the region.

Traditional concerns like cocaine and illegal-arms trafficking in the Caribbean area, which now account for about half of all firearms-export investigations by U.S. federal agencies, remain high priority, but there are new threats. They include China and its growing influence in the Caribbean and Latin America through an investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative, and its vast illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing operations off the Galápagos Islands.

“You now have roads being built by Chinese companies of questionable quality, you have infrastructure projects being done of questionable quality and you have grants and loans being made that are in many cases not favorable to the countries that are actually signing these contracts, but are favorable to certain politicians in these countries,” Robinson said about the Belt and Road Initiative. “Russia as well…. All of these things are on our radar screen.”

And then there is fentanyl. The synthetic opioid, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, is a “game-changer” in the region and is challenging U.S. officials in different ways.

“We are seeing increased use of synthetic opioids in Mexico. We are seeing increased indications of encroaching corruption in order to safeguard the routes and networks being used to traffic these drugs,” Robinson said. “The fact that you can make these drugs in a room…. and make enough to wipe out entire communities is really changing the game and we’ve been going at it in a more traditional way.

“We’ve been attacking this issue like we attacked cocaine and we attacked heroin without fully understanding that the game has changed,” he said as he sat in the diplomatic lounge of the Toussaint Louverture Airport late last month. “You don’t need a growing season. For synthetic opioids, you don’t need land. You can’t count the production supply line by, you know, having drones flying over and looking at how many hectares have been planted for this crop. We need to look at this in a completely different way.”

The same argument is being made about Haiti.

In a recent survey of 1,327 Haitians on the country’s security challenges, over 70% of respondents did not think the Haiti National Police has the ability to solve the crisis on its own or to deal with the gang problem. Some 69% were in favor of an international force, according to the survey conducted for the Alliance for Risk Management and Business Continuity.

While meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Henry and Haiti National Police Director Frantz Elbé inside a secured location in the airport while police demonstrated outside over their fallen comrades, Robinson took copious notes but also brought his message from Washington, tucked inside a black binder.

By the time he emerged with U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Eric Stromayer, most of the chaos that had greeted his arrival had dissipated. Haiti was his first foreign trip for the year, after ending last year with visits to the West Bank, Jordan and Pakistan.

On his second day in Haiti Robinson received a security briefing inside the U.S. embassy, located between two gang strongholds. Empty seats around the conference table underscored the tensions. While two foreign diplomats were present, several others engaged in helping the police force were no-shows because a police strike had left the capital’s normally traffic-clogged roads empty and even more vulnerable to kidnapping gangs and violence.

En route to the airport, Robinson had one more stop — to see the a new SWAT team the U.S. is training in action.

As an officer on a microphone explained the exercises, a group of trainees ran through a makeshift obstacle course, swinging on bars and crawling through tight spaces to reach the finish line. A Mine Protected Armored vehicle soon barreled across the yard, its backdoor swinging open, as it took part in a simulated hostage rescue.

As officers ran out of the armored vehicles, they quickly filed into position. Some stood on look out, pointing their weapons, while others made their way up five shipping containers stacked one on top of the other before finally emerging with the “victim.”

“SWAT has really really developed considerably,” Elbé, the police chief, told Robinson, as he expressed his gratitude for the latest equipment delivery and asked for more American-made armored vehicles.

“Day-by-day, they prove their maturity. They’re working on discipline, respect of principles and the rule of law,” Elbé said. “In the history of the Haiti National Police, SWAT is the unit that has the least number of cases of poor human rights or lack of discipline.”

Impressed by what he saw, Robinson said the demonstrations are “a real example of the progress that can be made in a short period of time with officers who are committed to doing the right thing.”

Then, he addressed the reality: A nation falling apart with no elected president or parliament, and deepening political instability amid a humanitarian, economic and security crisis.

He acknowledged that despite all the best efforts of the international community, some things are up to Haiti, which on Monday installed a new three-member High Council of Transition, which is supposed to help pave a way for elections.

“There are some things that we can’t control. We can’t control recruitment. We don’t control the Haitian budget for the government,” Robinson said. “And we don’t control the political environment that clearly needs to change to put Haiti back on the right path. And those are not insignificant issues by any means.

“But we’re going to do what we can do to help to try to help create the space necessary to address some of those issues, like the political environment, the political situation and offering some measure of relief for a national police structure that is, is working overtime to bring some measure of security to ordinary Haitians.”

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