Haitian cops are poorly paid and outgunned – and part of the problem

The country’s police force is in revolt after the government failed to protect them from criminal gangs that have overrun the country

Masked men raced around Port-au-Prince on motorbikes, firing their guns into the air, blocking major roads with burning tyres and bringing the Haitian capital to a standstill.

At one stage, the rioters flooded into the airport, trapping the prime minister, Ariel Henry, inside, and also attempted to break into Henry’s residence.

Given the extreme gang violence that has seized Haiti in the past year, the disorder was in some ways unsurprising.

This time, however, it was not the bandits terrorising the capital, but the country’s police force: enraged by a spate of police killings, officers took to the streets last week to demand a government response.

The riots were initially attributed to Fantom 509, a group of renegade cops who broke rank in 2020 and 2021, but as the protests spread it became clear it was not just a disruptive minority.

“Fantom 509 is very likely involved, but the protests are wider than that,” said Renata Segura, deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group.

Haiti has long been plagued by political turbulence and gang warfare, but has been plunged further into chaos since 2021 after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

The country now has not a single elected official and gangs control two-thirds of the capital. In their wake, the criminals have left unprecedented hunger, rampant human rights abuses and a deadly outbreak of cholera.

Now the police force itself is in revolt.

“Police officers feel the authorities do not care about their lives and taking to the street is the only way to be heard,”said Francisco Occil, spokesperson for Synapoha, a police union.

The catalyst that set off the latest rebellion was a grisly video showing the bodies of six young police officers lying naked on the floor, their weapons laid on top of them – a morbid attempt to humiliate the officers and demonstrate the power of the gangs.

The six officers, killed in the shootout with the Savien gang in the town of Liancourt, bring the number of officers killed in January to 15. At least 54 officers were killed by the gangs in 2022.

“What led to this level of outrage among officers is that they feel that their lives are worthless to the authorities and that they are being used as pawns in power games controlled by politicians,” said Diego Da Rin, an International Crisis Group Consultant and expert on Haiti.

The Caribbean nation has only 9,500 police officers serving its population of 12 million and they must fulfil many security roles, including those of the army. Haiti’s military was disbanded in 1995 for launching a series of coups and committing human rights abuses.

But Haiti’s security forces are outgunned by the gangs who flash their cash and automatic weapons on social media. They are also poorly led, said Louis-Henri Mars, the director of the Haitian peacebuilding non-profit Lakou Lapè.

When the latest killings were met by silence from public officials it added to officers’ suspicions that they are viewed by elites as cannon fodder.

A woman cries near the coffins during the funeral of three police officers killed by armed gangs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
A woman cries near the coffins during the funeral of three police officers killed by armed gangs in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Richard Pierrin/AFP/Getty Images

“So many young guys are getting killed and so far there’s been no reaction from the hierarchy except a press release,” Henri-Mars says. “Officers don’t read press releases! And when they are getting killed by the dozen, they don’t need press releases! They need a Napoleon in full war-gear down on the frontline … There is a real lack of leadership here.”

Officers feel officials make little effort to console the families of those killed in combat and whose bodies are frequently left rotting in gang strongholds, Occil said.

More than 3,000 officers have left the force since the beginning of 2021, Occil said, many as families asked them to drop out to avoid being killed.

Henry requested international military support to help take on the gangs in October 2022 but so far western nations have been reluctant to dispatch troops.

Like every institution in Haiti, the police force is highly infiltrated by criminal networks. Low-grade officers paid less than $200 (£162) a month are easily bought off by warlords while senior government officials sometimes commandeer units to wage warfare on behalf of gangs.

The police have also been accused of attacking the press as a way to silence criticism and shut down protests.

But in a failed state with no military, the force remains the last line of defence between criminals and the Haitian population, said Occil. But to succeed they need vehicles and weaponry, he said.

“It might seem outside of Haiti that the national police is not so powerful and somehow ineffective but we have the will to combat crime. We just lack the means.”

Occil said that the union did not advocate violent protest, but expected they will intensify if action is not taken quickly by the prime minister.

A day after the riot, prime minister Henry and the country’s police director, Frantz Elbé, made a public call for calm and pledged new actions to respond to the attacks against police officers.

Elbé announced the launch of “Operation Tornado”, a national counter-offensive against the gangs and assured that police stations across the country would be reinforced. New weapons and equipment are on their way but their shipment is delayed, the police director said.

The gangs responded more swiftly.

The day after the announcement of Operation Tornado, the Vitelhomme clan, notorious for assassinating the director of the police academy, used the cover of night to besiege a police station on the outskirts of the capital, using heavy machinery in the attack.

“This is a dark omen for the future of the Haitian police,” Da Rin said.


Luke Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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