Haiti sees “staggering loss” of police officers

Haiti police on patrol keep their eyes on traffic during a stop at a police checkpoint in Tabarre, near the U.S. Embassy, just east of metropolitan Port-au-Prince. Gangs have taken control of neighborhoods in the vicinity.

Haiti police on patrol keep their eyes on traffic during a stop at a police checkpoint in Tabarre, near the U.S. Embassy, just east of metropolitan Port-au-Prince. Gangs have taken control of neighborhoods in the vicinity.


Haiti’s struggling police force has lost nearly 800 officers in the first six months of this year, “a staggering loss” in the midst of a new escalation in violence that’s forcing thousands of Haitians to abandon their homes and leading to fears that all of Port-au-Prince will be under gang control in the coming days.

The figure, 774 officers, was cited by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a highly anticipated report that he sent to the U.N. Security Council last month on how the global agency could help Haiti’s U.S.-backed national police force quell the escalating violence.

The number, the U.N. chief said, is “a staggering loss compared to an average attrition of around 400 police per year in the past.”

While Guterres didn’t offer a breakdown of the tally, other than to say the number included 77 women, he said the loss was caused by “resignations and post abandonment (with many officers leaving the country), dismissals, retirements, and fatalities in the line of duty.”

The revelation comes as armed attacks against residents of several neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince continue to escalate. Residents report that heavy gunfire from automatic weapons is increasingly disturbing their sleep and sending them on a desperate flight out of their homes.

One neighborhood, Carrefour-Feuilles, has long been coveted by armed groups because of its strategic geographical location. Located on Morne L’Hôpital, a steep hill that rises above the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, Carrefour-Feuilles is less than two miles from Haiti’s National Palace. A working-class community, it also lies close to Grand Ravine and Ti Bwa, two slum communities currently in the grips of gangs, which use them as kidnapping lairs.

With gangs already controlling about 80% of the capital, control of the hilltop would provide greater access to moving kidnapped victims along currently blocked roads and place the gangs within a mile’s reach of the National Penitentiary, where an attempt to break the prison was thwarted by police during the recent attacks. It would also provide gangs easier access to other well-to do communities like Pacot, where U.S. government employees once lived prior to the devastating 2010 earthquake, and Turgeau, where the headquarters of telecom giant Digicel is currently located along with the Marriott Hotel.

As rumors spread Friday that gangs were getting closer to some neighborhoods, residents continued to flee as homes were looted and set ablaze by gangs openly walking the streets. Riding behind motorcycle taxis, residents carried mattresses and important documents. At the Faculty of Human Sciences in Carrefour-Feuilles, the administration closed the institution and moved their prized archives, which aren’t digitized, to a safer place, the Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste reported.

In October, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested the help of the international community with the immediate deployment of a foreign armed force to help the police combat gangs. The request was later backed by Guterres and the United States, which have struggled to get a multinational force into Haiti.

In July, Kenya said it would consider leading a non-U.N. force and deploying 1,000 of its police officers to help train and assist the Haiti National Police. During a recent meeting with Haitian officials and foreign diplomats, a delegation from the East African nation elaborated on its offer of “a static protection force” whose officers would guard key government installations like the airport, seaport, police academy and main roads.

The idea has been rejected by many Haitians, who say they want a force to come help the police fight the gangs. The contours of the Kenyan mandate will ultimately be decided by the Security Council, which has yet to receive a resolution to vote on whether to deploy a foreign force to Haiti.

Meanwhile, the U.N. chief isn’t the only one concerned about the Haitian police’s dwindling numbers and what it means for controlling the gang terror, which has prompted the State Department to order the withdrawal of non-emergency personnel and advise Americans to leave Haiti “as soon as possible.”

Henry and foreign diplomats assigned to Port-au-Prince say a U.S. humanitarian parole program that allows Haitians to migrate to the United States if they have a financial sponsor is encouraging police officers to leave Haiti.

While the Department of Homeland Security has declined to say how many Haitian police officers have entered the U.S. under the program, launched by the Biden administration in January, the agency has said that some 63,000 Haitians have been vetted and approved to enter the U.S. and 50,000 have already done so.

Following his July visit to Kenya to discuss the country helping Haiti neutralize gangs, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Todd Robinson told the Miami Herald that the United States is “going to continue to work with the [Haiti National Police] on recruiting and making sure that the government pays its police officers.”

“I don’t have the luxury of worrying about people who are leaving. I’m focusing our resources and my discussions on those brave Haitian officers that are staying and are risking their lives. Those are the ones that are important to me. Those are the ones I am focusing on,” he said.

Guterres was scheduled Sunday to visit Nairobi to attend the Africa Climate Summit, which is being hosted by Kenya. His spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, did not say if the issue of Haiti and Kenya’s consideration of leading a multinational force would be raised. However, Dujarric noted that Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, was calling for an end to the carnage.

The escalating violence, the U.N. said, has killed and injured more than 70 people in Port-au-Prince just in the last two weeks.

“More than 10,000 people have been displaced in the past two weeks alone and have sought refuge in more than 20 spontaneous sites or with host families,” said Dujarric. “So far this year, more than 2,500 people have been killed and almost 1,000 have been injured.”

In a report released Thursday, the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti recognized the weakened state of the Haiti National Police, saying it “doesn’t have the capacity to restore and maintain public order.” The issue was raised in the context of what the U.N. described as “the social normalization” of lynchings by Haitians, who in April launched a violent movement to uproot gangs.

“The police cannot run simultaneous operations,” said Gédéon Jean, director of Haiti’s Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, who has closely been monitoring the ongoing attacks.

The U.N. political office has said that despite a Haiti National Police payroll of 14,295 officers as of June 30, there are only 3,300 officers on public safety duty throughout the country at any one time. How many are actually engaged in anti-gang operations is a number that Haiti’s police brass has refused to say.

But those with knowledge of the inner-workings of the beleaguered institution say that the job of neutralizing gangs is reserved for the specialized units of the force, and they don’t even number 1,000 officers.

“When you hear there are 3,000 officers involved in public safety duty and then you hear how many officers have left the force, that means there are even less officers involved,” in fighting gangs, Jean said.

“In the specialized units,” he said, “there are a lot of officers who have left.”

Pierre Esperance, another human rights advocate, said police sources have informed him that the number of defections is closer to 900. The number includes many skilled officers assigned to the anti-drug trafficking unit and the judicial police bureau who had U.S. and Canadian visas.

It also includes 90 officers who have been killed, mostly in gang-related attacks and ambushes, since Henry came to power following the assassination of Jovenel Moïse two years ago. Of that number, Esperance said, 30 were killed between January and August of this year.

The current gang warfare is targeting the country’s justice system as well. “They are arresting people and then the justice system releases them quickly without any kind of process,” Esperance said. “It’s a source of discouragement because investigations never go anywhere.”

The police, Esperance said, needs restructuring.

“The way it is currently, it’s completely demobilized and suffers from a lack of leadership,” he said.

The weakness of Haiti’s police force is reflected in the agency’s current struggle to push back armed gangs who in recent days have intensified attacks in Port-au-Prince against residents living in Carrefour-Feuilles and Tabarre, where the U.S. embassy is located.

Among those who was forced to flee is the celebrated Haitian writer and playwright Gary Victor.

While reports circulated Friday that his house was burned down by gangs, Victor said he has not yet been able to confirm it.

“They are destroying homes, raping women… they are shooting at everything that is moving,” he said. “You can’t take the chance to go there.”

What’s unfolding in Haiti, he said, doesn’t surprise him.

“When you live in a country that has no government, and you have a national police where a great part of it is rotten and you have a country that is chaotic, I knew we would reach this point and we can even see things get worse,” he said. “Haiti is a country that has no one governing it.”

Victor said while “a lot of police officers have left in the Biden program,” the Haiti National Police was inundated with problems even before the program was launched. The institution, he said, had been politicized by Haiti’s leaders who put “all kinds of corrupted individuals” and it’s been a long time since it was effective.

Esperance, the human rights advocate, said the force today is worse off than it was in 2004 when it was gutted by drug trafficking and the extradition of several high profile officials to the U.S. after their arrests.

“There are a lot of threats, a lot of intimidation and information that have been circulated saying that during the weekend things will get worse,” Esperance said. “There is no statement from the government, no statement from the police and what’s worse is that while things are degenerating, you don’t see any police officers in the streets.”

As a result of the rumors, Esperance said, several government offices and businesses near downtown Port-au-Prince closed early on Friday.

“All morning people have been on the run,” he said, “and there has been no communication, nothing from the police, or the government.”

In his report that was circulated among the 15-members of the Security Council, Guterres lays out potential options that can be pursued for helping Haiti restore law and order. They include the U.N. providing non-lethal logistical support to a multinational force and Haiti’s police, and strengthening the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti by providing more resources for it to help shore up the justice system, among other things.

Guterres said in the report, which was obtained by the Herald, that Haiti’s ongoing constitutional and political crisis has contributed to the rapid erosion of state authority, which has allowed heavily armed criminal gangs to expand their territorial control and criminal activities around illicit economies.

He also addressed the ongoing challenges facing the Haitian police.

“The state of police infrastructure is dire, with concerning levels of damage, much of it sustained as a result of gang attacks,” the U.N. chief said. “Out of the 412 police premises nationwide, around 40 remain non-operational due to gang territorial control, with corrections facilities facing a similar situation. In addition, and most concerning, there are persisting reports of alleged infiltration within the ranks of the national police by gangs.”

This story was originally published September 2, 2023, 2:21 PM.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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