Already mired in extreme poverty, corruption, and violent political unrest, Haiti is now facing the resurging problem of gang violence, as the country’s residents say criminal groups are fighting over territory, where they make the law, extricate “protection” fees and carry out drugs and arms trades.
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According to Haitians as well as human rights advocates, all the politicians in the country including the government and the opposition parties are using the gangs to repress or incite dissent, offering them money, weapons, and impunity.
“When those in power pay them, the bandits stop the population from participating in the anti-government protests,” said William Dorelus, a resident in the extremely impoverished commune of Cite Soleil. “When they receive money from the opposition, they force people to take to the streets.”
Opposition leaders and the government, however, reject the accusations.
Opponents of President Jovenel Moise say he has no longer control over the ever-worsening situation and should resign. Yet, the 51-year old president says he will execute his full term until 2022, claiming the situation is calming down.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Moise said he was working on bolstering Haiti’s security forces and had revived a commission to get gang members to put their arms down.
“Allegations of unlawful violence will be investigated and responded to by our justice system as a matter of priority,” the presidency wrote in a statement to Reuters on Tuesday.
However, critics say that under his governance, authorities have failed to prosecute gang leaders, giving them full power instead, while weakening the police.
“Every time the police stop a gangster, there is always the intervention of some authority or another to free them,” said Pierre Esperance, who runs Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) that monitors rights violations. The expert said more than 40 police officers have been killed this year, compared with 17 in 2018.
The most evident case of apparent impunity is the massacre carried out in November 2018 in the neighborhood of La Saline, a hotbed of mobilization against Moise’s government.
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According to a United Nations report, gangs brutally killed, tortured and raped dozens of people during two days in one of the island’s most impoverished areas, while police were unable to intervene.
Eyewitnesses cited in the report testified seeing a senior government official with the gang members. “These allegations raise the possibility of complicity between the gangs and state authorities,” the U.N. wrote.
The government finally fired the official in question, however, neither he nor anyone else has been arrested or prosecuted after the massacre, which is the worst massacre in Haiti in more than a decade.
“This dossier [on the La Saline massacre] is in the hands of the justice system,” Moise told Reuters. But La Saline residents say they feel abandoned to their fate.
“We never received an official visit after these events,” said Marie Lourdes Corestan, 55, who said she found her 24-year old son’s corpse among a pile of mutilated bodies and whose house was burnt down. “The bandits said they would come back and not distinguish between children, women, and men.”
Ironically, U.N. peacekeeping troops withdrew from Haiti in 2017 after 15 years, saying they had helped to re-establish law and order in one of the poorest countries in the world, where more than half of the population survives on less than US$2.40 a day.