Haiti: Police riot over officer deaths
For years, Haiti has been stuck in an ongoing political and humanitarian crisis. Now, plainclothes officers have attacked the private residence of acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry as he was traveling back to the capital, Port-au-Prince, from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit. Later, protesters, most of whom also said they were officers, stormed the capital's airport, purportedly to block Henry's plane from landing.
These riots have come in response to mounting cases of police killings. According to the National Union for Haitian Police, in the past two weeks alone, suspected gang members have murdered up to 15 officers.
The police are accusing the unelected prime minister of failing to show his support, with some even suggesting that Henry is involved with criminal gangs himself. Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) has reported 78 security officers killed since Henry assumed office in mid-2021.
Dysfunctional leadership, delayed elections
In July 2021, then-President Jovenel Moise had tapped Ariel Henry to become the next prime minister. But the inauguration was stalled when acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph seized control of the government following Moise's assassination. Although Joseph soon stood down to make way for his successor, Henry has never been confirmed in office by Parliament as is stipulated by the constitution. The last time Haiti held parliamentary elections was in 2015, and they were widely deemed to be marked by significant fraud.
Fresh general elections had been scheduled for November 2021 but were postponed when Henry dissolved the Provisional Electoral Council CEP, criticizing it for electoral bias and a lack of transparency. This was followed by a slew of promises for new elections, with the most recent being set for 2023.
Since Henry has never stood for election for this office, many in Haiti do not consider him to be the legitimate head of government. Speculations about foreign involvement in his rise to power — and in Moise's assassination — abound.
But Haiti's political leadership had been deemed dysfunctional long before the events of 2021. For years, some would say even decades, the government has been losing control over parts of the country to criminal gangs. In the capital, Port-au-Prince, it's estimated that gangs have seized control of more than half the city. Given the disastrous security situation, observers are skeptical about whether holding democratic elections is even possible.
United Nations asked to send foreign troops to intervene
In October 2022, Prime Minister Henry had already requested that the United Nations (UN) and allied countries send troops to help Haiti push back criminal gangs and regain control over its entire territory. On Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was adamant about the urgency of sending specialized armed forces to Haiti in order to protect the population and secure delivery routes for humanitarian aid.
The international community, however, remains hesitant. Judith Vorrath, senior associate in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says that this is because "the risks are high, and the chances of success are low."
She pointed out that even if troops did succeed in pushing gangs back and safeguarding critical infrastructure such as ports and access roads, the situation would not be tenable: "No [intervening force] would know if and when they could leave the country if the political process continues to stall."
Domestic resistance to UN peacekeeping missions
The transnational think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) believes that foreign troops would face stiff resistance — not only from the gangs they were sent to combat, but also from the local population and political opposition. Past UN missions to Haiti have left residents traumatized: Peacekeepers deployed to Haiti in the MINUSTAH mission that ran 2004 to 2017 were reported to have brutally intimidated political oppositionists, raped local women and participated in the sexual exploitation of minors. After a devastating earthquake in 2010, they were responsible for the ensuing cholera outbreak that infected half a million and killed 10,000.
The special BINUH political mission that has been in the country since 2019 is also met with deep distrust. Political scientist Vorrath explains that "many people — including those living in other countries where the UN is active — do not distinguish between peacekeeping missions and other missions mandated by the UN Security Council."
Is Haiti a pawn in an international game of chess?
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States is widely accused of conducting a foreign policy towards its southerly neighbors that is marked by racist imperialism. This has increased Haitian skepticism toward foreign intervention seen to be linked to the US in any way. In Haiti, many believe that the murder of President Moise was either planned or executed by foreign secret services.
"This massive distrust is surely one of the reasons why other countries such as Canada would be hesitant to join a mission to Haiti," Vorrath explains. Just last year, the government in Ottawa sent Haiti $98 million (€90 million) in aid to help build up security forces and the judiciary, inter alia. Last week, Canada delivered armored vehicles to the Caribbean nation to support the police in their fight against criminal gangs.
Do criminal gangs control Haiti's political elite?
Most petty gangs in Haiti compete for control in relatively small territories, where they commit criminal acts such as theft, racketeering and drug trading. According to a UN report, they also often terrorize the local population with sexual violence.
However, more and more gangs have now begun organizing into two large coalitions. Some 500 people were killed last summer in deadly clashed between the factions. Most of them were bystanders. The leader of the gang federation "G9 Family and Allies," Jimmy "Barbeque" Cherizier, a former police officer, has been sanctioned by the UN and various UN member states.
As the gangs continue to organize, spread, and increase their sphere of influence, violence has been surging. "Politicians have always instrumentalized these gangs, for example, to sway elections or take out political rivals," says Vorrath. "The question is whether they will begin to emancipate themselves from their political clients and proteges as their power increases — even if they do not have their own political agenda yet to speak of."
Gangs continue to grow in numbers, something partly due to the rampant poverty in the country. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The aid organization International Rescue Committee ranks the country's ongoing humanitarian crisis as one of the worst worldwide.