Originally: Reclaiming the streets


Date Posted: 09-Jun-2005


Reclaiming the streets
Michael Deibert JDW Special Correspondent
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The UN mission in Haiti faces a daunting task in reforming Haiti’s police force. Michael Deibert reports

When two Haitian policemen were killed in battle with an armed gang in the desperately poor Bel Air section of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on 22 May, they were the latest fatalities in a troubling cycle of violence that has seen an average of one Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH) officer killed every five days since the end of September 2004.

It was then that, seven months after the resignation and flight into exile of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, street gangs allied with the former president (who are known as ‘chimeres’) launched in Haiti’s capital what came to be known as ‘Operation Baghdad’: a series of violent attacks against police (often ending in gruesome public murders), civilians and officials of the interim government of President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.

The attacks abated somewhat at the beginning of 2005, but have recently shown signs of flaring up again.

After the killings in May, the PNH’s Interim Police Chief, Leon Charles, denounced on Haitian radio what he called “the hypocrisy” of the international community’s continued embargo on arms to Haiti – put in place during a military regime that ousted Aristide for three years in the 1990s.

The Bel Air episode, coming in an impoverished neighborhood where allegations of police brutality have been rife, only underlined the daunting task faced by the Civilian Police (CIVPOL) forces, part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) force attempting to lay the groundwork for legislative and presidential elections in Haiti later in 2005.

The force – numbering 620 CIVPOL personnel and 750 members of foreign police units – was put in place in Haiti after Aristide’s flight and is charged with reforming a battered force that many hoped would be the humane, professional successor to Haiti’s violent military, disbanded after Aristide’s return in 1994.

“There was huge progress in the 1990s, that stemmed from … some stability in a three- to five-year period [during the presidency of Rene Preval, who ruled Haiti from 1996-2001],” according to CIVPOL commissioner David Beer.

“A large number of the people in executive positions remained in place; there was some continuity in the organization. Upon the election of the Aristide government, virtually the entire executive of the organization was wiped out – either fired or quit. With the destruction of the senior management of the organization, parallel entry without proper qualifications and politicization was the start of big problems with criminality, all of which have, recently, anyway, served to demoralize the organization,” Beer said.

The stories of how Aristide nearly destroyed the PNH as an institution, replacing competent and dedicated police officials with loyalists and activists of his Fanmi Lavalas political party – in a country where strengthening institutions often takes a back seat to clinging to political power – are legion, many of them revolving around the PNH’s feared riot police, the Corps d’intervention et de Maintien de l’ordre (CIMO).

According to several former PNH officials, as well as the gang leaders themselves, shortly after Aristide’s return to office in 2001 the PNH began regular contacts with street gangs in the capital’s urban centers. Their purpose was to distribute ammunition and occasionally money on behalf of the government in a move brought on in part, some said, by Aristide’s fear of another coup, such as the one that ousted him in 1991.

In addition to using their newfound firepower to attack demonstrations and opposition protests, the gangs often turned their guns on each other.

Following a fierce gang war in the capital’s Cité Soleil slum in 2002, Hermione Leonard, then PNH director for the region around Haiti’s capital, staged a weapons search in the zone. This was farcical, as Leonard and PNH officers had previously driven to collect and safely stash ‘their’ weapons from the militants, and two of the local gang leaders going by the noms de guerres Labanye and Kolobri (now both dead) were given masks and CIMO outfits so as to ‘participate’ in the search.

When the Aristide government was facing the threat of an armed rebellion in February 2004, a notorious gang leader and ex-Haitian Army officer (called Jeudi) from the area around the capital’s port was given a CIMO uniform and sent to the northern city of Saint Marc. There he and other armed government partisans acted in concert with PNH forces and a local street gang called Bale Wouze (Clean Sweep) to lay siege to the neighborhood of La Scierie, an attack during which over 20 people, most of them civilians, were killed.

Given such a pedigree and the prevailing climate of graft – a senior CIVPOL official recently estimated that, for some 8,000 PNH cheques issued every month, there are in fact only 4,500 PNH employees – it is easy to appreciate the challenges faced by the recent graduating class of the PNH academy, which included 368 new police officers, as well as 39 commissioners and 49 inspectors. The institution has also been bedeviled by a weak and ineffectual judicial system. A February report by the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) human rights group noted that only 5 per cent of the incarcerated population in Haiti had ever been tried and sentenced. In poor neighborhoods, many people say that any young man caught by the police is charged with being an Aristide gang member and liable to be summarily executed by the police.

“If you ask me if the police are still involved in human rights violations, I would say, yes, a lot,” said Pierre Esperance, RNDDH’s executive director.

“The change we have right now is that this government doesn’t use gangs or civilians to persecute those who criticize it, but that’s all. When police are involved in human rights violations, there is no effort by the government to punish them.”

In addition to its institutional weakness, many observers point to the painfully slow roll-out of the UN mission in Haiti as part of the problem; as of March only $220 million of some $1.08 billion pledged to rebuild the country had been disbursed. It appears the outside world, following Aristide’s return with the help of a US-led multinational force, seemed to largely lose interest in the nuts-and-bolts of building Haiti’s democracy.

However, the CIVPOL in Haiti has not yet despaired, and it looks at the base of the new police force – those officers being closely vetted before being integrated into the organization – as the potential future of Haiti’s law enforcement.

“There is a core of people in the organization that are extremely committed to their job,” Beer said. “They work 12 hours a day, six days a week; they travel in by camionette [van] to start their week; they find places to sleep here; they don’t make a whole lot of money. We, the international community, have to be prepared to be here with the resources necessary to get that done and stay here long enough to make sure it’s a sustainable programme, unlike last time.”