Haiti is in the midst of the worst humanitarian and security crisis in years. Gang related violence is surging – and the Haitian National Police are overwhelmed and incapable of restoring order. According to some estimates gangs now control about 80 percent of Port-au-Prince. This rampant insecurity is driving a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. About half the country is experiencing food insecurity.
Amid surging violence and insecurity, Prime Minister Ariel Henry appealed to the international community to send help and asked the United Nations Security Council to support a foreign military or police intervention in Haiti. For a long time, no county was willing to step up and volunteer to lead an intervention in Haiti — that was until Kenya said that it was willing to lead a UN-backed multinational intervention in Haiti.
But is this even a good idea? Joining me to discuss that question and many more is Renata Segura, Deputy Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group. We kick off discussing the gang violence and security challenges in Haiti before having a long conversation about the international dynamics driving a potential Kenya-lead intervention in Haiti.
Renata Segura: The president of Haiti was assassinated two years ago in July. This has sort of triggered an expansion of the criminal gangs that have existed for many, many years, decades in Haiti, but who have used the sort of power vacuum that we have seen since the assassination to really gain massive territorial control. So the gangs in Haiti have historically had connections with either political elites or economic elites in the past, and they’ve been used as a way of imposing either order or new arrangements that are beneficial for a private business in the past. In essence, they have been, until now, private armies for these elites. And obviously, when the assassination of Moise happened, a lot of the analysts inside and outside of Haiti pointed to this connection. So one of the first things that the international community did well, in particular the US and Canada, I should say, was establish sanctions against some of the people that have been sponsoring the gangs, which is great. And it did help very much cut these links that we had seen between the elites and the gangs. Unfortunately, there was an unintended consequence to that process, which is that the gangs have stopped receiving a lot of the money flow that they were accustomed to, and they still have payroll to make. They still have expenses that they have to cover. And so what has happened is that they have turned towards crimes that really extract more money from the population in Haiti, a population that is not wealthy.
Mark Leon Goldberg:
And these are crimes presumably like kidnaping and extortion.
Renata Segura: Exactly. Kidnaping and extortion mostly. And so this has made what was already a pretty difficult situation, really, really impossible for people in Haiti to just lead their own lives. Schools are being attacked. Hospitals are being attacked. People are being kidnaped on the way to church. It has disrupted everyday life to an extent that is really unprecedented in Haiti. And this has, as you said, also contributed to the furthering of the humanitarian crisis, because the gangs control a lot of the roads that connect Port au Prince to other parts of the country. There is, for example, difficulty accessing food. In some places, people have a difficult time getting medical attention. For a while, when the gangs were taking over the ports where the gas and fuel come, that meant that there was no electricity in many parts, there was no potable water. So it is just the overlap between the humanitarian and the security crisis is really intense and it’s part of the motivation for the international community to really take a much more hands on approach to the crisis in the country.
Can a Kenya-Lead International Intervention Quell the Crisis in Haiti?
Renata Segura: At Crisis Group we have we have advocated for a force to be sent and we, I think, still think that that is the case. We were not expecting Kenya to be the country that would step forward. And if they did lead the mission, we would hope that it will be done in close coordination with other countries that could provide the technical expertise and also do the due diligence in terms of human rights and other kinds of concerns. We know that the Kenyan police has incurred human rights violations internally. A lot of human rights watchers this was maybe not the best police force to be sent when there was a likelihood of having to confront civilians. And that is a worry. But if this is the announcement that unlocks this very needed mission, it seems that the wise move will be to get this going — but make sure that the mission is strengthened and bolstered by all those other countries that perhaps were not willing to engage in a military component, but that can really advise on ways in which they can deal both with the gangs, which is a very specific kind of fighting and very specific strategy that needs to be used, but also with the civilian population. And that is one of the biggest difficulties. We’re talking about gangs that live within the communities that have been holding the communities hostage for a long time, that don’t wear uniforms, that it’s not easy to identify who they are. And in many cases, they are children. So this is a very, very difficult mission. And if it arrives without the proper technical expertise to support them, and without a political agreement that makes sure that it’s not going to be manipulated and used by the government in ways that are just politically convenient for Ariel Henry, then we could be seeing a massive, massive debacle.
Mark Leon Goldberg: Really, there are two key requirements. One, a political agreement. The other that this potentially Kenyan led force is robustly supported by other countries with more technical expertise. If those conditions are met, you see potential for this force to be a good thing in helping to secure Haiti?
Renata Segura:Yes. So, you know, it’s interesting because we have daily conversations with people who are on the ground and people who are very close to the gangs themselves. And there is an expectation that if a force was to arrive, many of these gangs would not actually stand up and fight against them. That just the idea, the notion of a more competent police, which is very equipped and has better training arriving, would motivate a lot of these gangs to really lay off their arms and try and engage in a negotiation with the government. So we’re hoping that at least just sending the indication of the force would encourage some of these people to stand down. When you talk to many of the gang members, these are not people that ideologically motivated. It’s not that they’re fighting a revolution. It’s not that they particularly like this life — it’s that a lot of people have no option but this to make a living. And they know that the Haitian police, which are on many occasions their neighbors, are going to be unable to stop them. But just the sense of something more robust coming would probably make them just disperse. Others will not. Others will engage in confrontations. And there are pretty big gang leaders that are not the nicest of people and who will defend the power that they have gained. So it’s going to be complicated. But honestly, just allowing the situation that exists on the ground right now to continue is really allowing the Haitians to fend for themselves with no state help and really condemn a lot of people to violence, death and suffering in a way that really it’s inhumane.
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