US has few options to deal with Haiti’s violence crisis

Washington and international partners have few options to deal with a deadly surge in gang violence and for-ransom kidnappings in Haiti.


World News

October 20, 2021 - 9:42 AM

A man films himself in front of tires on fire during a general strike launched by several professional associations and companies to denounce insecurity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021.(Richard Pierrin/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Citizens are afraid to leave their homes. The security forces are weak. Armed gangs, known for kidnappings, extortion and random killings, act with impunity as they tighten their grip throughout Haiti.

With the brazen kidnapping of 16 Americans and one Canadian over the weekend on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince highlighting Haiti’s disintegration into chaos, Washington and its international partners are realizing that there are few good options in confronting the deadly surge in gang violence and for-ransom kidnappings.

The Biden administration has already faced one crisis after another in the Caribbean nation: an electoral crisis with no parliament or locally elected officials; an assassinated president; a devastating earthquake; a surge of Haitian migrants at the U.S. southern border and now the taking of American hostages.

Haiti’s deteriorating security climate, reflected in the weekend’s kidnappings, and the inability of its weak government and police force to control a proliferating gang problem has once more raised the specter of another intervention by foreign forces in the country.

What those forces would look like, who should control them and who pays for them remains a matter of debate in a divided nation where the only thing Haitians seem to agree on is that the status quo cannot remain, and drastic change is needed.

“It is true that foreign interventions have left a trail of sorrow and have at best been a short-lived palliative that never addressed the deep inequalities of Haiti’s political economy that are in fact the cause of the nation’s current predicament,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political scientist at the University of Virginia who closely monitors the country. “That said, it is clear that the country’s climate of impunity nurtured by a total void of legitimate authority cannot last long.”

While most Haitians would likely reject a foreign “peace-keeping” mission in Haiti, Fatton said, it remains a strong possibility if the situation continues to deteriorate and Haitian political factions fail to achieve a historic compromise to forge a different future.

On Monday, fed up with the security situation, Haitians stayed home as part of a nationwide general strike that kept the streets of Port-au-Prince empty. The strike was called by the country’s business and transportation sector last week, but took on greater meaning after Saturday’s abductions of the group of 17 missionaries, which included five children.

The missionaries worked for Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, and were taken hostage while returning from visiting an orphanage east of Port-au-Prince, the charity said in a statement. Members of the Mennonite community, many are new to Haiti, according to a source who knows some of the missionaries who were grabbed at gunpoint.

White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is in touch with the families of the abducted, and that the FBI is working toward their release. There was no word if the gang, which was also behind the abduction in April of Catholic clergy, has requested a ransom.

“The president has been briefed and is receiving regular updates on what the State Department and the FBI are doing to bring these individuals home safely,” Psaki said. “The FBI is part of a coordinated U.S. government effort to get the U.S. citizens involved to safety. Due to operational considerations, we’re not going to go into too much detail on that, but can confirm their engagement.”

Biden has been briefed with increasing frequency by his national security team on Haiti ever since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But a presidential briefing on the weekend kidnappings reflects the size and significance of the crisis.

“The only country the gangs are afraid of is the U.S. If the U.S. doesn’t do anything to get the missionaries out without paying a ransom, it will open the door for I don’t know how many kidnappings a day,” said Alex Saint Surin, a popular Miami-based Haitian broadcaster. “There will be no exceptions, not even for diplomats. The U.S. will be giving a blank check to the gangs, saying ‘go ahead and do it every day.’ ”

The United Nations said in the first eight months of this year, police recorded 328 kidnapping victims compared with 234 for all of 2020. But a human rights organization tracking abductions, the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, said the numbers have increased by 300% between July and August.

According to the State Department, over the past decade the U.S. has provided $312 million in assistance to strengthen the Haiti National Police’s law enforcement capacity and to maintain peace and stability throughout the country.