FUSAGASUGA, Colombia -- Juliana Jolissaint is no more than 5-feet-5 and 123 pounds, but she could easily instill fear in the heart of a criminal. Put a nightstick in her hand and she drops a comrade to the ground in seconds.
“I was very slow,” said Jolissaint, a 21-year-old cadet from Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. “Everything that I have to do [now], I do fast. This is an experience, a great opportunity.”
Since arriving at the Sumapaz academy near Bogotá four months ago, Jolissaint has learned to run everywhere she goes, march in formation, bark out orders and use her nightstick for self-defense. She and her nine companions were carefully selected from a field of 350 Haitian female police recruits for a scholarship to train with women from the Colombian National Police.
Jolissaint intends to return to Haiti in December to help her country’s 19-year-old police force improve through the training she is receiving about everything from taking down criminals to gender equality.
The 10 trainees were chosen by Colombia on the basis of academics, physical acumen, good health and Spanish fluency. Most were university students, and several had studied Spanish in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“It is essential to share our experience and be present to help Haiti build a good police force,” said Colombian Police Commissioner Gen. José Roberto León, highlighting the areas of organized crime, narco-trafficking and terrorism, where Colombia’s expertise is shared.
Leon added that Colombia hoped Haiti would “avoid the scourge of violence that our country lived through for over 30 years.”
Women now represent just 7 percent of the estimated 10,000 officers in the Haitian National Police. Haiti is hoping that programs like this and others with Chile, Canada and the U.S. will help increase the force to 15,000 officers by the end of 2016, according to an HNP development plan.
The program is funded by the U.S. International Narcotics and Law Enforcement office to boost the professionalism and increase the number of women in the HNP at a cost of $17,000 per cadet.
The Haitian trainees will participate in 11 months of basic training to include a focus on sexual violence and protecting minors.
While Haiti has the lowest crime rate in the Caribbean, according to Haitian and U.N. officials, the island nation still has an alarming rate of violent crime. Statistics for murder, rape, assault and domestic violence in 2012 were higher than any for the previous five years, according to U.N. data.
Still, Haiti has made progress in reducing kidnapping and increasing drug seizures and detentions. Officials credit close cooperation with the U.N. police and specialized training from the Colombian government in anti-kidnapping and anti-narcotics techniques.
Last year, 169 kidnappings were reported in Haiti, down from the 308 reported in 2008. In drug seizures and detentions, Haiti seized 738 pounds of cocaine and 659 pounds of marijuana last year, while detaining 124 suspected traffickers. The drug seizures represent a nearly eightfold increase over the previous year.
For a country of about 10 million, even a goal of 15,000 police officers would mean just 1.02 officers per 1,000 residents, a rate that’s one-third that of most countries in the world, and half that of the Caribbean average. Haiti also suffers from domestic violence in a traditionally male-dominated society, with a high of 723 reported cases last year. Figures were not available for child abuse.
“Haiti is a country that has many problems in this area, so it was necessary for us to have well-trained personnel that understand these problems,” said Inspector General Jean-Yonel Trecile, international liaison for the HNP.
Trecile said the objective is not only to increase the dismal representation of women in the police force, but also to increase understanding, especially in a police force that’s seeking to be more sensitive to gender issues.
Trecile believes more Haitian women police on the streets and in police stations will encourage more women to report crimes.
“Women in Haiti suffer a great deal from mistreatment [and] rape,” he said. “They don’t report these things to the police because they are afraid, or when they get to the police station the person attending them is a man.”
Samantha Lefevre, a 22-year-old trainee from Port-au-Prince, is among the most animated in describing how she hopes to change the HNP when she returns.
“There are a lot of police in Haiti that are in their offices, but they’re talking, eating and doing other things,” she said to laughter from her companions. “We have this determination to change these offices into great offices.”
No longer shy
The 10 Haitian women who arrived in Colombia on January 30 were described by classmates and instructors as a shy group that had difficulty speaking Spanish, adjusting to the food and even wearing the standard issue boots.
“They’ve lost their shyness,” said Capt. Diana Rojas, commander of the Santander Group of 242 students of which the girls are a part. “Now, you see them full of energy, running, speaking forcefully.”
Judith Germain, a 24-year-old from Hinche, said her perspective on life changed when she felt her university classroom in Port-au-Prince shake on Jan.12, 2010. The devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 300,000 made her more reflective and patriotic. She decided to be part of the change in her country.
“The Haitian police to me are a good police,” she said, adding that her cousin and brother are in the force, and her brother is her role model. “He’s a police officer who is very responsible in his job. I think the only thing the Haitian police lack are experience and specialization.”
Lt. Col. Yackeline Navarro, director of the Sumapaz school, said Colombia is committed to Haiti for the long-term, adding that the school had space for 50 students. While 42 qualified, an INL spokesperson in Washington said the decision was made to take 10 for the pilot program.
Another INL spokesperson could not confirm if the program would continue beyond the current 10 students, saying that they “don’t anticipate” it will. INL officials reached in Port-au-Prince were not authorized to comment on the program.
The Colombian police commissioner, León, said that while helping the sister country of Haiti is a presidential priority, the economic assistance provided by INL is a key component of the partnership. INL’s funding pays for the transportation, equipment and living expenses of the trainees while in Colombia, while Colombia absorbs the cost of providing instruction. Should the program continue, Colombia is considering receiving more Haitian students, to include women and men.
At the Sumapaz school, perched on a hill and surrounded by verdant green mountains, the Haitian trainees said that in learning to take responsibility for themselves, they have gained the confidence to take responsibility for others.
“In Haiti, I will have to lead other people,” said Sophie Poulard a 25-year-old from Pétionville. “I think that if somebody is responsible for herself, this person can be responsible for 10 people, after for 20, for 100, for 1,000 — for a country.”