Petit-Goâve, Haiti -- Haitian police inspector Charles Francois glances in and out of the mirrors of his moving patrol vehicle, keeping his eyes on the surrounding hills, looking for any signs of the masked gunmen behind a rash of roadside robberies and armed attacks in this otherwise peaceful costal city.
“We are going to get them,” Francois, on the job just two weeks, said before pulling up at one of several heavily armed police checkpoints on National Road 2, where specially trained Haiti National Police officers recently deployed from Port-au-Prince are conducting checks. “The population is fed up with this situation.”
For Haiti’s struggling but improving police force, and the United Nations security forces backing them up, tracking down the armed bandits behind the reign of terror in Petit-Goâve is about more than returning calm to this mountainous region 40 miles west of the capital.
It has become a test of the police’s ability to take the lead in securing an unpredictable Haiti. It’s also a reality check in how limited the 10,181-member force is in stabilizing a country where violent crime sprees by well-armed gangs have long been connected with powerful politicians.
“We are in no rush in Petit-Goâve,” said Michel-Ange Gédéon, the regional police director for the West department, who has been preparing his specialized forces for months for such an operation. “We want to avoid any collateral damage, but the men are determined to see this through and end it.”
On Saturday, as a group of bandits, calling themselves “the rebels,” unsuccessfully tried to block the road, Gédéon’s special forces quickly moved in. Enraged by police actions, rebel leader “Ti Sam” took to the airwaves to declare war on the police.
For weeks, residents and anyone passing through Petit-Goâve, a gateway to three different regions of southern Haiti, have been under siege by the gangs seeking to control the only major highway linking Port-au-Prince to cities in the south and the Grand’Anse region. Gangs have halted commerce, seized cash and other valuables, and disarmed police and private security guards. They have also held journalists at gunpoint and wounded two police officers and a U.N. peacekeeper while terrorizing the population.
“They make it so you can’t get anything done,” said Dr. Marc Clermont, who runs a 22-room hotel. “You rarely feel safe; you always know they can show up at any time.”
As the almost daily roadblocks and ambushes intensified last month, Clermont said he spent an entire week holed up at home, unable to get to his job as the only dental surgeon at a hospital in Les Cayes, a city 60 miles southwest. On days he did manage to go in, he was often forced to turn around on his way home, unable to get past the barrage of gunfire, Clermont said.
As a sense of calm seemed to be returning with the beefed-up police presence, one of the gangs recently tried to tempt fate. Masked gunmen descended from the hills and forced three buses ferrying passengers along the highway to block the road. As motorists were turning over valuables, a convoy of national police officers snuck up from behind, and an exchange of gunfire ensued. One bandit was killed.
Later that day, acting on a tip, police walked into a hospital in a neighboring city and arrested two gunmen who were being treated for wounds they suffered in the shootout with police.