Armed bandits testing Haiti’s understaffed police forces

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.

“You had a police that the people didn’t have a lot of confidence in,” Gédéon said. “Now, they see we are making an effort.”

But some of the 60 so far arrested disagree. Inside a Delmas police jail, Admyr Innocent, 34, and his fellow Petit-Goâve prisoners say they were sitting on a porch minding their business when police ordered them on the ground, beat them and took them into custody.

“We don’t know why we were arrested. We are not disorderly,” he said from behind bars.

U.N. officials, who are monitoring events and guiding police in their operations, say the government is to be commended for acting swiftly. With political tensions over delayed legislative and local elections heightened, and isolated anti-government protests around Haiti, there are fears the situation in Petit-Goâve could spread.

“As a supporting group of law enforcement, we’re tempted to go out there and resolve issues,” said Serge Therriault, U.N. deputy police commissioner for Haitian National Police development.

“There,” he said, referring to Petit-Goâve, “we’ve had to bite our tongue, and measure our ability to coach and mentor the HNP by the amount of blood that would be coming from biting our tongues, and not jumping at the bit.”

Still, developing the Haitian police and enforcing rule of law remain a work in progress.

Shortly after the 100-plus specially trained officers arrived to shore up Petit-Goâve’s 38-person police force, 17 people were arrested in a raid.

But what happened next, say observers and residents, underscores the continued weakness of Haitian law enforcement. All, including the campaign manager of powerful politician Stevenson Thimoléon, who controls President Michel Martelly’s majority in the lower house of parliament, were released.

Sources accuse Martelly-appointed city Mayor Sandra Jules of exerting political pressure to garner the release. Jules told the Miami Herald that while she questioned the town’s former police inspector about the arrests, the freeing of individuals was all his doing. She denied allegations that she and Thimoléon are the ones backing the gangs, and said both have asked residents to cooperate with police.

After the scandal, Gédéon, the police director, appointed Francois — an 18 year veteran who had once worked in gang-ruled Cité Soleil in the capital — to head the local force.

Carl Alexandre, deputy U.N. envoy overseeing police and judicial reform in Haiti, said while he can’t confirm rumors about the bandits’ alleged political ties, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti is always concerned about such allegations.

“A serious investigation needs to take place and is taking place to identify the perpetrators,” Alexandre said.

U.N. Police Commissioner Luis Carrilho, who oversees the 2,449 global police force representing 40 countries, said Haiti’s force has come a long way in crime fighting. It is evidence, he points out, by a drop in murders and kidnappings, including “zero kidnappings in the month of August.”

“There is not a single place in Haiti where the police cannot go. Petit-Goâve shows that,” said Carrilho, who recently demonstrated the country’s safety by riding a bicycle through Cité Soleil with Gédéon and Therriault to inaugurate a new bicycle community policing initiative.

Still, there is much work to be done. Concerns over human rights and excessive use of force by police remain, as does the need for more vetting and sanctions against officers engaged in wrongdoing. Further, the HNP’s ability to do “good criminal investigations to make sure that the law and order is maintained, or restored in all of the places” must also be strengthened, Carrilho and Alexandre acknowledge.

Last week, as patrols in Petit-Goâve continued, U.S. lawmakers joined U.N. Security Council members in the call for greater emphasis on police strengthening. Growing and developing the Haitian police is a key lynchpin in determining when the peacekeeping mission, which marks 10 years next year, will end.

“I am totally convinced that the training they are getting is solid,” Alexandre said. “The significant problem I see with the HNP is they don’t have the numbers to deploy the number of officers needed to cover the entire country adequately.”

Another problem is the lack of resources and the campaign by Martelly and others to create competing security forces.

“Instead of proliferating armed forces or personnel around the country,’’ Alexandre said, “it may a good thing for the government to invest, to make sure the police is the only recognized force and is well-financed, well-trained, well-equipped to do the job that every Haitian expects of its government.’’