As Haiti’s Police Retreat, Gangs Take Over Much of the Capital

One by one, schools and hospitals have closed. Kidnappings are an everyday risk and gang warfare rages openly on the streets. But now, the chaos that has long consumed many parts of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, has spread: The national police, outgunned, outnumbered, underpaid and demoralized, have ceded control of most of the city to gangs.

Almost no one is safe anymore, analysts and residents say. Even the wealthy who have long looked down at the gang-ridden city from their homes in the mountains above Port-au-Prince are no longer immune.

Gangs operate with impunity across Port-au-Prince and increasingly in wealthy enclaves above the city, analysts say, tightening their grip by attacking police officers and destroying police stations.

“Today, security in Haiti is not a matter of means,’’ said Youri Mevs, the managing partner of an industrial park who lives in the mountains overlooking the city. “It is a matter of avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time. And, the wrong place is almost everywhere, just as the wrong time is literally all the time.”

Ms. Mevs said she was sending some of her relatives out of the country because of safety concerns.

The spreading insecurity and the widespread collapse of law and order has led officials to take the astonishing step of telling residents that they should take their protection into their own hands and not count on the government.

“We are asking for more citizen participation,” Gary Desrosiers, a police spokesman, said, citing the example of one Port-au-Prince neighborhood where “the population is standing up to prevent disorder.”

The ruthless hallmarks of gang rule have advanced beyond the capital: More than 200 people were killed across the country in the first two weeks of March alone, mostly from snipers randomly shooting at people in their homes or on the streets, according to a United Nations report released this week.

The assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in July 2021 unraveled the country, tipping it into terror and disarray: There is, effectively, no elected government. The acting prime minister is widely viewed as inept. There is no legislature since the terms of the last remaining members of Parliament expired in January, the judiciary is seen as fundamentally corrupt and the national police force appears on the brink of collapse.

“The police are completely absent, the authorities are completely absent, the government is completely absent,” said Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network.

A United Nations official in Haiti said in December that gangs controlled about 60 percent of Port-au-Prince. Now analysts like Mr. Espérance estimate that the figure has risen to more than 90 percent.

“The government is deeply concerned’’ about the violence, Jean-Junior Joseph, a spokesman for Ariel Henry, Haiti’s acting prime minister, said in a statement. He acknowledged that the police no longer have the capacity to take on the gangs.

In a speech to the armed forces on Friday, Mr. Henry gave a sobering picture of the country’s condition. “Despair reaches such a level that the daughters and sons of the country only consider their future elsewhere,” he said.

The national police force has shrunk to fewer than 9,000 members, according to the United Nations, from as many as 15,000 three years ago, after many officers quit or left the country, among other factors.

“The government that is being paid to give us security is giving a clear statement that we are not about to protect you,” said Magali Comeau-Denis, a leader of the Montana Accord, an opposition group. “When you tell me to exercise self-defense, you tell me to engage myself in a civil war with the gangs.’’

A spree of killings of Haitian police officers in January sparked outrage among the rank-and-file, many of whom abandoned their stations and checkpoints in all but a few areas. The prime minister’s residence, the National Palace and some government ministries remain under police patrol.

“Government officials do not have a security problem, because they have a lot of bodyguards with big guns,” Mr. Espérance said.

Police officials describe a force under siege — unable to protect themselves, let alone civilians. At least 12 police officers were killed in January, said Mr. Desrosiers, the police spokesman.

Entry-level police officers earn less than $200 a month, which is higher than the minimum wage but still not enough for many officers to perform an increasingly lethal function, Gesnel Morlant, a spokesman for a Haitian police union, said.

“If nothing is done, the police force could collapse in the weeks to come,” he said.

The United States, Canada and other countries have provided security aid to Haiti, including anti-gang and SWAT training and armored vehicles. But police officials say even more is needed to counter the firepower of the gangs, which have armed themselves through shipments of powerful weapons trafficked into the country from the United States, including machine guns, according to a report released this month by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mr. Henry’s government in October appealed for outside military intervention in Haiti to quell the violence, a remarkable request that underscored the dire situation in a country deeply resentful of foreign intervention. The political opposition called it an attempt to strengthen Mr. Henry’s tenuous claim to power.

Biden administration officials are pushing to rally a multinational armed force to Haiti, though the effort has stalled, largely because no country wants to lead it. American military leaders do not want U.S. troops drawn into another open-ended peacekeeping mission after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

Canada had expressed interest in a leadership role, according to the Biden administration, but recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to pull back, telling reporters that outside intervention in the past had not worked “to create long-term stability.”

Brian Nichols, the top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, visited Haiti recently and met with Mr. Henry and Frantz Elbé, the national police chief. Mr. Henry’s spokesman said the meeting focused on holding national elections and the need for more international support for the police.

In Port-au-Prince, many residents are in a self-imposed lockdown, fearful of venturing out as gun battles erupt near neighborhoods that had been considered relatively calm.

“There is an atmosphere of panic and paranoia, like in the Duvalier era,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and former presidential candidate, referring to the brutal decades-long dictatorship of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. He added that he has been without power for more than a month in his neighborhood in southern Port-au-Prince.

Videos posted to social media in recent days show residents fleeing their homes in the capital as fires burn and smoke fills the air. Other videos show crowds of people fleeing gunfire, and groups of men armed with rifles patrolling the streets.

The extreme violence has had a grim impact on the most vulnerable Haitians. Gangs have used sexual violence against women and girls to terrorize and pressure families to pay ransoms for abductees, according to a U.N. report released on Tuesday. Many children have also been forcibly recruited by armed gangs, the report said.

Doctors Without Borders, the global humanitarian organization that is helping keep the Haitian health system functioning, said that the number of patients — including children, women and older people — arriving at its emergency center with gunshot wounds had surged in recent days.

The group closed its hospital in Cité Soleil — the country’s largest slum — this month because patients and staff could not be assured protection.

Heavily armed groups were battling just yards from the hospital compound’s gate, according to Vincent Harris, a medical adviser who worked at that hospital.

“We had bullets flying over the hospital,” he said.

Maria Abi-Habib contributed reporting.

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