Haiti still waiting for international force to tackle gangs

People flee their homes in Haiti's capital after gang attacks, May 2, 2024 (Clarens SIFFROY)
People flee their homes in Haiti's capital after gang attacks, May 2, 2024 (Clarens SIFFROY)

Haiti is waiting desperately for the first members of a Kenyan-led multinational force tasked with ending the stranglehold of powerful and ultra-violent gangs, but their hoped-for arrival this week was delayed.

The deployment gained new urgency with the announcement Friday that gang members killed three missionaries, a Haitian and an American couple, leading to renewed calls for the force to get up and running.

"The security situation in Haiti cannot wait," said a spokesperon for the US National Security Council after word emerged of the killings.

The UN-backed security mission -- in which the United States is providing logistical support, but not boots on the ground -- is supposed to help Haiti's weak, outgunned police force defeat the powerful criminal gangs.

Gangs control much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, as well as swathes of the country, and have long terroized people with random shootings, kidnappings and sexual violence.

There had been speculation that a first contingent of the Kenyan-led force might arrive in the destitute Caribbean nation this week, to coincide with Kenyan President William Ruto's state visit to Washington.

A Haitian government source had told AFP that a first deployment of the multinational force was expected over the next few days.

Senior Kenyan officials have arrived in Haiti to carry out reconnaissance work.

But according to Ruto, Haitians must wait a while longer.

"Once we have that assessment ... we are looking at the horizon of between three weeks and there about for us to be ready to deploy, once everything on the ground is set," Ruto told the BBC during his visit to Washington.

- 'This is a crisis' -

Kenya and the other nations set to deploy to Haiti aim to "secure that country and to break the back of the gangs and the criminals that have visited untold suffering in that country," Ruto said Thursday as he stood beside US President Joe Biden.

Asked if the Kenyan deployment can succeed, Biden said, "Yes."

"This is a crisis. It's able to be dealt with," Biden said, praising Kenya's "first-rate capability."

Haiti has been wracked for decades by poverty, natural disasters, political instability and violence. It has had no president since the assassination of Jovenel Moise in 2021 and it has no sitting parliament.

The last election was in 2016, and a new transitional government council is struggling to assert its authority, with food running short, tens of thousands fleeing their homes and the health care system on the brink of collapse.

The main airport partly reopened this week after being closed since early March, when the gangs went on a coordinated rampage they said was aimed at toppling then-prime minister Ariel Henry.

One big question mark now is how the gangs will respond to the arrival of the Kenya-led force.

Diego Da Rin, an expert on Haïti at the International Crisis Group, said that in recent weeks they have given conflicting signals. He spoke to AFP before the killing of the missionaries.

"It seems the gangs are waiting to see what this mission is going to look like," said Da Rin.

"On one hand we see there is a certain degree of restraint in their attacks, but there have nonetheless but some spectacular ones," he said, citing a recent attack on a prison.

And during these attacks gang members have filmed themselves warning "foreign forces of what they are capable of," this expert said.

One possibility behind the change in the intensity of their attacks is that the gangs may be saving ammunition for a big onslaught against the multinational force, Da Rin said.

Or they might in fact be low on ammo, he said -- or following a two-prong strategy of attacking but not going too far, by, say, taking the presidential palace, so as to leave open the possibility of negotiating with the government.

Meanwhile the transitional governing council set up after the resignation of Henry has yet to really tackle Haiti's myriad woes or name an acting government or prime minister.

Local news reports say a list of dozens of people who want to be prime minister has been whittled down.