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Haiti's gangs erupt again after vigilante movement wanes. Can Kenya stop it?

Haitians displaced by armed gangs from their homes in the Tabarre neighborhood take refuge outside the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, July 25, 2023.
Odelyn Joseph
Haitians displaced by armed gangs from their homes in the Tabarre neighborhood take refuge outside the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

In recent days, Haiti’s violence and insecurity nightmare has gone from bad to worse — even forcing the evacuation of the U.S. embassy there — and Haitians are even skeptical about the one piece of good news the country just received: Kenya's readiness to lead a multinational police assistance force.

This month, there had been a sense of guarded optimism in Haiti after some of the warring gangs that control much of the country agreed to a truce. But it turns out no peace pact was agreed to by several other gangs in several other parts of Haiti and especially the capital, Port-au-Prince — including the city's Tabarre district, where the U.S. embassy is located.

Gang violence erupted there last week, forcing many Haitians to flee their homes and take refuge at the embassy — but the violence simply followed them there. Now the U.S. has ordered all non-emergency personnel out of Haiti and issued an advisory for Americans not to travel to the country. (Haitians have also criticized the Haitian national police force's removal of the Tabarre refugees from the embassy grounds.)

Gang kidnappings are also spiking again — including the abductions of journalists and, over the weekend, a U.S. nurse and her child while she was working for a Christian NGO.

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Farah Larrieux, a Haitian-American communications specialist in Miami who was once a journalist in Haiti, pointed out, as many in Haiti have, that a big reason for the sudden security collapse is that the gangs feel emboldened again now that a broad and bloody citizens vigilante movement that rose up against them earlier this year has died down.

“And now the gangs have reorganized themselves, and I think it's a situation of revenge that’s going on now," said Larrieux.

"Things are getting more severe because of it, and there are reports of people just disappearing without their families even receiving ransom phone calls” as was the case in the past.

There was encouraging news over the weekend, though, when Kenya announced it was "ready" to lead a multinational force, urged by the U.N., to help Haiti’s overwhelmed police.

But Haitians like attorney Samuel Madistin — who heads the human rights nonprofit Fondasyon Je Klere in Port-au-Prince — tell WLRN they feel a larger international effort is still needed.

“The Kenya plan can’t resolve the problem," said Madistin.

"It might be a first small step. But given how serious the crisis is, and how the police and the government can't and don't anything to stop it, we need a more sustainable solution to reinforce our national forces for the struggle against the gangs.”

Many Haitians feel the U.S. should assume a larger role to shore up Haiti's public security so the country can hold long overdue elections and reactivate a government that is largely collapsed and non-existent. But while the Biden Administration supports the idea of the sort of multinational effort Kenya says it will lead, the U.S. so far will not commit its own personnel to it.

A large share of Haitians also want Haiti's interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, to step down — and the U.S. to drop its support for him.

At a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing last week on the international response to the crisis in Haiti, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he could not recall a deeper crisis for Haiti and its people.

"Haiti right now is a complete disaster," he said. "Despite Haiti's long history of problems and challenges, this is probably as bad as it's been in a long time."

“It's an unfair question in many cases, but what is the Biden administration's plan or view of what the solution here is?" said Rubio. "This is not a blame assignment."

He added: "This is a testament to the intricacy of this problem, how difficult it is. What's the way forward? Because it is having an impact on the United States. This is not halfway around the world. This, as I said, is not far from Florida and the southeast United States."

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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