U.S. diplomat helping Haiti rebuild its police: elites tied to gangs are 'on notice'
Assistant Secretary of State Todd Robinson has the daunting task of helping Haitians restore their collapsed security — so they can restore their collapsed country.
Sixty-three Haitian migrants arrived in the Florida Keys last week in a ramshackle sailboat after three weeks at sea. More will likely be coming — because on top of Haiti's other grave crises, violent street gangs have now overrun much of the country.
This month, veteran U.S. diplomat Todd Robinson visited Haiti’s capital. On his way back to Washington, in Miami, he told WLRN that he saw that Haitian reality for himself in Port-au-Prince.
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“There are large areas of the city that are frankly under different levels of gang influence," said Robinson. "I think it’s going to be a real challenge [for] the Haitian National Police to reverse that trend.”
Gangs have been amassing power for years as the Haitian government has all but disappeared amid the chaos that followed the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
Today gangs control an estimated half of Port-au-Prince, hijacking fuel and kidnapping people for ransom at will. One of them, known as 400 Mawozo, is still holding 15 of the 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries it abducted last month. Gang violence has forced thousands of Haitians from their homes this past year.
“Haiti is frankly in an unprecedented position," Robinson said, pointing to the country's economic implosion, a major earthquake on its southwest peninsula in August and the brutal, still unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July.
"We have to bring our 'A' game on this.”
Robinson — who recently became the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs — bears much of the daunting task of helping Haiti, and its national police, restore public security.
Over the past decade, the U.S. has sent more than $300 million to strengthen Haiti's feeble law enforcement. On his trip this month, Robinson began delivering $15 million in new aid, including armored vehicles. But Haitian cops will need a lot more than that before they can, as Robinson put it, “take back their country.”
“Absolutely," he said. "These are things we can achieve with the Haitian National Police, [but] it’s going to take a significant investment on the part of the United States and the international community.”
We know political, economic, social elites are behind the scenes supporting these gangs. They should be on notice we’ll make it possible for the Haitian justice system to find out who they are.Todd Robinson
How significant the Biden Administration hasn’t yet said. But the needs are urgent. For one, the U.N. reports gangs are now forcefully recruiting younger Haitians who, thanks to a dearth of economic opportunity, are especially vulnerable.
"Several of the young people we work with might tell you, 'Oh, yeah, my [family's] rent I have to pay,'" said Julio Warner Loiseau, who heads a youth assistance nonprofit in Port-au-Prince called Nouvelle Perspective.
"And if [my program] can't find a job for them, the gangs can just give that money to them — and now they are in the gang!"
Robinson says providing Haitian young people alternatives to gangs will be a key part of his mission — as it was for the U.S. when he was recently Ambassador to Guatemala, one of the countries in Central America where youths fleeing murderous gang recruitment migrate in droves to the U.S.
But Loiseau points out Robinson faces a serious dilemma — one security experts who know Haiti have warned about for years. That is, the gangs — including an alliance of criminal groups run by former Haitian cop Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, who is widely considered the most powerful person in Haiti right now — allegedly have ties to a lot of influential political and business leaders in Haiti.
“The system is so corrupt that a lot of the businessmen and the politicians need those gangs to protect their interests," said Loiseau. "So a lot of the people Ambassador Robinson’s meeting in Haiti, they don’t want to fix the problem.”
That's such an open secret in Haiti that Robinson just as openly acknowledged it in his conversation with WLRN.
“We know political, economic, social elites are behind the scenes supporting these gangs," Robinson said.
"And they should be on notice that we’re going to make it possible for the Haitian justice system to find out who’s supporting them ... and there will consequences.”
But many Haitians believe working with Haiti’s current, weak justice system is a dead end.
When Robinson held a meeting with Haitian diaspora community leaders in Miami after his visit to Haiti, a key question they had was: Why doesn’t the U.S. itself identify and sanction, if not indict, corrupt elites in Haiti as aggressively as it has in Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua?
“The United States has at its disposal a lot of tools to stop the people who are driving this situation," said diaspora leader Ariel Dominique, who was at the meeting.
"Whether it’s through the Justice Department, blocking visas, freezing assets, or to stop the flow of arms.”
There has indeed been a lot more smuggling of guns and bullets into Haiti recently — and that’s a big reason the gangs are thriving as monstrously as ever. Haitians like Loiseau insist ramped up arms interdiction has to be the U.S. and international priority right now.
Meanwhile, other Haitians — and some U.S. officials — fear it will take Washington far too long to help Haitian police restore order there. They suggest the only way Haiti can hold vital elections next year, or even the year after, is if U.S. and international troops provide voter protection.
Last month, Haitian Foreign Minister Claude Joseph told the U.N. the "new realities" of gang dominance may require it to return some of the international peacekeeping presence that had been in Haiti until recently.
But a lot of hemispheric security experts warn against putting boots on the ground.
“We have a horrible history with doing that," said Brian Fonseca, who heads the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
"Foreign intervention has undermined the evolution of the Haitian state. It’s held back true transition to democratic governance in Haiti.”
Robinson, the diplomat now heading the State Department’s mission to help Haiti rebuild its public security, shares that concern.
"We've tried interventions in the past," he said, "and we are where we are.
“It’s up to the Haitians to take responsibility for their future."
Even so, the U.S. is finding, once again, it can't avoid its own responsibility to help Haiti reach that future.