As gang power grows, Haitian police are underpaid and underpaid
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Two officers from Haiti’s Rapid Reaction Force stopped at a bridge in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to set up a checkpoint and conduct an afternoon of work in search of firearms, drugs, wanted criminals and victims of kidnappings.
On either side of the bridge were neighborhoods besieged by gangs. In one, Haitian officials believe that a powerful gang, 400 Mawozo, is holding a group of American and Canadian missionaries hostage for ransom. But the police couldn’t venture into the nearby streets: the criminal organizations around them have better guns, better motorcycles, and more fuel.
The officers therefore remained on deck, frustrated by the power imbalance that leaves them defenseless and much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the nation under the control of criminal organizations like 400 Mawozo.
“We took this job knowing the risks,” said Edvie Boursiquot, 41, a rapid reaction force officer who joined the police 14 years ago. “But we have to get down to business knowing that we have a government that supports us, that it is watching over us. Give us what we need to fight gangs, better guns, better motorcycles. “
Gangs have long been powerful in Haiti, often serving as muscle for politicians who, in turn, provided them with weapons and vehicles. But under Haiti’s last elected president, Jovenel Moïse, and since his assassination in July, the power of gangs has only grown, while that of the police, depending on an increasingly impoverished state, has grown. diminished, leaving officers even more underfunded, under-equipped and severely underpaid.
The lack of power was evident on a recent morning as the Haitian police rapid reaction force, known as the Motorized Intervention Unit, set up a checkpoint on a bridge. On either side were gang-controlled neighborhoods that had been nearly emptied as impoverished residents would rather abandon their homes and belongings than live under the sway of a gang that kills and steals at will.
Police know that in one of the neighborhoods, Croix-des-Bouquets, the dominant 400 Mawozo gang is holding 16 Americans and a Canadian hostage, threatening their lives if the religious aid organization to which they belong does not pay a ransom of $ 1 million per lead.
But entering the neighborhood is out of the question. So officers instead worked on the bridge, checking cars that passed for guns, drugs, and wanted criminals, frustrated at their inability to do more.
“Conditions have changed,” said Boursiquot, who went to the checkpoint on the back of a colleague’s motorcycle because there was no other for her. “They get worse every year.”
Ms Boursiquot’s colleague Ulrick Jacques, 40, intervened, pulling down the hood he wears to protect his identity from gang members so reporters can see the anger on his face.
“I am ready to fight, but I need the peace of mind that this government supports me”, declared Mr. Jacques. “That every day I go to work, that no one will starve at home, that I can feed my children. “
Instead, said Jacques and Boursiquot, they haven’t received a raise in years as the gangs swell their ranks and arm themselves with more sophisticated weapons than themselves.
The two officers had joined the police force 14 years ago and had been promoted more than a year ago, moving up a rank, they said, but they had not yet received the increase that comes with the promotion and can barely support their families with the $ 220 they earn. month.
What little government benefits, such as food or health care, are clawed back.
When her daughter broke her knee last year, Ms Boursiquot took her to hospital, only to find that the government had taken her three children out of her insurance. She had to pay $ 90 – almost half of her monthly income – to repair her daughter’s knee and for medication. Her husband, who left years ago, does not help support their families.
Hunger is now a regular feature of life, with their families joining the ranks of the undernourished in Haiti, Jacques said. Agents are given a special debit card that allows them to buy food at grocery stores, he said, but the government has not topped it up for more than two months.
Of Haiti’s 11 million people, 4.4 million are in need of food aid, according to the United Nations.
“We’re at our fingertips,” Jacques said, his voice shaking with rage. “How can you explain that the schools are open and that we cannot pay the tuition fees? That the grocery stores are full and we can only look at food from the outside? “
The two policemen feared that they too would soon join the growing number of Haitian citizens internally displaced by gangs.
A few miles south of the police checkpoint on the bridge, a stone’s throw from the United States Embassy, is the Tabarre Issa neighborhood, where more than 3,000 people have fled this year after gangs shot at their homes and warned them to leave or be killed.
To the north is Croix-des-Bouquets, where the 400 Mawozo gang detains the kidnapped missionaries along with Christian Aid Ministries and their children, the youngest 8 months old.
In a cheeky display of authority, when the leader of the 400 Mawozo threatened execution against the hostages, he did so in the streets of Croix-des-Bouquet, surrounded by hundreds of gang members as US officials and Haitians guarded the area.
The Motorized Intervention Unit, or BIM as it is called, was launched in 2007 under President René Préval, intended to be a rapid intervention unit of the police, capable of quickly mobilizing on motorcycles and vehicles. quads, navigating with agility through congested streets. from Port-au-Prince.
The force, considered almost an elite unit with special training and funding, was considered one of the most effective and efficient units in the Haitian police until President Michel Martelly was sworn in in 2011.
The unit atrophied under Mr. Martelly’s presidency, with the government using BIM to provide personal protection for officials and their families and to guard government buildings. A large order for motorcycles to replace the aging police fleet was placed and paid for under Mr. Martelly’s government, but the vehicles were never delivered, causing a scandal.
Now the force is using cheaper Chinese bicycles called Loncin, which police say have a tendency to crumble.
On the bridge leading to Croix-des-Bouquets, police continued to check vehicles and passing Haitians on foot, including Nahomie Bauvais, 25, who was holding her 2-month-old baby in her arms.
She hates the insecurity in her neighborhood, but feels that she has no choice but to hope that the gangs leave her and her two children alone, and that the government takes over and exercises again. control over Croix-des-Bouquet.
It’s far, she knows. And that wouldn’t solve all of his problems. If the government is unable to provide the basics – electricity, security, garbage collection – even in wealthy neighborhoods where powerful politicians live, there is little reason to believe it will do so in poor neighborhoods like his.
“There is no state here,” Ms. Bauvais said. ” I live day by day. What else can you do when you hear gunshots at night and wake up hoping for the best? “
She worried about the gang’s growing appeal to former classmates and friends idling on sidewalks, playing game after game of dominoes, with no jobs or food to eat.
“We have to be careful and protect ourselves,” Ms. Bauvais said.
Comments like this annoy Mr. Jacques, who maintains that he and his colleagues are doing their best, even though they feel as helpless as civilians like Ms. Bauvais.
“We work here, but can you really work? When you have no motorcycles, no fuel to go from neighborhood to neighborhood? asked M. Jacques. “The population takes a dim view of us, they think we are doing nothing. They don’t know we’re trying, but we can’t.