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UN-backed contingent of foreign police arrives in Haiti as Kenya-led force prepares to face gangs

The Kenyans’ arrival marks the fourth major foreign military intervention in Haiti.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The first U.N.-backed contingent of foreign police arrived in Haiti on Tuesday, nearly two years after the troubled Caribbean country urgently requested help to quell a surge in gang violence.

A couple hundred police officers from Kenya landed in the capital of Port-au-Prince, whose main international airport reopened in late May after gang violence forced it to close for nearly three months.

It wasn’t immediately known what the Kenyans’ first assignment would be, but they will face violent gangs that control 80% of Haiti’s capital and have left more than 580,000 people across the country homeless as they pillage neighborhoods in their quest to control more territory. Gangs also have killed several thousand people in recent years.

The Kenyans’ arrival marks the fourth major foreign military intervention in Haiti. While some Haitians welcome their arrival, others view the force with caution, given that the previous intervention — the U.N.’s 2004-2017 peacekeeping mission — was marred by allegations of sexual assault and the introduction of cholera, which killed nearly 10,000 people.

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Romain Le Cour, senior expert at Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, called on the international community and government officials to share details including the mission’s rules of engagement and concept of operation.

“We haven’t heard about a proper strategy about the mission on the ground, what is going to happen vis-a-vis the gangs,” he said. “Is it a static mission? Is it a moving mission? All those details are still missing, and I think it’s about time that there’s actually transparency.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti issued a brief statement welcoming the Kenyans' arrival: “It is a crucial step in the fight to restore security in the Haitian capital and its surroundings and protect the rights of Haitians.”

The Kenyans’ deployment comes nearly four months after gangs launched coordinated attacks targeting key government infrastructure in Haiti’s capital and beyond. They seized control of more than two dozen police stations, fired on the main international airport and stormed Haiti’s two biggest prisons, releasing more than 4,000 inmates.

“We’ve been asking for security for the longest time,” said Orgline Bossicot, a 47-year-old mother of two who sells carrots and charcoal as a wholesale distributor.

Gang violence has stymied her sales, and she tries to stay out as late as possible before sundown to make up for the losses despite being afraid.

“You don’t know who’s waiting for you around the corner. We are a target,” she said, adding that she is hopeful about the Kenyan police joining forces with local authorities. “It would be a great step forward for me, for Haiti and for a lot of people.”

Critics say the coordinated gang attacks that began Feb. 29 could have been prevented if the foreign force had been deployed sooner, but multiple setbacks including a legal challenge filed in Kenya and political upheaval in Haiti delayed its arrival.

The coordinated attacks achieved their objective: preventing then-Prime Minister Ariel Heny from returning to Haiti. At the time, he was in Kenya to push for the deployment of the force, but he resigned in late April amid the surge in gang violence.

Since then, a nine-member transitional presidential council was formed. It chose former U.N. official Garry Conille as prime minister May 28 and appointed a new Cabinet in mid-June.

Despite the new leadership, gang violence has persisted, and experts say it will continue unless the government also addresses the socioeconomic factors that fuel the existence of gangs in a deeply impoverished country with a severely understaffed and under-resourced police department.

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“It’s hard to assess what is going to be the attitude of the gangs vis-a-vis the (mission),” Le Cour said. “It’s probably fair to say there won’t be a homogenous response from the gangs. Some of them might fight. Some of them might want to negotiate and open dialogue with the Haitian government."

In a recent video, Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer who now leads a powerful gang federation known as G9 Family and Allies, addressed the new prime minister for the first time.

“You did not distribute weapons in working-class neighborhoods,” said Chérizier, best known as Barbecue. “Do not play into the hands of traditional politicians and businessmen, who used violence for political and economic ends, and who now want to recover, by force, the weapons they had distributed. The problem that exists today can only be resolved through dialogue.”

Conille has not commented on the video. On Monday night, he wrote on the social media platform X that he saluted the determination of the Kenyan government and its people to support Haiti “in the fight against the insecurity that is corroding society.”

“The Government and the Haitian people hope this multinational mission will be the last one that helps it stabilize for the renewal of political personnel and the return to effective democracy,” Conille wrote.

The U.N. Security Council authorized Kenya to lead the multinational police mission in October 2023, a year after Henry first requested immediate help.

The use of Kenyan police has been questioned by human rights watchdogs and others who point out the years of allegations against officers of abuses including extrajudicial killings. On Tuesday, police again were accused of shooting protesters in Nairobi.

The Kenyans will be joined by police from the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Chad and Jamaica for a total of 2,500 officers that will be deployed in phases for an annual cost of some $600 million, according to the U.N. Security Council.

So far, the U.N.-administered fund for the mission has received only $18 million in contributions from Canada, France and the U.S. The U.S. also has pledged a total of $300 million in support.

“While gang violence appears to have receded from its peak earlier this year, the country’s security situation remains dire,” the U.N. Security Council said in a June 21 statement.

More than 2,500 people were killed or injured in the first three months of this year, a more than 50% increase from the same period last year.

Many Haitians live in fear, including Jannette Oville, a 54-year-old mother of two university-age boys.

She’s a wholesaler of crops like plantains and green peppers, and gangs have robbed her several times as she travels aboard public buses with her goods.

“I need security. I need to work. I need the roads to open up so I can provide for my family,” she said, confiding that she tucks money in her armpit or underwear to try to keep it safe.

“Being a female entrepreneur in Haiti is never easy,” she said. “There’s a lot of risk. But we take a risk to make sure our families are good.”

The U.N. Security Council also noted that “the acute security situation continues to have severe humanitarian consequences.”

An estimated 1.6 million Haitians are on the brink of starvation, the highest number recorded since the devastating 2010 earthquake, according to the U.N.

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By DÁNICA COTO and EVENS SANON Associated Press

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Categories / International

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