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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Foreign police officers land on the ground in Haiti

President William Ruto of Kenya at the state house in Nairobi, May 19, 2024. (Brian Otieno/The New York Times)

By Frances Robles and Abdi Latif Dahir

Foreign law enforcement officers began arriving in Haiti on Tuesday, more than year and a half after the prime minister there issued a plea to other countries for help to stop the rampant gang violence that has upended the Caribbean nation.

Footage shared on social media showed dozens of armed men in military fatigues filing out of a Kenya Airways plane at Haiti’s Toussaint-Louverture International Airport in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The officers are part of a deployment of police officers from eight nations who will fan out across the capital in an effort to wrest control of the city from dozens of armed groups that have attacked police stations, freed prisoners and killed with impunity.

Since the appeal for international help went out in October 2022, more than 7,500 people have been killed by violence — more than 2,500 people so far this year alone, the United Nations said.

With a weakened national government and the presidency vacant, dozens of gangs took over much of the capital this year, putting up roadblocks, kidnapping and killing civilians and attacking entire neighborhoods. About 200,000 people were forced out of their homes between March and May, according to the U.N.

Now an initial group of 400 Kenyan police officers have arrived to take on the gangs, an effort largely organized by the Biden administration. The Kenyans are the first to deploy of an expected 2,500-member force.

“You are undertaking a vital mission that transcends borders and cultures,” President William Ruto of Kenya told the officers Monday. “Your presence in Haiti will bring hope and relief to communities torn apart by violence and ravaged by disorder.”

The Kenyan officers are expected to tackle a long list of priorities, among them retaking control of the country’s main port as well as freeing major highways from criminal groups that demand money from drivers.

“Gang checkpoints on these roads are also a major source of their income, generated by extorting money from everyone passing through and by kidnapping and holding people for hefty ransoms,” said William O’Neill, the U.N.’s human rights expert on Haiti.

“While much delayed, the arrival of the Kenyans comes at a good time,” particularly since a new police chief and prime minister have been named in recent weeks, he said.

A small assessment team from Kenya arrived in May to begin preparations but found equipment lacking. That left the United States, the main supplier for the mission, rushing to find armored vehicles and other equipment.

“The Kenyans do not want to be one of these missions that show up on the ground, and for a month, they never leave their base,” Dennis B. Hankins, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview. “They want to be able to see quickly that they are making an impact.”

Haitian authorities have difficult decisions ahead, Hankins said, such as what should happen first: retaking control of the central hospital in Port-au-Prince or securing the port so that fuel, food and other commodities can flow consistently.

The Kenyans will “support” the Haitian police but not replace them, he said, so that when the mission ends, their departure doesn’t create “a security vacuum.”

Officially called the Multinational Security Support Mission, the deployment is expected to last at least a year, according to the U.S. government. Sanctioned by the U.N. and mostly financed by the United States, its goal is to support Haitian police and establish enough stability so the transitional government can set up elections to choose a new president as well as members of parliament.

Many experts are guarded in their assessment of the international force, mainly because, aside from tackling the insecurity, there is no comprehensive plan to address the root causes of Haiti’s many governance problems.

After Prime Minister Ariel Henry was forced to resign in late April, it took several weeks for political parties to agree on who would serve on a new transitional presidential council. It was a full month before a replacement for Henry took office.

Garry Conille, a former U.N. official, accepted the post in late May.

In a social media post late Monday, he said he hoped this mission would be Haiti’s last. The country has a long history of international interventions, including some that were marred by accusations of sexual exploitation and poor sanitation that led to widespread cholera.

So far, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Chad, Jamaica and Kenya have officially offered personnel for the mission.

But the mission has not received much financial commitment.

While Kenyan officials estimate the cost will run up to $600 million, a U.N. fund to pay for it has only $21 million. The United States has pledged more than $300 million to finance the mission.

The Kenyan deployment comes a month after Ruto traveled to the United States at President Joe Biden’s invitation. The four-day trip was the first state visit by a Kenyan president in two decades and the first by an African leader since 2008. The United States, Canada and France — Haiti’s biggest benefactors and allies — were unwilling to send troops of their own to Haiti.

Beyond protecting key infrastructure, the officers at some point will be expected to secure the presidential palace, which remains in shambles after a 2010 earthquake but continues to be a symbolic place of power in Haiti.

But the contingent of 400 that arrived Tuesday is just a small step toward a large operation that will require many more people and resources to be effective, said Gédéon Jean, executive director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, a Haitian organization that was forced to suspend its operations because of rising violence.

“So much remains to be done,” Jean said.

The initial group is likely to “play it safe” at the start, but even as more officers arrive from other countries, the task will be daunting, particularly since the officers have not worked together before, do not speak the same languages or have a shared “operational framework,” said Sophie Rutenbar, a visiting scholar at the New York University Center on International Cooperation who has worked in Haiti.

“The early deployment of this force is going to be very vulnerable,” Rutenbar said.

Eugene Chen, a former U.N. official who follows Haiti closely, said the international mission seemed to emerge out of desperation to do something. Without finding ways to support Haiti’s political process, the mission could exacerbate the violence, Chen said.

“It’s not clear,” Chen added, “that this is the right answer.”

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