Haiti, desperate for peace, turns to police notorious for violence
By Frances Robles and Abdi Latif Dahir
The Kenyan force tasked with leading a mission to take back Haiti’s streets from violent gangs that have overtaken much of the country’s capital will be made up of police officers who have a checkered history of their own at home, accused of killing more than 100 people this year and lobbing tear-gas into a school during anti-government demonstrations.
“Kenyan police are rogue,” said a 38-year-old taxi driver, Joseph Abanja, recounting how officers stormed into his home in western Kenya several years ago and beat his infant daughter to death.
As lawlessness in Haiti spirals out of control, Kenya has stepped forward to lead a multinational security force aimed at loosening the grip of gangs in the Caribbean nation. But while Kenyan police have experience in international missions, they have also been accused of using excessive force to combat political protests and enforce COVID lockdowns.
Kenyan police officers have shot and beaten hundreds of protesters this year, human rights groups said, raising concerns about what level of force will be used to combat organized criminal groups in Haiti, and whether that will put civilians in harm’s way.
Abanja said his family was attacked in 2017, when demonstrations broke out in the city of Kisumu following a tense election period. Police officers barged into homes, including Abanja’s, bludgeoning his family with batons and fracturing the skull of his 6-month-old daughter, Samantha Pendo, who died.
“If you want to protect someone, you have to protect your own people,” Abanja said. “Let them put their house in order first before going to put someone else’s house in order.”
The Kenyan-led mission, which was approved by the U.N. Security Council this week, comes less than a decade after a 13-year U.N. peacekeeping operation in Haiti that was marred by a deadly cholera outbreak and sexual exploitation.
But as Haiti’s security situation deteriorated, it became clear that it would fall to a Black nation to help as international leaders hesitated to propose what might look like a Western occupation of a developing country, especially one with a long history of outside intervention.
“We consider them to be our brothers and sisters,” Kenya’s foreign minister, Alfred Mutua, said in an interview. “We are doing it as we would for another African country.”
With not a single elected leader in Haiti currently in office and a police department crippled by mass defections, thousands of Haitians have been forced to flee their communities as gangs kill and kidnap, seemingly at will. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in a six-month period this year, according to the U.N., and illegal roadblocks have left important thoroughfares impassable.
For a time, the rampant gang violence gave rise to a vigilante movement that targeted people believed to be criminals. But the grassroots vengeance was short-lived, and met with more killings.
The U.S. State Department has urged Americans to leave the country and sent some employees home.
Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, who is widely regarded as an illegitimate leader, has been calling for international intervention for nearly a year, a plea that went largely unheeded.
But on Monday, the Security Council authorized the Kenyan-led operation, though it is technically not a U.N. peacekeeping mission. Many details, such as the rules of engagement and what other countries will join Kenya in Haiti, have not yet been resolved. Several Caribbean countries have pledged support, but there have been no specifics.
Mutua said Kenya was planning to deploy about 1,000 or more police officers to Haiti, including SWAT-like teams, with “boots on the ground” expected by early next year.
A recent assessment by Kenyan officials estimated that the project would take three years and require from 10,000 to 20,000 personnel, Mutua said. The U.N. resolution approved a one-year term with nine-month renewals. The foreign minister also envisions some 50 more countries each pledging from 500 to 1,000 officers, so they can achieve the 20,000 or more needed. Spain, Senegal, Jamaica, Bahamas and Antigua have said they are “ready,” he said.
Mutua acknowledged that Kenyan officers were likely to engage in gunfights with Haiti’s notoriously violent and heavily armed street gangs. “We are prepared for a bit of a fight between us and the thugs,” he said.
But he stressed that the larger mission is to bring stability to Haiti, which means retaking schools and hospitals currently controlled by gangs and setting the stage for elections.
Rosy Auguste Ducéna, a program manager at Haiti’s National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, said the Kenyans face a tough assignment, particularly because gangs often operate in conjunction with government officials.
“We think it’s going to be very hard for them,” Auguste Ducéna said. “The state authorities are implicated in this situation we have here in Haiti.”
Kenya and the United Nations should be leery of a short-term endeavor that improves the situation for a brief time and then collapses when the officers depart, Auguste Ducéna said.
“We cannot keep this country in this cycle of crisis, mission, election, crisis, mission, election,” she said.
Kenya has a strong economic incentive to send forces to Haiti. A Defense Ministry website made note of the money soldiers deployed abroad send home and the funds the U.N. offers Kenya for salaries and equipment.
But the mission could also face a domestic stumbling block because the Kenyans committed to the plan without first seeking the endorsement of Kenya’s National Security Council or parliament. If lawmakers balk, “it could create a significant moment of diplomatic embarrassment,” said Waikwa Wanyoike, a Kenyan constitutional lawyer.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said there had been “intense discussions” with the Kenyans regarding holding officers accountable should they be implicated in wrongdoing.
A senior U.N. official said the idea to have the multinational force be made up mostly of police officers was prompted by the nature of the challenge in Haiti. They did not want to send an army to do urban policing, the official said, and because of the U.N.’s troubled history in Haiti, deploying peacekeepers was not a viable option.
Asked about the Kenya police’s record of human rights abuses, U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said few countries in the world have not had issues with police violence.
Mutua said Kenya goes to Haiti with “clean hands” and a “clean heart.”
“We are gaining nothing by going into Haiti,” he said. “We are doing God’s work, and we are doing what needs to be done.”