As heavily armed Haitian police officers marched onto Port-au-Prince’s main public square this past Carnival Sunday to protest their low pay and the government’s spending priorities, soldiers in the newly mobilized Haitian Armed Forces quickly deployed and positioned themselves atop a tower overlooking the plaza.
What happened next was unthinkable: Haiti’s two armed institutions faced off in a six-hour gun battle that left a soldier and protester dead, and more than a dozen others, including police officers and two soldiers, wounded.
Now, as Haiti’s 11-month-old caretaker government tries to restore some semblance of order after days of tensions, key questions remain: How did a country, whose army was abolished in 1995 after a turbulent history of corruption, coups and some of the hemisphere’s worst human-rights violations, end up with its cops and soldiers shooting at each other?
And how did the Haiti National Police, created and financed by the U.S. and others in the international community, end up so splintered that cops not only fired on the army’s headquarters, but turned on each other?
At one point during Sunday’s violent clash — which led to the rare cancellation of Port-au-Prince’s three-day National Carnival and another lockdown of the capital — striking cops in uniform, joined by sympathizers and armed infiltrators, commandeered a tactical response armored vehicle sent in by the police high command.
In a widely circulated video, a voice is heard shouting angrily for the crowd to remove the driver. Then, referring to the Special Unit to Guard the National Palace within the Haiti National Police, a voice yells, “USGPN; it’s USGPN.” At that moment, the police officer is forcefully pulled out of the vehicle. The officer hurriedly removed his ski mask to show his face before trying to reason with the crowd.
“It’s tragic,” said Luis G. Moreno, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as political-military officer at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince in 1995 when the focus of U.S. policy was to disarm and demobilize the Haitian Army, Forces Armees d’Haiti (FAd’H), as U.S. authorities were helping a new civilian police force. “It begins with political will. If you don’t have the political will to make this work, it’s not going to happen. I just hope it can be contained so that we don’t end up having to have another international intervention.”
To understand how disgruntled cops in the Haiti National Police and soldiers in the country’s reconstituted army ended up on opposite ends of the Champ de Mars square on Sunday, you have to go back to 1995, the year the Haitian military was disbanded after overthrowing then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide four years earlier.
After being restored to power on Oct. 15, 1994, with the help of 20,000 U.S. troops, Aristide gutted the 7,000-strong army and police following a December protest by soldiers outside of the National Palace demanding back pay.
For the first time since 1915, when U.S. Marines occupied Haiti and created the Haitian Gendarmerie, which eventually evolved into the Forces Armees d’Haiti, the police would be independent of the army, and the work began to give Haiti its first civilian law-enforcement force.
“When we started this in ’95 — we being the U.N. and the Haitian government at the time — we were very conscious about being very careful about who got in; how you recruited them, the qualifications they would need,” said William G. O’Neill, an international human-rights lawyer who worked for the U.N. in the mid-90s. “We tried to make sure that the police would not be politicized or come under the control of any person, president or otherwise.”
But that was always going to be a struggle in Haiti, where leaders have traditionally turned to shadow security forces — whether it be the Tonton Macoute under the Duvalier-family dictatorship or the chimeres, armed goons, during Aristide — to enforce their will and ensure their stay in power.
In recent years, Haitians have seen such forces replaced by rogue elements within the police who have been implicated in massacres and outbreaks of gang violence in largely pro-opposition neighborhoods. They have also seen factions created within the 15,000-member police force. There are 17 specialized units, including the presidential guard, which two years ago, without the knowledge of the then-police chief, was deployed onto the streets of Port-au-Prince during anti-government protests with new uniforms, camouflaged vehicles and machine guns.
The deployment order, which came from the presidential palace, immediately triggered warnings that the move could further weaken an already fragile police force, where some units are better equipped, and some officers are better paid than others despite technically being equals.
“The last 20 to 25 years have shown that it’s really been a losing struggle to keep the police depoliticized and not balkanized with these other forces, and adding to this mix now — an army,” said O’Neill.
He said Haitian and international authorities always worried about having two armed forces in Haiti.
“It was going to be a big struggle to get the police force to the size you would need in Haiti with the equipment, and all the things they are complaining about now: insurance, quality of life issues, connected to the low pay,” O’Neill said. “Creating, or re-creating a Haitian army was a really bad idea for a number of reasons. One is the history of the army in Haiti. It’s never been a positive force; it’s been brutal, repressive and a human rights violator, for one.
“But No. 2, the Haitian national police faced so many challenges, just to get that up and running,” he added. “To divert time, money, attention, and resources from the police to an army that, frankly Haiti does not need, was just literally insane.”
Army by decree
Such concerns did not faze singer-turned-politician Michel Martelly, who had campaigned for president in 2010 on restoring the army to bring back national sovereignty, provide stability and respond to natural disasters.
Already accused by human-rights advocates and others in the international community of pushing for unqualified recruits in the Haitian police force, Martelly forged ahead. In 2015 Martelly, now ruling by decree after Haiti failed to hold timely legislative elections, issued an executive order reinstating the Armed Forces of Haiti.
Soldiers made their official debut in a military parade in the northern city of Cap-Haitien in 2017 under Martelly’s hand-picked successor, President Jovenel Moise.
The new military, Moise said, would be different from the old one. But his decision to reinstall former army leaders tainted by human-rights abuses immediately stirred fear that Haiti had not learned from its past.
Unlike the Haiti National Police, which is heavily funded by the U.S. and other foreign governments, the army was Haiti’s.
“Martelly and Moise have not embraced assisting the police as they have done to create their own little army,” said Robert Maguire, author of “Who Owns Haiti: People, Power, and Sovereignty.” “It’s almost like they are saying, ‘International community, it was your idea to do this police force; you still have to pay the freight.”
Over the past 40 years, Haitian governments, Maguire said, have willingly ceded certain aspects of governance like funding for healthcare and the police to the international community, saying, in effect, you take care of “healthcare, HIV/AIDS, while we take care of politicking; we take care of power; we take care of privilege.”
“This whole army thing is part of that. They’ve created this thing they call an army; it’s directly loyal to them, the international community has no leverage over it and they can use it to do whatever the hell they want, just like the FAd’H was used,” Maguire said. “That’s very different from the police.”
The Haitian police’s annual budget is about $112.3 million. Of that 70% goes for salaries, leaving just 17% or little more than $5 million for investments in equipment, upkeep and construction of police stations. With a U.N. peacekeeping mission preparing to exit, the government, at the urging of the police chief, agreed to increase the annual budget to $168.5 million, with the government contributing 55% and the international community picking up the rest.
By the end of 2018, however, the international community had only contributed 15% of its expected amount and the Haitian state, less than 5%. Meanwhile, an effort to bring other reforms to the institution, pushed by Lower Chamber of Deputies lawmaker Jerry Tardieu, was also blocked by pro-government lawmakers, who were the majority.
In October, as a U.N. peacekeeping mission prepared to exit Haiti after 15 years and turn over responsibility for the country’s security to the national police, the U.N. issued a warning.
The Haiti National Police had made great strides and become more professional, the U.N. said, but “maintaining the momentum of continued growth and professionalization will require greater attention by national authorities and the international community to resourcing the police.”
The Haitian police, the final report from the U.N. mission said, suffered from acute equipment needs, and lacked ammunition and armored vehicles. The report did not mention salary or working conditions, which police have been protesting about as they demand the right to unionize.
In response to Sunday’s incident, the army’s high command issued a statement saying it was not in a confrontation with the police, and that masked gunmen had fired on its headquarters. In another statement, it lectured the Haiti National Police on how it should conduct itself.
Haiti’s justice ministry also called Sunday’s violence “an attempted coup d’etat” by police officers who had staged the protest.
Regardless of who fired the first shots, the violent outburst has raised questions about Haiti’s internal security and created doubts about whether the collapsing police force can provide even a bare minimum of security during “a spectacular rise” resurgence in kidnappings-for-ransom and banditry by criminal gangs.
Some put the blame on lack of leadership, saying that the union movement and poor morale within the police force have been badly handled by the police high command and the government. Moise, who has admitted to hiring foreign security agents to beef up his protection, has made no secret that he doesn’t trust his police force to protect him. Others say the problems run much deeper and the international community shares in the blame.
“Ever since Jovenel came to power, he’s had one tendency … an armed force,” said Pierre Esperance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Network. “During the three years of his mandate, he has not reinforced the police.”
As a result of the neglect and the police’s measly operating budget, Esperance said, gangs control two-thirds of the country and today are better equipped than the police. Meanwhile, frustration within the police rank and file grows.
“In 2019, there were 45 police officers who died,” Esperance said. “Since the existence of the police, the number has never been that high. We are not talking about police officers who died in accidents but those who were assassinated.”
Esperance’s former colleague, Marie Yolene Gilles, who heads her own human rights organization, Fondasyon Je Klere, has a different take. Like others, she believes the U.S., U.N. and others focused too much on growing the number of police recruits rather than on the quality of the recruits. (But the numbers are still low: With 11 million inhabitants, Haiti has 1.32 police officers per 1,000 residents, still far below the U.N.’s goal of 1.51.
“The international community had a mission to reinforce the national police. What’s happening here today shows us that it was a failure. They failed,” Gilles said. “Today, we see the police have more of a tendency to be politicized. … Today, you can compare the police institution, pardon me what I am going to say here, but a gang because the guns they gave them to protect the population, they are using it to carry out an armed conflict.”
The day after the president of Gilles’ board, attorney Samuel Madistin, criticized the unionization efforts and police revolt in a radio interview, his law office was attacked by unknown individuals who set fire to a generator and several vehicles.
There are no winners, Gilles said, in what’s unraveling in Haiti between the two armed forces.
“The loser is the country,” she said, stressing that police, while justified in their demands for better pay and working conditions, are long overdue for a purging in their ranks to get rid of rogue elements including those affiliated with gangs.
Gilles said it was this same kind of systematic violations and banditry that plagued the Haitian army and led to its being disbanded in 1995. She would like to avoid that same fate with the Haitian national police. Meanwhile, the new armed force, she said, is not what one would really call an army.
“An army is something that has different units. An army has to have a budget, a training center; an army cannot be created in three months,” Gille said. “We believe what is being done here is to satisfy President Moise, who during his campaign said he would re-create the army. You claim this is an army and you have no vehicles, no planes, no helicopters, no barracks.”
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