In recent months in Port-au-Prince, that command — “hands up” in English — has been issued more often by gun-toting gangsters than by law enforcement apprehending suspects.
In early June, videos of residents fleeing a gang shootout, with hands raised, went viral. Meanwhile, some police officers stayed in their stations, even spent the night there so they wouldn’t get attacked, according to Matin Débat, a news show. But even then, they weren’t safe.
Gang members attacked nine police stations between June 1 and June 7, killing eight police officers, according to a human rights report. Bandits also took with them at least 18 rifles from a police station in Cité Soleil and have been occupying that station since June 12.
That day, the Haitian National Police (PNH) celebrated its 26th anniversary. In recent years, PNH has been ineffective in Haiti’s ongoing violence, human rights experts have said.
However, there are pockets of time when it has responded to the gangs, such as the day, June 13, when police regained control of the Portail Saint Joseph Police Station, which a gang had occupied. Police also arrested 115 people between May 1 and April 5 — an average of three arrests per day.
It hasn’t been enough, observers said.
“They show you numbers to make you understand that they’re working in the police institution but us we’re assured that there’s very little or not enough effort to stop insecurity in the country,” said Rosy Ducena, the National Network of the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH)’s program manager.
As Haiti reels from a political stalemate, social inequality and a looming coronavirus outbreak, many experts say that the police are unable to control the lawlessness that is raging in the country, particularly the capital.
The police are outgunned and outmaneuvered in its feeble attempts to dismantle gangs that control most of the slums and popular neighborhoods, observers say.
Police out-equipped by gangs
One main reason the police have struggled to dismantle gangs is because they don’t have the weapons needed, officers have said. For example, on March 12, one of the rare times police officers attempted to raid a gang base, five of them died partially because their weapons were weaker than those of the gang members.
“What happened on March 12, if the police had adequate materials, weapons proportional to the men at the village [Village-de-Dieu] maybe they would’ve come up with a result, it wouldn’t
have ended up like that,” said Domond Saincy, a police officer, in a local radio interview in April.
At least 32 police officers were killed between January and June 6, according to a RNDDH report.
Saincy said that he and some other officers buy their own bullets, helmet, bulletproof vest and boot because the police never gave them other ones since they graduated from the academy.
Meanwhile, some gang members have been seen in police bulletproof vests and they often take videos with multiple rifles and have bullets to spare.
“It’s not that I don’t have bullets, I have bullets, but I have to be ready for everything,” said a bandit in a video of stocks of cash spread via WhatsApp. “I’m going to send people to buy more bullets.”
Bandits have long been accusing former and current government officials of giving them weapons, money and police materials. An accusation human rights experts have also made.
“The deputy who’s acting like he doesn’t know anything — you don’t know anything?,” said one of the bandits who is known as Izo, leader of the Five Seconds gang, in a voice note on June 5. “When I shoot you because you’re giving money to bandits so they can fight bandits, you’ll understand.”
Police turned outlaws
Not only is the police force unable to provide security but many of their members have turned into the ones aggravating Haiti’s ongoing violence, according to local reports.
It became a custom for police officers to take part in massacres in the 2000s. For instance in 2005, in November 2017, more than 200 police officers were accused of a massacre in Grand Ravine, Port-au-Prince. But many other times, it’s rather bandits in police uniforms taking part in massacres, like in the 2018 La Saline massacre, Duncena said.
Police officers have assaulted residents outside of protests too. They beat a handcuffed man to death with baseball bats in May in Ouanaminthe, a border town in the northeast. Péguy Siméon died at the hospital.
To make matters worse for the police force, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, who’s dubbed as Haiti’s top gang leader, was a police officer for 14 years. Chérizier denies being a gang leader.
Other former and current police officers are also involved in criminal activities. It’s easier for them to conduct illegal activities than other residents because the police force doesn’t make sure all former officers return their materials.
“They ought to conduct studies on which firearms were used in infractions,” Ducena said. “They should pay more attention to the guns that police officers haven’t returned and track them.”
The police officials have not returned phone calls and messages seeking comment.
Police officers also formed a criminal rebellious group, Fantom 509, in the late 2010s. They set vehicles and governmental buildings on fire to ask for better working conditions, when members of the group get arrested and other reasons.
This group contributed to further disunity within the police force as they have exchanged fire with other police officers. In one of those skirmishes in February, four members of the Fantom 509 died.
Human rights experts called for more accountability in the police force.
“Everyone with power in their hands has to be held under control 24/7, psychologically too so they can do what they’re committed to do,” Ducena said.
Residents fear police
Because of police officers and false police officers’ criminal activities, many residents panic when they encounter police officers.
“It’s not that we’re even afraid of police officers, police officers are the ones we should be afraid of,” said Chantal Elie, a political analyst. “Me, if I see them at night I’m not staying near them. Never, because I don’t trust them.”
PNH has a challenging task ahead of them as Haiti is looking to hold a controversial constitutional referendum and elections this year on dates to be announced. Provisional Electoral Council officials have said that United Nations soldiers will be present but residents still fear for their safeties.
“I can’t make the difference between a true or false officer,” Elie said. “That’s the difficult situation Haitian residents live in right now and people want elections. That’s not normal. And then who’s involved in the wrongdoings? People who are supposed to defend you or represent you.”