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Haiti: UN says deaths rising sharply as gangs vie for power

April 20, 2024

A quarterly UN report on the situation in Haiti has logged a 50% increase in deaths in the country. Long plagued by gangs, several of them recently allied to more directly target the unelected government and police.

An armored police car patrols the General Hospital area, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, April 2, 2024.
Haiti's gangs have started targeting law enforcement more directly, with police operations in turn becoming more lethalImage: Odelyn Joseph/AP Photo/picture alliance

Gang violence led to 1,660 deaths and 850 injuries in the first three months of 2024 in Haiti, a UN report said on Friday.

That's a more than 50% increase on the previous quarter's figures, when the BINUH (or United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti) reported 1,104 deaths and 532 injuries.

Almost four in every five of the deaths or injuries (79%) took place in the lawless capital Port-au-Prince, as authorities struggle to retain control.

The report warned that recent months had also been characterized by more frequent and more organized gang attacks targeting government or law enforcement facilities. 

It noted the major prison breaks orchestrated by Port-au-Prince gangs when "more than 4,600 inmates escaped from the two main prisons in the capital," and also said that at least 22 police facilities had been looted or set on fire, with 19 police officers killed or injured during the first three months of the year. 

Haiti's gang violence pushes country to the brink

Why did the situation worsen in recent months in Haiti? 

Haiti had long been plagued by gang violence with a weak government in only partial control of the country and particularly the capital Port-au-Prince.

But it descended into even more unrest in February when a group of gangs joined forces and said they wanted to oust the unelected government. 

Prime Minister Ariel Henry soon said, under increasing international pressure, that he would step down. 

Establishing a transitional council to usher in elections turned into a long and drawn out process that was only completed last week. 

A potential new government or election date remains elusive, with no votes in Haiti since November 2016, almost two months after Henry said he would step aside. 

A member of the United Nations security team stands cover as a helicopter bound for Cap-Hatien takes-off from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, April 18, 2024.
While the UN has a security presence in Haiti, plans for an international policing mission supported but not run by the UN have been extremely slow to materialize and are back on hold for nowImage: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo/picture alliance

The gangs' opposition to Henry's government had also coincided with growing popular dissatisfaction with and protests against the unelected leader's period in power since the assassination of former President Jovenel Moise in July 2021. Henry had argued during his tenure that the security situation was so poor that elections were not possible. 

The violence intensified when Henry was on a visit to Kenya, trying to drum up support for an international policing mission that Haiti had requested in 2022. It took well over a year of appeals before Kenya volunteered to lead it, but now it's on hold again amid the uncertainty over the country's governance.

Concern mounts in Kenya over plans to deploy police to Haiti

Gangs fighting each other and the police

The report outlined an array of different reasons for the fighting. Sometimes it was rival gangs fighting over territory and influence. Sometimes they would fight with police and other law enforcement.

It warned that rape was being used as a weapon, both against civilians in territory controlled by rivals and recently when gangs overran a women's prison and said the recruitment of children was commonplace. 

BINUH also noted an increase in deaths and injuries inflicted during police operations, as law enforcement sought to respond to the uptick in violence. 

A man, who says he was shot in the hand by a gang member, is treated at a Doctors Without Borders emergency room in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, April 19, 2024.
The tally included civilians and gang members alike, but the report warned that civilians were increasingly being caught in the crossfire or even targeted directly, also during police operationsImage: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo/picture alliance

A total of 590 people had been killed or injured in police operations, the report said, adding that "many were apparently not involved in gang violence, and some were people living with mobility impairments." 

Kidnappings for ransom, however, had become less frequent amid the intensifying violence, down 37% compared to the previous quarter. Still, more than 400 people were kidnapped, many of them taken while traveling on public transport in the Artibonite region north of the capital.

Haitians living in the US fear for their families

Vigilante killings also on the rise

The report also warned that the Haitian mob justice phenomenon, commonly referred to as "Bwa Kale" (Haitian Creole, literally meaning "peeled wood," that is an idiom for an act of swift justice), was also picking up pace as civilians tried to turn the tables on gang members. 

"Between January and March, at least 62 adults, allegedly affiliated to gangs or suspected of crimes, were killed by the population with machetes and stones. Their bodies were often set on fire," the report said. It noted how these cases took place outside the capital, where the gang presence is less pronounced, "indicating a growing fear on the part of the population in these areas of the escalating violence affecting Port-au-Prince." 

The more formal and organized "self-defense groups" in places with a heavier gang presence, meanwhile, were responsible for the deaths of at least 79 people, two of them under the age of 16, the report said.

msh/wd (AFP, Reuters)