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Gang-related violence in Haiti has reached levels not seen in decades, UN chief says

Jan. 24, 2023 Updated Tue., Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:33 p.m.

A young girl is being transported to school on Monday, Jan. 24, 2023, in the city of Cap-Hatien, Haiti. The latest report from the United Nations Secretary General on the situation in Haiti says the majority of schools throughout the country still not operating due to worsening gang-related violence.    (Jacqueline Charles/Miami Herald/TNS)
A young girl is being transported to school on Monday, Jan. 24, 2023, in the city of Cap-Hatien, Haiti. The latest report from the United Nations Secretary General on the situation in Haiti says the majority of schools throughout the country still not operating due to worsening gang-related violence.   (Jacqueline Charles/Miami Herald/TNS)
By Jacqueline Charles Miami Herald Miami Herald

MIAMI – Over the past three months, Haiti has seen some of its worst gang-related violence in decades, affecting the functioning of the judiciary, impeding the government, challenging the United Nations’ efforts to fight illicit trafficking and keeping children from going to school, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in his report on the deteriorating situation.

Even neighborhoods of the capital that were once considered to be relatively safe have fallen victim to the tightening grip of warring gangs. Just last week, residents of Petionville found themselves trapped in their homes as a gang ambush to the east left three police officers dead, another missing and a fourth injured, as a rise in kidnappings at the southern edge left people scared to go out.

Guterres’ three-month update of the situation in Haiti paints a deteriorating situation. The U.N. Security Council will take up the report Tuesday morning. Diplomats are looking for not just an update on the security situation, but Haiti’s progress toward staging elections to replace its president as well as both chambers of Parliament following the end of the terms of the country’s past 10 elected officials earlier this month.

In the report, the secretary-general acknowledges that the elections calendar remains uncertain, despite a promise by interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry that 2023 will be an electoral year. Guterres noted that despite efforts by the interim government and the U.N. to stave off a worsening crisis and tackle many of the issues, including an ongoing cholera outbreak, their work has been impeded by the worsening gang violence and kidnappings.

He noted that over the last three months the political landscape in Haiti was shaped by three events: the establishment of a U.N. sanctions regime to implement travel bans, asset freezes and a targeted arms embargo against individuals engaging, directly or indirectly, with armed groups and criminal networks; the imposition of bilateral sanctions by the U.S. and Canada against several high-profile Haitian individuals, including a former president, two former prime ministers and two members of the current government; and the request by the Haitian government and the secretary-general for the deployment of an international specialized armed force to assist the Haiti National Police.

Direct talks held in early October between Henry and a prominent member of the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, otherwise known as the Montana Accord, “ultimately did not make tangible headway.” New consultations between the government and others members of civil society group and the business community yielded a document, the National Consensus for an Inclusive Transition and Transparent Elections.

Though signed by some groups, the document remains the target of criticism, with some political groups saying it has no validity and is there to shore up the little power Henry has.

The reporting period was also marked by a siege of the country’s main fuel terminal, Varreux, which exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country and led to the call for a specialized international force to assist the Haitian police. Such a force is still needed, Guterres said, despite the end of a two-month gang siege.

The National Port Authority and other commercial ports, for example, “remain under constant gang attacks.”

“Road transportation remains at risk, with cargo shipping containers and goods being regularly hijacked and stolen,” the report said. “Police continued to struggle to maintain patrols around the ports, while gangs retained control of most of the main transport thoroughfares linking Port-au-Prince with the northern and southern departments.”

This has also delayed implementation of U.N. efforts to assist Haitian authorities in fighting the illicit trafficking through a border management program being launched by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

“It is vital that major roads and key facilities remain unobstructed to enable the State to function and protect the people of Haiti so that they may safely go about their daily lives,” Guterres said, reiterating his call for the deployment of international forces to help the Haitian national police.

The number of reported homicides for 2022 increased by 35.2% compared with 2021. The majority, nearly 82%, were in the West regional department that includes the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, where a former presidential candidate, Eric Jean Baptiste and the National Police Academy director, Harington Riguad, were among the victims late last year.

Kidnappings also saw a 104.7% increase, with 1,359 reported victims.

“Despite their determined efforts to curb crime and fight gangs, the overstretched, understaffed and under resourced police force has not been able, on its own, to deter the alarming rise in gang violence,” Guterres said in his report.

“Gang-related violence continued to undermine the functioning of the judicial system, affecting efforts to address the high rate of prolonged pretrial detention, among other activities,” according to the report.

The country’s main courthouse, the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince, attacked by gangs in mid-June, was still not under Haitian authorities’ control by the end of the year, the U.N. said. Another facility, the Court of First Instance of Croix-des-Bouquets, which was also attacked and set on fire by gang members, is still being temporarily housed in several government buildings in the neighboring city of Tabarre.

The U.N. reported that gangs continue to use sexual violence as a weapon to inflict terror and to punish and humiliate local populations. Their ultimate goal is to extend their control.

During gang clashes in Croix-des-Bouquets in October, at least 40 women were raped by heavily armed gang members.

“The women were deliberately targeted because they lived in an area controlled by a rival gang. Women and girls also continued to be highly exposed to rape while traveling along roads controlled by gangs,” the U.N. said.

That gang violence has also spilled out into other areas. Of the 10 regional departments in Haiti, only two have at least 90% of their schools open – the Nippes and South departments. In the north, where families are struggling against higher costs of living after a decrease in remittances from abroad and double digit inflation, only 17% of schools are open.

“The situation remains grave,” Guterres said.

He said the security crisis in Haiti is not just affecting daily life but the development of human capital because of the population’s severely limited access to education and employment.

He also noted that the average cost of a food basket, which consists of common foods the population eats such as rice and beans, has increased to nearly 63%, leading to a rise in hunger among almost half of the people in the population of nearly 12 million.

“The unpredictable security situation has hampered agricultural activities, prevented the supplying of markets and slowed down ongoing investment, especially in small-scale trade, the main source of income for a large part of the population,” Guterres said. “People’s livelihoods continue to erode, and humanitarian partners face great difficulty in gaining access to the most vulnerable populations.”

The number of people in an emergency situation, meaning deep hunger, rose by more than 35.5%, with 1 in 20 residents in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil living in faminelike conditions. These trends are likely to continue if the level of humanitarian assistance does not increase, the secretary-general said, noting that the hunger crisis is now compounded by the expanding cholera epidemic.

The U.N. and international and national humanitarian partners are facing increasing difficulties in reaching beneficiaries throughout the country to provide water, food and health care because major roads remain blocked by gangs, the secretary-general said. For example, National Road 2, linking the capital to the quake-recovering southern peninsula, has been blocked by gangs since June 2021, cutting off at least 3 million people from Port-au-Prince, the country’s economic center.

“The blockade undermines freedom of movement and further contributes to inflation and jeopardizes livelihoods. More recently, the northern departments have also become increasingly isolated from the capital,” Guterres wrote.

That has made getting fuel to the areas difficult. For instance, along the road connecting Ouanaminthe in the northeast to Cap-Haïtien in the north, fuel is sold only in gallons on the roadside, if it’s available at all. The city of Cap-Haïtien, which just hosted a major international jazz festival that relocated from the capital because of the violence, has been in a total blackout for over a year, residents said.

“Amid the ongoing cholera outbreak, the lack of fuel has further undermined access to health services owing to restrictions on movement and to the impact of fluctuations in the supply of water and electricity on the functioning of medical facilities,” the U.N. report said.

The turf battles between heavily armed gangs, while not occurring everywhere, is nevertheless having an impact on the human rights situation, especially in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince and in the Artibonite and North departments, the report details.

“Gangs are increasingly targeting local populations, deliberately killing, injuring and committing acts of sexual violence during coordinated armed attacks to expand their territorial control.”

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