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U.S. citizens, embassy staff ordered to leave Haiti as gang violence escalates

Traveling on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti even in an armored vehicle can be a nerve-wrecking experience as unprecedented kidnappings and gang violence hold the country hostage.  (Jacqueline Charles/Miami Herald/TNS)
By Jacqueline Charles Miami Herald

The U.S. is ordering non-emergency staff at its embassy in Port-au-Prince to leave Haiti, after an escalation in gang violence this week led dozens of Haitian families to seek refuge outside of the embassy compound in the Tabarre neighborhood of the capital.

The mandate leaves a skeletal staff to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens. It will also mean longer wait times for Haitian nationals seeking to renew their U.S. tourist visas or get permission to reunite with family already in the United States. The embassy was already struggling to process such requests due to the high level of kidnappings and armed violence by gangs, which led to a similar order last fall.

“As is always the case, the safety and security of U.S. personnel serving abroad is one of the highest priorities from the Department of State,” Brian A. Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere at the State Department, told the Miami Herald on Friday.

On Thursday, the State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. personnel and their eligible family members from Haiti due to the current security issues “and persisting infrastructure challenges.” It also reissued its “Do Not Travel” advisory, the highest level, for Haiti. The advisory tells U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately due to recent armed clashes between criminal groups and police in Port-au-Prince.

Earlier in the week, dozens of Haitians fleeing their homes decided to seek refuge in front of the U.S. embassy. Several residents said they lived directly behind the embassy or near its housing compound. Asked why they decided to camp out in front of the embassy, several Haitians told the Herald that they wanted the U.S. to help. Others complained that “the embassy doesn’t want to do anything for us.”

“When they go home, they have police for security. We are on our own,” said a man who refused to give his name while sitting on the sidewalk.

In response to the situation, a specialized unit of the Haitian police on Tuesday used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Among those who were tear gassed, according to local media reports, were children and pregnant women. By Friday, the crowds had left the vicinity of the embassy and were taking up refuge at a public school in nearby Caradeux.

In October, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry asked the international community to help the struggling Haitian national police force by deploying “a specialized armed force” to the country. The request was backed by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and the United States, which penned a resolution in the Security Council for such a deployment.

More than nine months later, however, no country has volunteered to lead the force, though some African nations have offered to send police officers to Haiti and Jamaica has offered to deploy some of its military. Earlier this month, the Security Council asked Guterres to come up with options to improve the security situation, including a possible U.N. peacekeeping force and a non-U.N. multinational force. Guterres was given 30 days to to report back.

Guterres’ spokesman said his position on the need for a “robust” force to be deployed to help Haiti has not change and “we’re still looking for movement from member states in that direction.”

In addition to the violence in Tabarre, gangs have also launched attacks outside of Port-au-Prince. Among the victims: an independent radio station in Liancourt in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. It was set on fire over the weekend when dozens of heavily armed men attacked the rural town, setting houses ablaze and sending residents fleeing for their lives.

The uptick in violence comes despite a recent truce among some gang leaders.

Nichols said the Biden administration remains committed to helping Haiti address its deteriorating security situation, and continues to urge Henry and the country’s political and civil society groups to work together on a governance agreement.

“We’re continuing to collaborate with our international partners to develop a framework for a possible multinational force to restore security and stability in Haiti,” he said. “We’re working to identify a lead nation for that effort.”

In the meantime, the U.S. and Canada have focused on issuing sanctions against gang members as well as members of Haiti’s political and business elite. On Friday, the European Union, thanks to the efforts of France, also decided to amend its laws to allow the E.U. to autonomously impose restrictive measures on individuals and entities responsible for threatening the peace, security or stability of Haiti, or for undermining democracy or the rule of law in the country.

The decision means that some Haitians will find themselves shut out of the U.S., Canada and the Dominican Republic, and now the European Union. The restrictions consist of a travel ban for individuals and the freezing of funds belonging to both individuals and companies. In addition, people and entities in the E.U. will be forbidden from making funds available to those listed, either directly or indirectly.

“The current situation in Haiti constitutes a threat to international peace and security in the region,” said Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “With this new framework for restrictive measures, we are sending a clear signal to Haitian gang leaders and their financiers: We know how they operate and there will be no impunity. The E.U. stands with Haiti and its people.”

The U.S. embassy area is surrounded by at least three powerful gangs, two of which are controlled by leaders implicated in the kidnapping of 17 American and Canadian missionaries in October 2021. The gangs, 400 Mawozo and Kraze Barye, have been escalating their violence in the last week, raiding businesses and homes.

The Kraze Barye gang, which is behind the latest upsurge in violence, is led by a politically connected gang leader, Vitel’homme Innocent. Despite having a $1 million FBI reward for his capture for the missionaries’ kidnapping, he has been carrying out a wave of brutal attacks in recent months, including one against a business housing the Jamaica consulate in Haiti. He is also tied to the ongoing abduction of the former head of the Provisional Electoral Council, Pierre-Louis Opont. Opont, who is also owns a television station, remains in captivity more than a month after being kidnapped near his home in Tabarre.

Nichols said the State Department believes Innocent is currently vying for control of the Tabarre neighborhood and has directed his subordinates to invade nearby communities.

“Since that happened, the Haitian national police have been actively trying to repel the gang members from the neighborhood so that people can return to their homes. That meant that the of violence in and around our facilities is elevated,” Nichols said.

“These are evil people who exploit ordinary citizens, take their money, carry out rapes, murders, assaults, robberies of the general population,” he added. “And unfortunately, that’s what’s going on here.”