Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti: Crime, Police, and Keeping the Peace

[I guess I'm turning into a talking head. Shame on me. But a little on the past, a bit on the future: and this could be a twenty page paper, so I can address specific questions in comments.]

In recent years, Port-au-Prince has a number of slums controlled by gangs. These gangs were heavily involved in the drug trade that runs through the Caribbean. They also ran syndicates involved in multiple kidnappings, and extortions of other types. They are typified by rampant lawlessness and petty dictatorships. Successive governments either recruited them into paramilitary organizations or bought them off. The police were at once sidelined by these paramilitary groups or mired in corruption.

A concerted effort since Rene Preval became president in 2006 has led to a gang crackdown, aided by the U.N. Stabilization Force in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and several police training and reconstruction initiatives. The anti-gang interdiction has had a number of successes, but those engagements have been controversial in some quarters. There are at least two reasons for this:

1. The gangs have been a de facto part of Haiti's political security (and simultaneously, the lack of security) through a number of corrupt governments. The gang connections to the-then legitimate government tend to shift the blame around somewhat.

2. The gangs had become so powerful, in fact competing with the state, that apprehending their members was as much a military operation as a police operation. When battle occurs inside a city, the number of potential bystander casualties is greater and incidents are witnessed by more voters/citizens. This tends to add to post-conflict resentment.

When Crime approaches Civil War
The state cannot survive if competing gangs are allowed to vie for power with it on an equal or better-than-equal basis. As it stood, Haiti was past the tipping point where the state had little control over security or much else. Haitian government, gone from corrupt to criminal, also assisted in its own irrelevance.

Peacekeeping and Policing are Not the Same
Preval's reform government had to address the competing claims for territorial jurisdiction. As long as gang leaders were dictators that commanded territory, legitimate government could not function effectively--in fact, certain slums and districts were completely lost to state control. The anti-gang process started from a point where state government had a distinct power deficit and a reputational disadvantage. And following a best procedure meant Preval got flack from either side.

People who believe in strong anti-crime measures disapproved of Preval's first, conciliatory efforts toward gang leaders. Yet 'bringing all parties to the table' is considered a best practice with conflict resolution, even when hostilities continue. Likewise, government-sponsored military actions to regain authority over lost sections of Port-au-Prince were measures consistent with stabilization and peacekeeping operations elsewhere--especially when talks are refused. Those interdiction measures have also garnered some disapproval for Preval and MINUSTAH.

The process is bound to be full of setbacks, violence, and extreme partisanship, including a litany of grievance on both sides. Mistakes will be made by the government of Haiti and its lawful allies. These should of course be evaluated, but with the standards of a peacekeeping force, not a police force. The goal has been nothing less than the life of the country and the return of law.

It is supremely ironic that the government of Haiti has been pulling itself out of its deficit position over the last six or more years, when an earthquake, 7.0 on the Richter scale, reversed much of this very fine work.

Preval: "The palace fell down, the parliament has crumbled, the justice palace has fallen down"
All three halls that represent and hold democratic government have perished, and with it, the MINUSTAH heaquarters and the stabilization forces' two top officials within it. Other government services are severely compromised or nonexistent. 3,000 prisoners have escaped back into society from the crumbled prison, many of them who are already organized with gang affiliations, many with the prison guards' weapons. According to the Telegraph:
Haiti's threadbare police force has been largely powerless to keep law and order, although one local police chief said that they were rounding up known gang leaders and criminals, some of whom escaped from a prison damaged during the tremors.
So far the looting and robbery has not been as bad as feared. But rescue officials sense the mood in the city is sullening, and believe violence could become widespread . . . The stifling heat has made the shortage of drinking water and stench from corpses all the more unbearable.
The Sisyphean work of building Haiti just gets harder and harder. Reports also suggest that the disaster has been even more fatal than initial estimates suggested.

It's expected that the U.S. will send 10,000 soldiers and other support personnel; others will come for long or short-term duty. To date, MINUSTAH has been primarily staffed by personnel from Brazil and other OAS or African countries. This will not be a disaster rescue without controversy or grievance or the use of force. It will not be a quick tour of duty for our troops, either.

That may be partly the compassion of the American people. But it is absolutely important for our own security, too. We cannot afford to have Haiti's potential failure bring an extended criminal influence, including piracy and increased drug traffic, across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico.


Gia's Spot said...

Very informative, Ann T ! :} Happy day to you.

Bob G. said...

Glad you posted the "history" behind the actuality down there.
Sadly, some things never seem to change.

Excellent post.

The Observer said...

Ann T

Good post!

The bit about the gangs competing with the government reminded me of certain parts of Mexico. The competition there has resulted in a murder bloodbath in towns like Juarez. It also reminds the rest of us that despite the police department's occasional resemblance to the military (e.g. SWAT), it is still the police.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear Gia,
I'm glad it was useful! I have this tendency to drone on and on, and when I edit I think I may have left out the important stuff!

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G.,
I think they were improving, although not as fast as we generally like to go. But building a state after everyone is conditioned not to believe in it is way difficult. We saw that some with Iraq and perhaps much more we'll see it with Afghanistan.

But there's nothing like a bottom-line situation, like this earthquake, that can tear those delicate repairs all to hell. So,

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same.) Which is what you said.

Thanks so much for writing in.
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
What you said about Mexico is exactly right.

I have one blog (Cop in the Hood) on my blogroll who says that this would be solved by drug legalization. The criminals would not have the source of income and no reason to try to corrupt anyone or kill anyone.

However, their organization will still be in place for other depredations--kidnappings, human trafficking, weapons--so I think the state has to intervene with force when this criminal power structure gets that huge.

We constitutionally do not allow our military to do this kind of thing at home, however--so it's worth contemplating what we would do here if any locality in the country tipped unlawfully away from the state. It would be somewhat different, but no less heartbreaking, than what happened in 1861.

I guess we have, with SWAT and anti-terror, more of a continuum of service than we used to.

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

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