SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The U.N.’s special envoy to Haiti warned Wednesday that the ongoing training and resources the international community is providing to Haiti’s national police force is not enough to fight increasingly violent gangs.
Helen La Lime, head of the U.N.'s Integrated Office in Haiti, unexpectedly joined an Organization of American States meeting in Washington, D.C., saying it’s time to look at new partnerships as she called once again for the deployment of a specialized foreign force.
“We’re not getting the job done,” she said. “We need to get down to the business of building this country back.”
Powerful gangs have been infiltrating once peaceful communities in the Haitian capital and beyond, with experts estimating that they now control about 60% of Port-au-Prince. They have pillaged neighborhoods, raped adults and children and kidnapped hundreds of victims ranging from U.S. missionaries to a hot dog street vendor in a bid to control more territory, with violence worsening since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
“It is urgent for the OAS…to understand that the worsening security situation on the ground has reached its peak, and armed gangs now roam the country unfettered,” said Victor Généus, Haiti’s foreign affairs minister.
Top Haitian officials including Généus and Prime Minister Ariel Henry have repeatedly sought international boots on the ground, a request first made in October that has gone unheeded by the U.N.’s Security Council, which has instead implemented sanctions, as have the U.S. and Canada.
On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters the sanctions have targeted “elite families in Haiti who are so responsible not just for funding gangs, but for destabilizing the political world and their economy in Haiti at the terrible cost for the Haitian people.”
He said Canada also continues to help Haiti's national police force and other institutions, noting that previous outside intervention hasn't worked to create long-term stability for Haiti.
“What is clear is there needs to be a fresh approach to Haiti that actually puts the Haitian people themselves in the driver seat on building strong opportunities and strong democracy for them,” Trudeau said.
But top Haitian officials disagree.
“Haiti does not have the means to resolve this crisis alone,” Généus said during the OAS meeting.
Haiti’s National Police has only 9,000 active duty officers in a country of more than 11 million people, and officials say the department remains under resourced and understaffed despite international help.
“It’s not enough to have weapons. It’s not enough to strengthen the National Police and Army,” said Léon Charles, Haiti’s permanent representative to the OAS and the country’s former police chief.
At least 78 police officers have been killed by gangs, which have seized control of police departments in some areas and burned others, according to human rights activists.
The spike in violence also has left tens of thousands of Haitians homeless and prompted a mass migration to the U.S. and other islands in the Caribbean, with an increasing number of voyages aboard rickety boats turning fatal. Meanwhile, officials in nations including the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands have cracked down on migrants and complained about the strain that they have placed on government services.
“The security problem of Haiti pose a threat to the entire region,” Généus said.
The OAS called the meeting to analyze what kind of assistance is needed and where so Haiti can finally hold long-awaited general elections.
Before OAS members went behind closed doors to continue the discussion, La Lime said Haiti urgently needs a safer environment before elections are held.
“Nothing is going to move unless the situation on the ground…changes,” she said. “Without more security assistance…they’re not going to make it.”
The meeting was held as a delegation of U.N. officials visited Port-au-Prince on Wednesday to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Henry and observe what they called “the scale and gravity of the humanitarian crisis” and provide support for humanitarian operations.
Tareq Talahma, with the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said they were seeking $700 million to help at least 3 million Haitians out of 5 million who are in need of humanitarian assistance.
So far, he said, funding pledges has not met expectations, "and that is why we are here,” he said.
“The Haitian people are very dignified people and humanitarian assistance is not the only thing they are waiting for. This community is looking for peace, security and protection, and this is the important thing and should be the priority.” Talahma said.
Associated Press reporters Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.