“Catastrophic situation” in Haiti causes 1,500 deaths due to gang violence

Gang violence has killed more than 1,500 people in Haiti this year, the United Nations human rights office said Thursday, the result of what it described as a “catastrophic situation” in the country.

Corruption, impunity and poor governance, coupled with rising levels of gang violence, have brought the Caribbean nation’s state institutions “close to collapse”, the agency said.

The United Nations human rights office reported that gang violence has killed 1,554 people and injured 826 this year, as of March 22, A new report released by the agency describes a rise in sexual violence by gang members, including the rape of women, often after they have witnessed their husbands being killed.

There is also widespread and deadly vigilantism, with community groups – some calling themselves “self-defence brigades” – attacking people suspected of petty crime or gang membership. Last year, 528 people were killed in this way, and this year another 59, according to the United Nations.

Armed gangs took control of most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, destroying police stations and government offices, looting banks and hospitals and killing and kidnapping dozens of people. The violence prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who remained stranded outside the country in early March.

William O’Neill, a United Nations human rights expert who has worked extensively in Haiti, said at a news conference in New York on Thursday that the current situation is the worst violence he had seen in Haiti since the military dictatorship of the early 1990s, when rape and executions were commonly used against government opponents.

“The numbers are all going in the wrong direction, very quickly,” he said.

Haitians are trapped in “an open prison,” cut off from the world by air, land and sea, O’Neill said. Leaving their homes to go to the market “is a life-threatening undertaking,” he said.

United Nations officials warn that Haitian police may not be able to resist the gangs’ onslaught for much longer. “I don’t know how much longer the Haitians can wait,” O’Neill said.

The State Department announced this week that it will send $10 million in equipment, including weapons and ammunition, to Haitian security forces “as they fight to protect people and critical infrastructure from organized and targeted gang attacks.”

The head of the United Nations human rights office in Haiti, Arnaud Royer, said in an interview that only between 600 and 700 Haitian police officers currently work in Port-au-Prince, with only 9,000 police active in ​the whole country, less than half the population. UN-recommended policing level. Against the gangs, the police are outnumbered and outgunned.

«It’s almost over for the police. I’m at my limit,” Royer said. “Morale is extremely low and they can’t keep up with all the warnings they receive. There is no one who is safe now in this city,” he added.

Police have clashed with gangs “that have demonstrated extensive capabilities with sophisticated weapons,” Lewis Galvin, a senior U.S. analyst at Janes, the defense intelligence firm, said in an email, including various brands of rifles. assault and sniper rifles equipped with hollow rifles. dot ammunition.

An international arms embargo has failed to block the supply of illegal weapons and ammunition to Haiti, UN report says. “It is shocking that despite the horrific situation on the ground, weapons continue to arrive,” Volker Turk, the U.N. human rights chief, said in a statement Thursday. “I call for more effective implementation of the arms embargo,” he added.

In a rare public appearance via video statement on Thursday, Frantz Elbe, head of the Haitian National Police, sought to reassure the population, appearing before fellow officers and wearing a protective vest.

“Our society is going through a political crisis linked to a security crisis that the country has never experienced before,” he said, promising that the police “will continue the fight for you to return to your neighborhoods and to your family.”

In the context of the ongoing violence, the creation of a transitional presidential council was delayed after more than two weeks of negotiations. The council will be tasked with appointing an interim prime minister to lead a new government and hold new elections, while paving the way for the deployment of a United Nations-backed international police mission. But the composition of the body was delayed after several names were withdrawn due to fears over personal safety and ethical questions.

Although violence in Port-au-Prince has moderated in recent days, local aid agencies have reported shortages of food and fuel after the capital’s main port closed. Several countries, including the United States, Canada and France, have evacuated hundreds of citizens stranded on emergency flights.

The World Food Program said this week that Haiti is suffering the worst levels of food insecurity on record, after gangs took control of farmland and blocked roads in and out of the capital, extorting money from people on buses and on trucks carrying goods.

André Paultre contributed to the reporting.