Kenya to send police force to combat Haiti's brutal gangs


Kenya's police, who have faced criticism at home, will be tested in uncharted territory. The initiative came in response to a request for help to restore order made by the Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation, Ariel Henry.

Although Haiti has suffered from armed gang violence for decades, it is currently experiencing a wave of brutality that intensified after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Gangs have taken control of large areas of the country, terrorized residents and have killed hundreds of people.

The UN backed Kenya's bid to lead a multinational security force in Haiti. Giving the green light to the deployment, the UN Security Council resolution approved the mission for one year with a nine-month review. The new security force will carry out joint operations and will have the authority to make arrests in coordination with the Haitian police, the resolution indicates. It will also aim to create conditions for holding elections in Haiti, given that the last ones occurred in 2016. Kenya offered in July that it would send 1,000 of its police officers to Haiti. Kenyan officials stated that officers would protect government buildings and infrastructure. But that plan changed after the African country sent a fact-finding mission the following month. Kenya now wants to deploy an intervention force to neutralize armed gangs, protect civilians and restore peace, security and order. Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua said his country would also like to help Haiti rebuild vital infrastructure and establish a stable democratic government. The Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda said they will participate in the mission and the minister added that Spain, Senegal and Chile are also likely to deploy security personnel. Mutua said he hoped the force would be in place by early next year.

Haiti is experiencing a multifaceted humanitarian and security crisis that Guterres described as "a living nightmare." Some areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince, which is surrounded by mountains, are controlled or regularly terrorized (some estimates say 80%) by heavily armed gangs. These gangs, with Haitian Creole names like "Kraze Barye" (Barrier-Crusher) and "Big Grif" (Big Claw) have been stealing, looting, extorting, kidnapping, raping and killing for the past two years. Carrying automatic weapons smuggled mostly from the United States, gang members are often better armed than local police and sometimes even burn their vehicles and stations. Gangs periodically control or attack the main routes into and out of the capital. Similar lawlessness affects large areas of western and central Haiti, where roaming "bandits," as locals call gang members, invade and burn towns and cities.

The gangs have caused chaos, disrupted public services and the work of humanitarian aid agencies, worsening poverty and health problems in a nation that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Mutua has presented the plan , in part, as an altruistic offer. "Haiti looked around and said, 'Kenya, please help us.' They did not ask any other country. We have decided to do God's will and help our brothers and sisters," Kenya's foreign minister said in a Press conference. However, intervention in Haiti would raise Kenya's global profile, which could benefit the country.

Some analysts have said Kenya is following orders from the United States and hoping to curry favor with the world's superpower. The United States has committed to financially support the mission to the tune of $100 million, and Canada has also offered funding. On a recent visit to the African country, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed a five-year security agreement and also said the United States was "grateful to Kenya for its leadership in addressing security challenges in the region and the world."Many critics have questioned the Kenyan police's ability to confront Haitian gangs. They will have to come face to face with armed gang members in unknown terrain. Nelson Koech, chairman of Parliament's defense committee, said Kenya would not send traffic officers but "special armed forces" and that they would be fully trained before being deployed. It is unclear which units will be sent to Haiti, but it could be the Paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU), which often responds to events such as violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks. Mutua also said the government has been preparing for the deployment. He gave no further details, other than to say that authorities are currently offering French lessons to some of the officers to facilitate communication in Haiti. The language barrier has raised some concerns, with Haiti predominantly speaking French and Haitian Creole, while in Kenya the most spoken languages ​​are English and Swahili.

Kenyan police officers have long been criticized for human rights abuses. Several NGOs have expressed concern about the ability of agents to act in a humane and responsible manner in Haiti. In an open letter to the UN Security Council, Amnesty International said it was concerned about the plan, given the Kenyan police's history of responding using excessive and unnecessary force. The organization said it had documented more than 30 cases of Kenyan police officers killing protesters by shooting and choking them with tear gas during several protests this year. Amnesty has also accused police of beating protesters and illegally arresting them. Kenya's police chief Japhet Koome described his officers' response to recent protests as "admirable". He denied allegations of police killings and said emphatically that opposition politicians had placed purchased corpses in morgues at protest sites to blame the deaths on their staff.

Haiti is a former French colony that became the world's first black republic in the early 19th century, after a history-making slave revolt in 1791. So the Caribbean nation has a rich history of foreign interventions. The United States invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, sending Marines and military administrators. Further US military interventions occurred in 1994 and 2004 to "defend democracy" and restore order. This made many Haitians wary of outside interference, especially American interference. Previous UN peacekeeping deployments to Haiti, for example those of the Brazilian-led Minustah force between 2004 and 2017, also did not escape controversy.

Nepalese troops were then blamed for bringing cholera after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Even the massive foreign humanitarian intervention led by the US military that responded to the earthquake, and which was welcomed by many Haitians, generated sensitive debates about dependence of aid and alleged abuses committed by some humanitarian workers and peacekeepers.

Success will be measured by whether the Kenyan contingent can decisively defeat criminal gangs and restore law and order to the daily lives of Haitians.

While Kenya's security forces have experience fighting the Islamist militant group al-Shabab and policing slum settlements, they will be on strange ground in the hillside suburbs and port of Port-au-Prince. There, armed gang members know their territories and sometimes have the support of local informants. The Kenyans will need to work closely with local Haitian police. Help may also come from an anti-gang vigilante movement known as "Bwa Kale" (Shaved Wood), which has killed several hundred gang members in recent months, often lynching and burning suspects in public. But it can also pose a challenge to law and order. It will also need the logistical support of equipment and intelligence promised by the United States and other governments.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and its international partners, as well as the UN and most major aid organizations, have made clear their view that only a robust internationally backed security operation can restore normality to Haiti.

However, within Haiti opinions are divided: ranging from supporters of force who welcome "our African brothers", to opposition groups who see Henry - who took over as prime minister shortly after the president's assassination Moïse - as a "de facto" illegitimate leader whose government will be strengthened by foreign intervention. Some radical critics accuse the United States and other Western governments of trying to use Kenyan soldiers to promote "neocolonial" and "imperialist" interests. A renowned Haitian gang leader, former police officer Jimmy Cherizier, alias "Barbecue," has warned that he will resist any foreign force if it tries to keep Henry in power.

But one thing is clear: When Kenyan police officers take on gangs in Haiti, they will have to be careful to avoid harming innocent civilians, while also winning the battle for "hearts and minds."

Font: BBC Mundo
Editiòn: Pablo Gabriel Miraglia