PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – A UN special envoy on Thursday warned that Haitian police forces need immediate help to fight crime and violence, saying gangs have grown so powerful that they have recently taken over a local court.
In a country of more than 11 million people, insecurity is declining rapidly, with an average of seven kidnappings a day, said Helen La Lyme, UN’s top official in Haiti.
In May alone, there were more than 200 murders and 198 abductions, she said. The UN Security Council reports that the kidnappers included two busloads of children and three UN personnel and their dependents, and that one local staff member was killed in a shootout between the gangs.
“The sense of insecurity intensified by the inability to resolve the situation and the manifest punishment for committing criminal acts (Haitian National Police) is dangerously damaging the rule of law,” La Lime said. At a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday.
The warning came just days after a gang targeted the Court of First Instance in the capital, Port-au-Prince, looted case files and evidence and set them on fire. Authorities identified the gang as “5 seconds”, indicating how long it would take them to commit the crime. They control the Village de Diu slum in front of the court they are targeting.
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Government Commissioner Jacques Lafontaine told the Associated Press that he was still waiting for Haiti’s national police to go to court to assess the damage and the ongoing situation.
“At the moment, it is clear that the place is under gang control,” he said.
LaFontente said services at the Court of First Instance were disrupted after the gang broke into the court house on Friday and they temporarily reopened at another government building in the capital.
Meanwhile, Ein Martin, who oversees a court clerks’ association in Haiti, told the AP that the gang had vandalized documents and barred lawyers and judges from reaching their offices. He said authorities are still trying to remove from the court a huge safe containing important documents and evidence, including guns and money. He declined to comment on any of the cases filed in connection with the July 7 assassination of President Jovnell Moyes.
“These groups are being guided by an invisible hand to destroy sensitive documents,” he said, refusing to identify who he thinks is giving orders to the gangs.
Fondazione J. Clare, a Haitian human rights group, said employees, lawyers, defendants and others were able to defend themselves by climbing walls and receiving help from police on the day the gang attacked the court house.
The company said one person was wounded by bullets as gangs stole seven cars and equipment, including computers, chairs and air conditioners.
Three days later, the furniture was displayed on a nearby street for sale, the rights group said.
The court said the takeover took place a few days after criminals seized a building near the Center for Planning Techniques and Applied Economics.
Before the gang could enter the courtroom, they protested that security was lacking as bar associations and others demanded more protection for themselves. Meanwhile, court clerks launched a nationwide strike in mid-April that lasted more than a month.
UN officials say Haitian police have arrested hundreds of suspected gang members and killed more than 120, as well as seized hundreds of firearms and set up checkpoints and patrols. Although various countries, including the US, have provided training and equipment, the department is understaffed and under-resourced, with only 12,800 active police officers in a country of more than 11 million people, they said.
La Lyme, a UN official, accused the gangs of creating a “terrorist state” in Haiti and of continuing instability as a “long-term institutional vacuum”.
Haiti has not had a parliamentary session for more than two years and has not yet held a general election since its president was assassinated in his private home. La Lime warns that proposals to move the country forward are crumbling, and that the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti is trying to restore dialogue between all parties known as BINUH.
“It is very unlikely that an election will be held this year that will bring a return to democratic rule,” she said, adding that the formation of a new Provisional Electoral Council was “a depressing still distant possibility”.
Tens of thousands continue to flee Haiti as the country’s economy deteriorates and violence escalates, with at least 17,000 people displaced by gang wars.
An increasing number of Haitians are embarking on deadly journeys to find and find better lives in the nearby Caribbean islands or in the United States. Last month, 11 Haitian women were killed when a boat they were traveling in capsized. At least a dozen migrants are missing and another 38 have been rescued – 36 of them Haitians. Also last month, more than 840 Haitians boarded a boat in Cuba, the largest in recent history.
In addition, UN officials deported 40,000 Haitians and people of Haitian descent from the United States from September 2021 to March 2022, exacerbating humanitarian challenges.
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Reported from Coto San Juan, Puerto Rico.