Local residents argue with a policeman while the casket of a man shot dead during anti-government protests lies on the ground in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 22, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado)
The call for "law and order" and strengthening police in Haiti is as dangerous as talk of any occupation. The police force is connected with Haitian oligarchs and their political puppets and is yet another tool for denying the people their sovereign and human rights.
This article was originally published in CounterPunch.
On October 7th, in the face of massive and ever-growing demonstrations all across Haiti demanding the uprooting of the right-wing Haitian Tét Kale Party (PHTK) dictatorship, Prime Minister Ariel Henry exploited the fiction of a war between his regime and “gangs” to call for the intervention of foreign troops to expand the colonial occupation of Haiti. In doing so, he was echoing the tweet made the day before by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro. Within days, the Biden Administration proceeded to draft a UN Security Council resolution calling for the expanded deployment of foreign troops in Haiti. To date, the UN Security Council has not yet passed this resolution, due to concerns voiced by the governments of Russia and China. On the ground in Haiti, there have been major demonstrations against new intervention of foreign troops.
The Biden Administration argues that such foreign intervention is a “humanitarian” necessity given the weakness of the Hatian police force to effectively deal with the “gangs,” more accurately described as highly weaponized paramilitaries indispensable to maintenance of the PHTK regime and the US/UN occupation of Haiti. The Biden Administration calls for both strengthening this police force, through enhanced US aid and training, alongside the deployment of foreign troops to Haiti in order to allegedly restore “law and order” and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. This argument reproduces the racist stereotype that the Haitian people are incapable of governing themselves, that they will devolve into “gangs’” without proper supervision by a foreign-funded and trained police force buttressed by foreign occupation troops.
Some liberal critics of the Biden Administration’s position, such as former Special Envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote, disagree with the call to send in more foreign troops, but agree with the Administration’s policy prescription to strengthen the Haitian police. US funding of the Haitian police continues to be accepted and legislated by the US Congress at the behest of the Biden Administration.
The question over sending additional foreign troops into Haiti misses the fact that Haitians were recently subjected to such an intervention, culminating in the ongoing foreign occupation of Haiti since 2004. Similarly, the call for greater US-funding and training of the Haitian police camouflages the following fundamental realities:
+ The Haitian police, as an institution, serves as an instrument of the PHTK regime’s repression. Not only do the police work closely with the paramilitaries, but the police directly perpetrate gross human rights violations, from targeted killings of activists and journalists to massacres.
+ The US government, under both Trump and now Biden, has been dramatically increasing aid to the Haitian police, but this has only correlated with ever-growing human rights violations by the police and ever-widening power by the paramilitaries.
Evidence to substantiate these 2 points will be provided below. But first, it is necessary to provide some background and context for the crisis today in Haiti.
Background and Context for the Crisis:
The PHTK came to power through the fraudulent election of Michel Martelly in 2010 and then maintained its grip on power through the fraudulent election of Jovenel Moise in 2016, what Haitian activists refer to as electoral coup d’etats. Both elections were held under UN occupation and sponsored by the US government. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton detoured from her trip to the Middle East at the height of the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt and personally intervened to put Martelly into power. Similarly, the US State Department immediately heralded the 2016 elections as legitimate, and subsequent US administrations, first Trump then Biden, continued to prop up the Moise regime diplomatically and financially.
The assassination of Jovenel Moise by a professional kill squad on July 7th, 2021, did not alter US support for the PHTK regime. Instead, the Biden Administration intervened to install and back another PHTK official, Ariel Henry, as the Prime Minister of Haiti, in opposition to the wishes of the vast majority of the Haitian people and in violation of the Haitian Constitution.
Under Martelly, Moise, and now Henry, the PHTK dictatorship represents the repressive institutionalization of the US-backed coup d’etat in 2004 against the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, along with thousands of democratically elected Fanmi Lavalas officials serving Haiti’s poor majority. Since the coup, Haiti has been under US/ UN occupation, an occupation that has perpetrated gross human rights abuses including rape and other forms of sexual abuse, an occupation that has brought cholera to Haiti and that has systematically destroyed Haiti’s institutions while increasing hunger and misery.
Just as the US-backed dictatorship in El Salvador during the 1980s carried out systematic repression through both the official security forces and “unofficial” death squads, working closely with the Salvadoran police, the PHTK regime is waging its war against the poor majority through heavily weaponized paramilitaries affiliated with and supported by the regime.
Indeed, the paramilitaries that have proliferated across Haiti for neary the past twelve years of PHTK rule bear a strong resemblance– in organizational structure and repressive function– to the notorious “Tonton Macoute” and the “Section Chief” system during the long era of the Duvalierist dictatorship. During this dictatorship, the Tonton Macoute secret police and the Section Chiefs in charge of various districts ruled through terror, pillaging the people in their zones of control. Today’s paramilitaries also bear a strong resemblance with “Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti” (FRAPH), a deathsquad, financed in part by the CIA, working closely with the military dictatorship that seized power after the first coup against President Aristide in 1991. During the brief period of popular democracy led by Lavalas governments in Haiti following the return of President Aristide from exile in 1994, the system of paramilitary rule was dismantled. Following the US-backed coup in 2004 against President Aristide this system of control and corruption has been rebuilt under the US/ UN occupation, this time with paramilitaries, frequently working closely with the occupation regime and being financed by various Haitian oligarchs.
The most salient example of the collusion between the “gangs” and the PHTK regime is the G9 federation led by former police officer Jimmy Cherizier, aka “Barbecue”. Cherizier created the “G9 Family and Allies: in 2020 as an alliance of 9 different “gangs” in Port-au-Prince. Cherizier’s symbiotic links with the PHTK regime are overwhelmingly clear. As widely reported in the Haitian media, it was the suggestion of high-ranking PHTK officials to create the federation of “gangs” that took the name G9 Family and Allies. Despite a standing arrest warrant issued against him since 2017 for a massacre in the impoverished neighborhood of Grand Ravine, Cherizier has continued to operate, create, and launch the G9 with relative impunity. Here he is giving a recent press conference in broad daylight before major Haitian media outlets without any police interference. During the Presidency of Jovenel Moise, the PHTK regime, through its officials worked closely with Cherizier, providing him with logistical support to terrorize popular, impoverished neighborhoods such as Lasalin, Bel Air, and Cite Soleil that were bases of resistance by the Lavalas movement to PHTK rule. For additional information on the Lasalin massacre, see this powerful video by investigative journalist Margaret Prescod. G9 operatives have systematically perpetrated rape as an instrument of terror in their war of repression.
The reliance of the PHTK regime upon paramilitary death squads like G9 crystallizes the essence of the regime itself– an instrument of organized crime by members of the Haitian oligarchy, an instrument best personified by the “Godfather” role of Michel Martelly as the first PHTK president and then the force behind Jovenel Moise. It is clear that Moise stepped on the wrong toes within these elite circles, triggering his murder, with evidence implicating current PHTK dictator Ariel Henry in the plot. In an in-depth article for the New York Times, investigative journalist Maria Abi-Habib unearthed massive evidence to substantiate all of these assertions. Even some police officers have reportedly been the targets of repression by the regime and its proxies. With mounting exposure of this glaring criminality, this past November 19th, the Canadian government imposed sanctions on Martelly and a handful of other high-ranking PHTK officials for “possible ties to criminal gangs”. The US government has yet to follow suit.
The Haitian police, as an institution, serves as an instrument of the PHTK regime’s repression.
Ever since the 2004 coup, the Haitian National Police (HNP), as an institution, has been remade under US influence, to re-integrate former military and FRAPH death squad members, thereby functioning as an instrument of mass repression in a manner that the Haitian military did during the Duvalier years. For example, Marcel Maurrissant, formerly the third person in command of FRAPH, became a HNP commissioner, working with the Minister of the Interior. Leon Charles, the first HNP chief installed after the coup, was a former officer with the notorious Haitian military. Under Charles’ leadership, the HNP participated directly in the heavy wave of massacres and extrajudicial killings in the first year of the coup. In a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights prepared by human rights attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild and the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers, a formal complaint was filed against the US government for financing and equipping the HNP following the coup, thereby aiding and abetting gross human rights abuses in Haiti. As the petitioners stated:
“Since the February 29 coup, the US government has provided the HNP with significant financial aid, weaponry, and other police equipment, such as vehicles, in violation of the US arms embargo and despite the clear record of PNH extrajudicial killings and massacres of the civilian population. Moreover, the US government has conducted training of the PNH, thereby facilitating the integration of former military and death squad elements into the command structure of the force.
This arming and training of the HNP stands in stark contrast to the elimination of weapons, equipment, and training to the HNP during the second term of the Aristide government.
For example, the US State Department sanctioned the transfer of 2,636 weapons to the PNH in the summer of 2004. Additionally, the US government sent a weapons shipment worth $7 million to Haiti in November 2004, and, later, in June 2005, $2.6 million worth of police equipment…
By arming, financing, training, and diplomatically supporting the HNP after the coup, the US government has directly participated in human rights violations and fostering the climate of impunity that prevails in Haiti today. The list of extrajudicial killings and massacres by the HNP detailed below is indissolubly connected to the intervention by the US government in the affairs of Haiti.”
The petition proceeds to detail some of the most egregious killings and massacres by the HNP during the first year-and-a-half of the coup/ occupation regime.
The pattern of repression continued throughout the ensuing years, escalating under the PHTK regime to levels not seen since the early coup years. Charles was again picked to run the HNP by Jovenel Moise in 2020, only to be replaced by current HNP chief Frantz Elbe about one year later. Though Elbe is not a former officer in the Haitian military nor a former member of FRAPH, under his command police killings of activists and journalists have raged with impunity.
Alongside of participation in well-documented massacres– including the summary execution of civilians on a school campus– in recent years, here are just a few examples of the many police extrajudicial executions of unarmed students, activists, journalists, and community members:
+ On October 2nd, 2020, university student leader, law student, and teacher-in-training Gregory Saint-Hilaire was shot in the back inside of the university by Jovenel Moise’s special security unit within the Haitian police that had illegally invaded the campus. Saint-Hilaire was an outspoken pro-democracy activist who had been calling upon students and faculty to denounce government corruption, massacres, and Haiti’s rapid descent into dictatorship. After being shot Saint-Hilaire was prevented from receiving medical care for 4 hours or more and died. The next day, university students accused the Haitian police of involvement in setting the school library on fire.
+ On February 23rd, 2022, “Haitian police on Wednesday opened fire on demonstrators demanding higher wages and killed a reporter, according to witnesses and a hospital official…Two other journalists were shot and wounded at the scene in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of Haitians gathered to call for a higher minimum wage than the one approved this week by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.”
+ On September 15th, 2022, as reported extensively in Haiti, Widney Véron Joseph, a nationally esteemed student and second winner of the new secondary exams for the western department, was killed on the road to the airport. The father of the victim believes that this act was committed by agents of the National Police of Haiti. “After shooting my son, they burned him alive. I begged the police in vain to allow me to take him to the hospital, they categorically refused,” said the 21-year-old boy’s father in tears on Radio Caraïbes. Widney Véron Joseph was about to go to a friend’s house to charge his laptop and phone when he was murdered, his father said, adding that his son would have gone to Canada next October for medical studies.
+ On September 17th, 2022, the police opened fire on the protesters in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Then, according to a community witness, a police-operated heavy machine, like a garbage truck, scooped up the bodies of the victims, including Doudouce who was still alive and screaming. The machine dumped her and the other bodies into the trash compartment, then piling the burning barricades atop their bodies.
+ On October 30th, 2022, police shot an unarmed journalist, Romelo Vilsaint, in the head, and killed him during a protest at the Delmas police station where he and other journalists were demanding the release of a jailed colleague, Robest Dimanche. Police had previously detained Dimanche when he was covering a street protest.
+ On October 31st, 2022, the body of a popular radio host, an attorney, and political analyst, Gary Tess, was found mutilated, with signs of massive torture, in Okay after he had been reportedly abducted by police on October 18th. Tess had been an outspoken critic of the PHTK regime.
There are many other examples of police killings throughout Haiti over the past few months. In the city of Okay and nearby towns, according to community residents, more than 25 unarmed protestors, journalists, students and community organizers have been beaten, shot, disappeared and/or killed by the paramilitaries and the police since June 2022. Unfortunately, the major, international human rights organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International are not keeping a comprehensive database of the victims of police violence in Haiti, although Amnesty did issue this 2019 report addressing the problem in a very limited manner.
Solidarity organizations like the Haiti Action Committee gather information on victims through direct communication with grassroots activists in different parts of Haiti and through a careful study of reports and video evidence coming from independent, progressive media outlets in Haiti.
From these sources, we know that the Haitian police have not only routinely been killing unarmed protesters, journalists, and students, but also collectively punishing entire communities like Lasalin for their pro-democracy activism. For example, in addition to their involvement in the 2018 Lasalin massacre, the police attacked Lasalin earlier in 2016, retaliating against the community for protests, shooting tear gas into the neighborhood at night and reportedly killing three babies, according to community residents (start at minute 33:30 for footage and translation).
The idea that this institution, controlled by and serving the regime in power, can deliver security for the Haitian people is a deadly illusion. Not only does this idea ignore the real record of police repression and terror, but it turns a blind eye to the immense linkages between the police and the paramilitaries. A recent study in Haiti made a conservative estimate that between 40%–60% of Haitian police officers have ties with “gangs”.
The US government, under both Trump and now Biden, has been dramatically increasing aid to the Haitian police.
As noted recently by the White House, from “2010 to 2020, Washington pumped in $312 million for weapons and training of the Haitian police. In 2021, the White House and State Department sent a combined $20 million. In July 2022, the State Department bolstered the SWAT training program with a $48 million package.” This funding by the Biden Administration, authorized by Congress, represents yet another increase from the immensely high level of funding by the Trump Administration. As noted in this detailed report, “Since Trump took office, the US has nearly quadrupled its support to Haiti’s police — from $2.8 million in 2016 to more than $12.4 million last year . With the recent reallocation, the figure this year will likely be even higher. US funding for the Haitian police constitutes more than 10 percent of the institution’s overall budget.”
Increased flows of US taxpayer dollars to the Haitian police under Trump and now Biden correlates with a pattern of what seems to be ever-expanding police terror and repression in Haiti. Indeed, the US government is funding the largest terrorist organization in Haiti, the HNP, just as the US funded the FRAPH death squad after the first coup against President Aristide. The blood of the thousands of victims of paramilitary and police violence is on the hands of the US government and US taxpayers who enable this killing machine to keep killing.
Haitians have been struggling against US/ UN colonial occupation ever since the 2004 coup against President Aristide. During this occupation, the police have become militarized and more brutal, paramilitaries have flourished, massacres have proliferated, hunger and misery have deepend, brazen corruption and looting of public funds by the oligarchy have skyrocketed, and impunity has reigned. Very rarely have Haitian officials issued formal condolences to family members who have lost loved ones to the many killings and massacres. UN occupation forces brought cholera to Haiti, killing thousands of Haitians, and have yet to take real responsibility for this crime. Cholera is now back and on the rise. All of this amounts to the systematic and extreme deprivation of the Haitian people’s most basic human rights, including the right to national self-determination. It amounts to a genocide being inflicted against the Haitian people by members of the Haitian oligarchy, the US government, and the Core Group powers arrogantly masquerading as the “international community”.
This war against the Haitian people must be understood within the historical context of the war perpetrated against them by the slave owning powers and the colonial elite inside of Haiti who suffered a major defeat with the end of slavery when the Haitian Revolution triumphed in 1804 against all odds.
At its very core, the function of the police and paramilitary terror today in Haiti is to eradicate the hope established by the Haitian revolution, to erase the promise of true decolonization, and to maintain a system of exclusion. This function was bluntly expressed in a message by a self-described member of today’s Haitian elite, claiming to be of European descent, following the fraudulent presidential elections of 2016 in favor of PHTK’s Jovenel Moise. His message has been widely broadcasted by Haitian radio stations ever since, reflecting the ideology and strategy of white supremacy against which the masses of people are struggling:
“…We have more rights to this country because we are the descendants of the French. We do not have to be afraid of any Lavalas trash that is trying to scare us to leave the country. The riches of the country are in our hands, we are the owners of the banks, we are the owners of the hospitals, we are the ones who control the commerce. We are the ones who own all that this country has in terms of wealth. We cannot let little Aristide and all his little dirty tramps destroy us… We will pay them, those among them – because they are a bunch of hungry, a bunch of ‘chimeres’, a bunch of dirty people. With the money we have made, we can again pay them to fight among themselves so that we can take control of this country….”
Courageously facing police and paramilitary attacks, the Haitian people have taken to the streets in ever-growing numbers, demanding their basic human rights and democracy, along with an end to the PHTK regime’s corruption and looting of public resources. They demand an end to US/UN occupation, and an end to the right-wing Haitian Tét Kale Party (PHTK) regime headed by Ariel Henry. They are demanding a transitional government of public safety (Sali Piblik) to create a foundation for free and fair elections and a return to democratic rule. They are demanding an end to IMF-imposed austerity, soaring prices of basic necessities, and declining real wages. Instead, they are demanding that their tax money be invested in education, healthcare, sanitation, clean drinking water, and support for Haiti’s peasant farmers who have been the backbone of local food production.
The Biden Administration, enabled by Congress, continues to prop up a regime in Haiti that starves the people while “opening up” the country’s mineral resources for plunder by foreign investors. When Haitians flee the violence and misery, the Biden Administration intercepts them, deports them back to Haiti, or considers incarcerating them at Guantanamo. Massive international solidarity with the Haitian people is urgently required now. For people living in the US (not to mention other “Core Group” countries), the obligation is straightforward: to struggle relentlessly to end the Biden Administration’s colonial policies of occupying Haiti, supporting dictatorship, funding repression, and deporting refugees.
Seth Donnelly is a member of the Haiti Action Committee and the author of The Lie of Global Prosperity: How Neoliberals Distort Data to Mask Poverty and Exploitation (MR Press 2019).