Haitian gangs have overrun the country to the point that international intervention is needed, say Church leaders and experts.
MIAMI — A leading Haitian-American pastor based in the U.S. said he agrees with a U.N. specialist that international special forces along with a weapons embargo are needed to stop Haiti’s further slide as a failed state.
U.N. human rights expert William O’Neill, who was appointed to assess the situation in Haiti in April, concluded in late June that a “specialized international force” is needed to help fight gang violence ravaging the impoverished Caribbean nation.
O’Neill told reporters at the end of last month that the absence of a functioning government there, along with a lack of response by officials, is affecting people’s access to water, food, health, education and housing.
He added that while Haitian authorities face “immense challenges,” the government has a duty to respond within its limited capabilities.
“I found a country bruised by violence, misery, fear and suffering,” he said, adding that all types of human rights are being violated. “It is urgent to take action. The survival of an entire nation is at stake.”
Gangs are now estimated to control or influence up to 80% of Haiti’s capital and metropolitan region during a period that has seen a surge in killings, rape and kidnappings, with systemic sexual violence against girls and women used by gangs as a way to control the population, according to the U.N. report.
In Miami, Father Reginald Jean-Mary, longtime pastor of Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church and a leading Haitian-American priest in the U.S. told OSV News July 10 that despite the community’s objection to an outright foreign military intervention, he supports the idea of a tactical armed force to support the local military and law enforcement not unlike the U.S. support for the war in Ukraine.
“It has been for a long time that leaders in the community along with Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski and myself and many others have been requesting this because we felt the national police force in Haiti is not well equipped to fight the gangs,” Father Jean-Mary said.
The priest said he has not personally felt safe enough to travel to Haiti in the past five years, especially given his standing as a member of the clergy, who have been vulnerable to kidnappings and attacks.
“There are not only many gangs in Haiti but they are equipped better than the police force. And the gangs are in the countryside, the mountains, and in the capital and the highways that lead to other big cities in Haiti,” the priest added.
Situated in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood north of the city’s downtown, Notre Dame D’Haiti attracts some 5,000 or more for its weekly Sunday Masses and for generations has been at the crossroads of the Haitian-American community.
Father Jean-Mary said he has been seeing the country’s youth and educated professional class turn up at his parish looking for assistance — a sign that the people are giving up on Haiti to a degree not seen previously and that the nation is losing its small business class that has been the backbone of the Haitian economy.
“The insecurity reaches a level where the people and small businesses cannot move about as they need to take care of their families. Those are the people trying their best to survive but you cannot imagine the level of poverty and suffering now in Haiti; it looks like a country at war but we are not at war — we are enslaved by our own people,” the priest said.
He added that the international community must not only help to fight the gangs but also to build infrastructure development projects so that young men and women are not attracted to the gangs in the first place.
Haiti’s government has been asking for armed police force vehicles to help battle the gangs, but it has not received them from abroad, according to Father Jean-Mary. At the same time he worries the majority of gang weaponry is sourced in the U.S. and shipped through his own state of Florida.
In 2021, Haitians at home and abroad were horrified to learn of the assassination of that country’s embattled president July 7. A small group of heavily armed mercenaries had attacked Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and his wife, Martine, in the early morning hours of July 7. Martine Moïse was injured critically and was flown to Miami that same day for medical treatment but her husband didn’t survive the assault.
C. Mario Russell, executive director of the New York-based Center for Migration Studies, told OSV News his agency isn’t able to comment on the need for international police intervention in Haiti. But he has seen firsthand that this is a crucial moment for Haitians at home and in the diaspora following so many natural disasters, hunger, failing economy and a presidential assassination.
Russell, who has previously served in leadership positions for immigrant and refugee services at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York as well as holding academic positions related to refugee-asylum litigation with St. John’s University School of Law, said that domestically it is the U.S.’s duty to protect the migrants who are here and to consider extended temporary protected status for Haitians.
“That has to be a priority. The second thing is stopping the expulsions and deportations: there were over 30,000 Haitians at the U.S. border in the first quarter of this year,” he said.
Featured image: Police officers on patrol take part in an anti-gang operation amid gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 3, 2023. (OSV News photo/Ralph Tedy Erol, Reuters)