When darkness fell over earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, residents reported hearing gunfire. That was hardly a surprise: in Haiti, during emergencies natural or political gunshots can be as ubiquitous a sound at night as barking dogs, with armed gangs taking over the streets. One of their favorite chants is "Rat pa kaka" Creole for, "Not even the rats shit here without our permission."
As Haitian and international officials try to coordinate an effective relief response to what is probably the worst disaster to ever hit the western hemisphere's poorest country, they'll need to be mindful of the human rats that come out of the capital's woodwork at times like these. Before the Jan. 12 quake, a revived Haitian police force and the U.N.'s Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) were finally confronting the violent gangs of Port-au-Prince. But with so many Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers either killed or injured in the temblor and with some 1,000 prisoners reportedly on the loose after the Port-au-Prince prison crumbled criminal bands from poor neighborhood nests like Cité Soleil and La Saline are almost certain to try to exploit the security void. "It has to be in the back of everyone's minds right now," says Robert Perito, an expert on Haitian gangs at the Washington-based nonprofit United States Institute of Peace. "It's surely why the U.S. military deployment is adding a security component."
That presence, as well as military police from other countries, could be critical to a smoothly and safely functioning relief effort. The U.S. military has had its share of experience with Port-au-Prince's gangs. As Perito points out, they can often be political in nature, "forming around charismatic and ruthless Robin Hood figures" who thrive amid the kind of chaos and suffering that has descended on Haiti this week. In 1994, when the U.S. invaded Haiti to reinstall coup-ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, American soldiers faced militia-style gangs loyal to coup leader Raoul Cédras. Ten years later, ironically, U.S. forces were whisked in to help subdue the chimères, or "monsters" gangs loyal to Aristide, who had just been overthrown for good by conservative rebels.
A nation as destitute and unequal as Haiti, of course, is fertile soil for seething gangbangers who are looking to tie criminal gain to a social cause. A 2008 report Perito co-wrote notes that "powerful elites from across [Haiti's] political spectrum [exploit] gangs as instruments of political warfare, providing them with arms, funding and protection from arrest." After Aristide's downfall, they assumed more independence, stepping up drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom activities that were responsible for some of the decade's more horrific murders, including those of young children. In 2006, however, MINUSTAH and Brazilian peacekeepers began an offensive in slum districts like Cité Soleil that had recently begun to make Port-au-Prince's streets safer.
The earthquake may have changed that balance of power in the half-minute it took to collapse virtually every building in the city. Now that basics like potable water, food and fuel are such precious commodities, it's easy to imagine relief supplies becoming black-market barter. And unless the international community can exert some semblance of street-level law enforcement in the coming days and weeks, gangs are likely to lay down the law in its place. That was certainly the case, for example, during the chimères' fight to keep Aristide in power in 2004, when ski-masked gangsters wielding AK-47 rifles marauded through Port-au-Prince "patrolling" every street and controlling staples like rice and gasoline.
Experts like Perito say much will depend on how many of this week's prison escapees are hardened gang members or leaders. If enough are, the sporadic nighttime gunfire heard so far could begin to echo more loudly and frequently. And even the rats may need permission to move back and forth through the rubble of Port-au-Prince.