Policing Haiti

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As Haiti prepares for its on-again, off-again presidential vote, the chief guarantor of stability is the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). And even that guarantee is a limited one. The 9,600 person force is made up of combined civilian police and military personnel from several dozen countries and is led by the Brazilians who are proud of their humanitarian work--building and road repair, medical treatment and trash collection, all crucial tasks in a country where basic services have all but collapsed. (The U.S., which sent 20,000 troops into Haiti in 1994, is not part of MINUSTAH and has refused to commit troops.) The Brazilians, however, recognize that the Mission has been unable to provide widespread security or stop the crime and political killings that plague Haiti. The proliferation of guns continues to increase along with drug trafficking across the porous border of the Dominican Republic and miles of unmanned coastline, making the country particularly difficult to stabilize. Some gang leaders work for themselves and profit from the judicial vacuum, while others have ties to various power sources, including politicians and businessmen. According to international observers and political party activists, controlling the streets is a way to control the upcoming vote, so gang warfare will continue to escalate as voting day grows near.

“Security is the first step to solving Haiti’s problems,” says Fernando Cunha Mattos of MINUSTAH’s Brazilian battalion, “but by itself, it is not enough.” And most believe that, given Haiti's wretched track record, the government can’t provide security without outside help, even though many see international assistance as ineffective at best; insiders call MINUSTAH the trash mission, pointing to rejects from other missions installed as department heads, and only underdeveloped countries, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Uruguay, as participants. “Our track record is lamentable,” admits a UN official. And as crime encroaches on once safe areas such as Pétionville and Péguyville, southeast of the capital, frustrated Haitians are becoming increasingly more hostile toward MINUSTAH. So far the Mission has lost eight people, the most recent on Christmas Eve when gunmen shot and killed a Jordanian peacekeeper on patrol.

—Kathie Klarreich is based in Miami and covers Haitian affairs for Time. Her book "Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti" was published recently by Nation Books. (madamedread.com)