Haiti armed gangs heighten security fears

UN peacekeepers are set to focus on principal buildings and ports as looting reported.

NEW YORK // As rescuers rushed to Haiti yesterday in the hope of finding survivors of the worst earthquake to hit the country in 200 years, officials also worried about security given the country's long history of armed gangs and weak government. "The security situation could be a big problem," said Francis Ghesquière, the lead disaster risk specialist at the World Bank, amid initial reports of looting yesterday after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake and two big aftershocks.

Alain Le Roy, the head of the UN peacekeeping forces, yesterday said international forces in Haiti, whose task is in part to help authorities maintain law and order, would focus on securing the port, airport and principal buildings. The UN also said the main prison in Haiti's battered capital of Port-au-Prince collapsed in the massive earthquake. A UN humanitarian spokeswoman says the UN has received reports of escaped inmates. Spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said she had no further details.

Imposing security will not be easy given the destruction of the UN's peacekeeping headquarters in the capital, Port-au-Prince, parts of the presidential palace, national assembly and at least one hospital. More than 100 UN personnel were reported missing. The UN has more than 9,000 peacekeeping troops and police in Haiti and an additional 1,900 civilian personnel. Water, electricity and communications were cut off or severely disrupted and officials feared total casualties could run into the thousands.

Even before the earthquake, there were fears of violence and political instability before next month's legislative elections, which are unlikely to take place given the disaster. Last year, Haiti was devastated by four hurricanes that killed up to 1,000 people and left 800,000 homeless. The UN force would have to be strengthened and Haiti's future would depend on how much aid was delivered in the next few weeks, said IHS Global Insight, a forecasting company.

"Severe damage in infrastructure will have to be repaired and this will take months, if not years, to achieve," IHS said. "In the meantime, the chaos is unlikely to diminish and an increase in violence and crime is highly probable." The UN force, known by its French acronym Minustah, was sent to Haiti under Brazilian command after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president, was pushed out by gangsters acting on behalf of his political opponents. He went into exile in South Africa in February 2004.

The UN stepped up operations against gunmen and kidnappers and achieved some success in controlling the gangs that terrorise so many ordinary people, but drug trafficking and violent crime have corrupted the police and judiciary. Just a few days ago, however, an alleged Haitian gang leader was extradited to France. Amaral Duclona is accused of killing the French honorary consul and of kidnapping a UN officer.

Gangsters are often used for control by Haiti's French-speaking elite, who make up only one per cent of the population but control more than half of the wealth. "Although ostensibly criminal in nature, the gangs of Port-au-Prince were an inherently political phenomenon," said a report by the US Institute for Peace, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. "Powerful elites from across the political spectrum exploited gangs as instruments of political warfare, providing them with arms, funding and protection from arrest."

Although it is only 800km from North America, Haiti could not provide a greater contrast in terms of its crumbling society not only with the United States but the rest of the Caribbean. Haiti has suffered for centuries from a series of brutal dictatorships, natural disasters and extreme poverty. More than half of its nine million people live on less than $1 a day while infant mortality is 60 for every 1,000 births. HIV/Aids is prevalent, infrastructure practically non-existent while severe deforestation has left only two per cent forest cover.

More than seven per cent of urban households cited incidents of rape, murder, kidnapping or gang involvement, according to a survey by the Pan American Development Foundation published last month. Overall, respondents attributed the vast majority of violence to armed civilians and politically partisan groups, including gangs. However, a majority of victims did not report incidents to authorities. Two years ago, René Preval, the president since 2006, urged the world to help his country, a plea he will likely renew.

"Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left, as always, truly alone to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilisation," he said. @Email:sdevi@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press