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News / Nation & World

Haiti needs help fighting gangs. El Salvador has had success and is offering help

By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald
Published: February 5, 2023, 2:36pm

Nearly two years after declaring war on his nation’s violent gangs, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has seen his nation’s murder rate drop, his popularity soar and thousands of gang members put behind bars. Even pizza delivery has resumed in some once forbidden neighborhoods.

While the Central American nation isn’t promising the same kind of success to Haiti, or even the loan of its security forces, El Salvador is offering to lend its technical expertise to the French-speaking Caribbean nation as Haiti finds itself facing a bloody killing spree at the hands of increasingly powerful gangs. In just the past week, gangs attacked and bulldozed police substations, assassinated cops and left an entire nation reeling.

“It’s not a first world solution. It doesn’t come from France. It doesn’t come from Canada,” Félix Ulloa, El Salvador’s vice president told the Miami Herald in an interview about his president’s offer. “It comes from a sister country; it comes from a country that has almost the same features as Haiti.

“We are a small territory, we are overpopulated,” he added Monday. “We have high levels of violence, many common issues that could give us the opportunity to share a successful plan knowing that it comes like a sort of South-South cooperation.”

With 6.3 million citizens, El Salvador has almost half Haiti’s population and until a few years ago was considered the “ homicide capital of the world,” with its gang turf battles and revenge killings. Last year, amid the widespread crackdown on gangs, the government reported 496 homicides, down from 1,147 in 2021. But unlike Haiti, the small country has an army in addition to a police force — and an elected Congress and president, Bukele, who has used his power to get lawmakers to approve a controversial temporary state of emergency that has been extended numerous times.

Last week, while attending the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States summit in Buenos Aires, Ulloa met with interim Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry and made an offer. During the meeting, Bukele offered to send an assessment mission to the Caribbean nation to prepare a comprehensive proposal on how to solve the security and gang crisis in Haiti.

Henry attended the hemispheric summit in the hopes of convincing countries in the region to be part of a specialized multinational force to help his struggling Haiti National Police.

“We are using all of our armed forces and the national police in our internal war against the gangs. So we have no extra elements to send out, therefore there isn’t any possibility of El Salvador sending troops or police groups to Haiti,” Ulloa said. “What I offered to the prime minister in the meeting that we had in Buenos Aires was that El Salvador is willing and able to send a sort of study mission.”

Henry’s request for outside military assistance was first made in October. It is being supported by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who called for the rapid deployment of foreign forces to help Haiti, and the United States, which has asked Canada to take the lead. At the time of the requests, Haiti’s main fuel terminal was being blocked by a gang coalition, and the lack of fuel, potable water and other essentials meant schools and businesses couldn’t not function, hospitals were turning away patients and a deadly cholera epidemic was worsening.

Three months later, no forces have been deployed and a resolution before the United Nations Security Council, penned by the United States, is showing no movement. As hemispheric leaders prepared to meet in Argentina last week, members of the Security Council expressed concerns about the worsening gang violence in Haiti. But despite the recognition that help is needed, none raise their hands.

The day after the Security Council met, six Haitian police officers were killed after three successive gang attacks against a rural police station in the Artibonite Valley and a seventh died in the hospitals of his wounds. The deaths brought the total to 14 cops killed in January alone and 78 in the past 18 months.

The killings, mostly occurring during gang raids, have triggered anger and violent protests in Haiti. When Henry returned from Argentina on Friday, protesters sought to block his re-entry into the country. As he met with the head of the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Assistant Secretary of State Todd Robinson, in Port-au-Prince at the international airport, rank-and-file police officers, fired cops and gang members ransacked the premises, and attacked the prime minister’s personal residence and official offices.

Elsewhere in the Artibonite Valley protesters broke prisoners out of jail and took to the streets. On Monday, while some traffic had returned to the capital’s streets, the environment remained tense.

Ulloa, who speaks French, lived in Haiti for eight years during which he co-authored a book, “Haiti: 200 Years of Elections and Constitutions,” with Mirlande Manigat, a leading Haitian constitutional expert and former presidential candidate. Manigat, whom Ulloa hasn’t spoken to since 2016, is part of the High Council of Transition, a new structure Henry put together following a Dec. 21 political agreement to create a road map for elections.

During his time in Haiti, Ulloa worked for several international organizations including the National Democratic Institute and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. No stranger to the country’s woes, he said, Haiti has to tackle its scourging gang problem head on.

“If you are thinking that it is a problem of domestic violence or disorders or gangs, you know, among criminals, you are committing a mistake. These are groups that are well-organized, well-structured and well-placed who are willing to take over all of the institutions of the government,” he said. “The main risk that Haiti is facing now is when these guys go to elections. … In this precise moment, the gangs can (win) many of the seats in the new Congress.”

During the discussions with Henry, Ulloa shared his president’s willingness to send some of El Salvador government’s most qualified officials from the national police, army and justice ministry to help Haiti draft a response to the gang crisis.

“Now the ball is in the Haitian court to decide when we could sign a diplomatic agreement to define the outlook of the mission, and to define what would be the profile of the mission; where it would be placed and to define the diplomatic status of the people we would send,” Ulloa said.

So far, Henry has not publicly said if he will take El Salvador up on its offer. Outside of the technical assistance, El Salvador is also in talks with some members of the Haitian private sector to build housing in the Central Plateau region of the country and work on an avocado growing project. They would do this through a cooperation office that Ulloa said they are working on opening in Haiti at a time when other foreign countries are recalling diplomats.

There is no doubt that Bukele has had success fighting gangs in his country. But his war hasn’t been without controversy or criticism. Human rights groups, the United States and others in the international community have accused him of trampling on human rights and having authoritarian tendencies.

In fighting gangs, Bukele has sent his armed troops onto the streets, declared a state of emergency to allow security forces to arrest people without a warrant and jailed over 35,000 alleged gang members.

Ulloa said like Haiti, his government inherited a failed state, with 15 to 18 people being killed a day. Among the victims were police officers and members of the country’s army.

“What Haiti should do is first of all take the right decision to go to war against those criminal structures,” he said, adding that they declared their war two years after taking office in 2019. “You cannot declare the war if you are not prepared to win the war and so far the Haiti police, because there is no army, I think is not ready to declare war. So that’s why you need to have this assessment because we can make some scenarios, which the international, military presence could fill because the national gap of Haiti in military and police forces will be fielded by an international force. But an international force needs to be clear on what their role would be.”

Ulloa remembers an incident during his time with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti. A man was killed a few feet from U.N. forces and the response he got about why the blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers didn’t intervene was that it was not in their mandate and they could not use their weapons unless they were attacked.

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“With this kind of mandate you are useless, and worse than that, the people see armored men with armored trucks with all the weapons, doing nothing. That is discouraging,” he said.

His mission, he said, could help prepare a comprehensive proposal, not only for the Haitian government, but also for the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. State Department and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Canada — the very entities, Ulloa points out, that are being called to respond to help Haiti with a new military force.

“It won’t work if there is not a comprehensive plan,” he said. The goal is “not to translate or transport or try to implement mechanically from El Salvador to Haiti because they are two different realities. But taking care of the main ideas, methodology, and conception on how to conduct this kind of war, which believe me, it will take a while.

“It will need a lot of resources regarding intelligence, collecting data information from the gangs, giving the equipment and the proper training to the forces. After that, you send them to do the legwork.”