US military flies supplies to Haiti in preparation for foreign security force

May 15, 2024 in International

The US air force has begun flying in civilian contractors and equipment to the Haitian capital in hopes that a long-delayed international police force can be deployed to restore order to a country in the grip of violent gangs.

Several American military aircraft have arrived at Port-au-Prince airport in recent days, according to the US Southern Command, the Miami-based Pentagon headquarters for American forces in Latin America.

They were delivering contractors to “set up the temporary living area” for the UN-authorised multinational security force, led by 1,000 Kenyan police officers, Southern Command said in a statement.

It added: “This mission is made possible due to the continued co-ordination and support with the Haitian stakeholders who are working to keep the airport open and operations continuing.”

The long-stalled Kenya-led mission is expected to bolster Haiti’s outmatched police with about 2,500 additional officers. Caribbean and African nations, including the Bahamas, Jamaica and Chad, as well as Bangladesh, have formally agreed to provide personnel. The US has pledged to support the mission with about $300mn in funding, though it has ruled out putting boots of its own on the ground.

“We continue to work with international partners to expedite the MSS mission deployment to support the Haitian National Police in restoring security so that Haitians have the ability to go about their daily lives,” a US state department official said. “Base preparation is under way and the MSS mission is expected to deploy soon.”

Officials have been tight-lipped about the timing of the mission, though Kenyan security officials have met with their counterparts in Washington this week ahead of a meeting between Kenyan president William Ruto and US president Joe Biden on May 23.

“Our security men are upbeat, I have talked to them,” Ruto told the Financial Times in a recent interview. “They are ready, they are willing, they are available and as soon as the issues are sorted out, we will deploy.”

Meanwhile, violent street gangs, which in February were estimated to control 80 per cent of the capital, are expanding territory across neighbourhoods, looting homes and raping women, according to witnesses. 

“The situation is getting worse and worse as the gangs are constantly increasing and spreading terror,” said Wendy Elicien, a teacher who lives near the national palace where fierce battles between police officers and gangs have been taking place. “People are in a state of shock when they hear the sound of bullets.”

Elicien supports the international mission, though she said that previous missions in Haiti did little to arrest the country’s plight. Following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital, a delegation of UN peacekeepers was accused of introducing cholera to the country.

“It is not the first time that forces have intervened in Haiti,” Elicien said. “We never have lasting peace.”

The airport near downtown Port-au-Prince, essential to any international mission, had until recently been closed since late February, after an alliance of gangs launched a series of co-ordinated attacks against state infrastructure. Commercial flights have been suspended since March 3. 

In the weeks that followed, the capital was practically locked down, with the airport, seaport and key roads falling under gang control. The US embassy evacuated staff and civilians from the city via helicopter, while bringing in security personnel to reinforce the compound.

Amid the chaos, the interim government of prime minister Ariel Henry — who assumed power following the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 — collapsed. Henry resigned on April 25, and was replaced by a transitional presidential council.

That nine-member council, made up of politicians and civil society leaders, has the backing of the US and Caribbean countries and is expected to convene Haiti’s first elections since 2016, though its members have already bickered publicly over the appointment of an interim cabinet.

The main hospital, located in the middle of a conflict zone is closed with Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical charity and healthcare provider, warning that the country’s health system is “struggling to remain functional”.

More than 2,500 people have been killed, injured or kidnapped this year, according to the UN, up 50 per cent on the same period last year, while over 90,000 people in the capital have fled their homes. Officials have said that 1.4mn Haitians are at risk of famine, while nearly half of the population of 11.6mn already misses meals.

Haiti’s police force, which has been the last line of defence against gangs despite the country’s institutional collapse, has won critical battles ahead of the mission’s arrival, including securing the airport and the area surrounding the national palace. The force numbers 9,000 officers, though analysts say that only 3,000 are operationally available.

“Of those that remain, you see demonstrations of capability but overall, they are vastly outnumbered for the population and outgunned,” said Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American Studies at the US Army War College. 

“It seems like they just don’t have the strength and manpower to assert control of the country in general, let alone repress the gangs on a continuing basis.”