UN-backed contingent of foreign police arrives in Haiti as Kenya-led force prepares to face gangs

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The first U.N.-backed contingent of foreign police arrived in Haiti on Tuesday, nearly two years after the troubled Caribbean country urgently requested help to quell a surge in gang violence.

A couple hundred police officers from Kenya landed in the capital of Port-au-Prince, whose main international airport reopened in late May after gang violence forced it to close for nearly three months.

It wasn’t immediately known what the Kenyans’ first assignment would be, but they will face violent gangs that control 80% of Haiti’s capital and have left more than 580,000 people across the country homeless as they pillage neighborhoods in their quest to control more territory.

The Kenyans’ arrival marks the fourth major foreign military intervention in Haiti. While some Haitians welcome their arrival, others view the force with caution, given that the previous intervention — the U.N.’s 2004-2017 peacekeeping mission — was marred by allegations of sexual assault and the introduction of cholera.

The Kenyans’ deployment comes nearly four months after gangs launched coordinated attacks targeting key government infrastructure in Haiti’s capital and beyond. They seized control of more than two dozen police stations, fired on the main international airport and stormed Haiti’s two biggest prisons, releasing more than 4,000 inmates.

“We’ve been asking for security for the longest time,” said Orgline Bossicot, a 47-year-old mother of two who sells carrots and charcoal as a wholesale distributor.

Gang violence has stymied her sales, and she tries to stay out as late as possible before sundown to make up for the losses despite being afraid.

“You don’t know who’s waiting for you around the corner. We are a target,” she said, adding that she is hopeful about the Kenyan police joining forces with local authorities. “It would be a great step forward for me, for Haiti and for a lot of people.”

Critics say the coordinated gang attacks that began Feb. 29 could have been prevented if the foreign force had been deployed sooner, but multiple setbacks including a legal challenge filed in Kenya and political upheaval in Haiti delayed its arrival.

The coordinated attacks achieved their objective: preventing then-Prime Minister Ariel Heny from returning to Haiti. At the time, he was in Kenya to push for the deployment of the force, but he resigned in late April amid the surge in violence.

Since then, a nine-member transitional presidential council was formed. It chose former U.N. official Garry Conille as prime minister May 28 and appointed a new Cabinet in mid-June.

The U.N. Security Council authorized Kenya to lead the multinational police mission in October 2023, a year after Henry first requested immediate help.

The Kenyans will be joined by police from the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Chad and Jamaica for a total of 2,500 officers that will be deployed in phases for an annual cost of some $600 million, according to the U.N. Security Council.

So far, the U.N.-administered fund for the mission has received only $18 million in contributions from Canada, France and the U.S. The U.S. also has pledged a total of $300 million in support.

“While gang violence appears to have receded from its peak earlier this year, the country’s security situation remains dire,” the U.N. Security Council said in a June 21 statement.

More than 2,500 people were killed or injured in the first three months of this year, a more than 50% increase from the same period last year.

Many Haitians live in fear, including Jannette Oville, a 54-year-old mother of two university-age boys.

She’s a wholesaler of crops like plantains and green peppers, and gangs have robbed her several times as she travels aboard public buses with her goods.

“I need security. I need to work. I need the roads to open up so I can provide for my family,” she said, confiding that she tucks money in her armpit or underwear to try to keep it safe.

“Being a female entrepreneur in Haiti is never easy,” she said. “There’s a lot of risk. But we take a risk to make sure our families are good.”

The U.N. Security Council also noted that “the acute security situation continues to have severe humanitarian consequences.”

An estimated 1.6 million people are on the brink of starvation, the highest number recorded since the devastating 2010 earthquake, according to the U.N.

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico