Gang members profit from disaster

2010-01-19 11:33

“If you don’t kill the criminals, they will all come back,” a

Haitian police officer shouts over a loudspeaker in the country’s most notorious

slum, imploring citizens to take justice into their own hands.

The call for vigilantes comes as influential gang leaders who

escaped from a heavily damaged prison during the country’s killer earthquake are

taking advantage of a void left by police and peacekeepers focused on disaster

relief.

In the sprawling Cite Soleil slum, gangsters are settling into the

haunts they dominated before being locked up and resuming struggles for control

that never really ended once they were inside the walls of the city’s notorious

main penitentiary.

“The trouble is starting,” said Jean-Semaine Delice, a 51-year-old

father from Cite Soleil. “People are starting to leave their homes to go to

others.”

As police urged residents to fight criminals themselves, Delice

said, “I think it’s a message we should listen to.”

There is the potential for violence in any disaster zone where food

and medical aid are unable to keep up with fast-growing hunger and mass

casualties. But the danger is multiplied in Haiti, where self-designated rebels

and freedom fighters - or simply neighbourhood toughs - have consistently

threatened the country’s fragile stability with a few weapons, some spare money

for handouts and the ire of disaffected throngs.

“Even as we are digging bodies out of buildings, they are trying to

attack our officers,” Cite Soleil police inspector Aristide Rosemond said,

surrounded by officers wielding automatic weapons.

Neighbourhood residents say three people died and several women

were raped in a small-scale turf war that gangsters nicknamed “Belony” and

“Bled” launched in the seaside slum in the days following last Tuesday’s

quake.

People who live here have been told not to count on security forces

for help.

The Brazilian peacekeeping unit assigned to Cite Soleil lost 18 of

its 145 soldiers in the earthquake. Ten perished when the “Blue House” - a

landmark concrete tower converted into a UN post near the slum’s entrance -

collapsed, leaving weapons and equipment readily available to fast-acting

looters.

The UN peacekeeping mission also lost its chief, deputy chief and

acting police commander.

The police lost an uncounted number of personnel and equipment,

leaving a group of officers who in large part are just recently recruited and

trained.

“The problem is they have weapons ... so we cannot send the

population or (just) any policemen” to capture them, Prime Minister Jean-Max

Bellerive told The Associated Press yesterday.

Bob Perito, coordinator of Haiti programs for the Washington-based

US Institute of Peace think tank, said concerns about the gangs are legitimate -

in the long run.

In the more immediate future, “the gangs may be more of a

nuisance,” Perito said in an interview from his Washington office.

“They are not going to challenge the US military,” he said. “But

when the US decides the emergency is over and goes home, will the reconstituted

UN peacekeeping force have the coherence necessary to suppress the

problem?“

There are 1 700 US troops on the ground in Haiti and 2 000 Marines

off shore.


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