Kenyan special forces police to arrive in Haiti to help combat gang violence

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Defence Aden Duale shake hands after signing a Defense Cooperation Agreement in Nairobi, Kenya September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

An advance group of Kenyan officers, part of a larger UN-backed ‘support mission’ to stabilize Haiti, landed in Port-au-Prince.

Kenyan special forces police who have spent time battling al-Shabaab fighters in east Africa are expected to arrive in Haiti in the coming days, as the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, warned the Caribbean country was “on the precipice of becoming an all-out failed state”.

A small advance group of Kenyan officers – part of a larger UN-backed “multinational security support mission” designed to stabilize Haiti after months of mayhem – landed in the capital, Port-au-Prince, late on Monday as the city’s airport reopened nearly three months after a gang uprising forced it to close.

Kenyan media reports said another 200 officers were due to arrive later this week with their deployment coinciding with a state visit the country’s president, William Ruto, is making to the US. A total of about 1,000 Kenyan agents are expected to join the mission, as well as officers from Chile, Jamaica, Grenada, Paraguay, Burundi, Chad, Nigeria and Mauritius.

A senior official from Kenya’s interior ministry told the Geneva-based civil society group Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime that “the first boots [would] hit the ground” in the coming days. “This time we are serious,” the official was quoted as saying.

Appearing in Washington DC before the Senate foreign affairs committee on Tuesday, Blinken claimed there was an “opportunity now” to achieve enduring stability after decades of turmoil.

Blinken said the reopening of Haiti’s main international airport was a clear sign of progress and anticipated US carriers would resume flights there “in the days ahead”.

The first Kenyan officers to arrive will reportedly come from an elite paramilitary unit called the recce squad, the rapid deployment force and members of a police special operation group who have spent time fighting Islamist insurgents on Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia. “They are no strangers to violent armed actors,” reported the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Some observers have welcomed the long-delayed deployment as a major step towards bringing peace to a country that has lurched deeper into violence since the 2021 assassination of its then president, Jovenel Moïse. Blinken said US support for the multinational mission was critical to restore order and reduce the power of the gangs.

In a recent interview, the UN’s top expert on human rights in Haiti, William O’Neill, said he hoped many of the young gang combatants who have been sowing terror in Port-au-Prince would stand down once a superior fighting force arrived. “A lot of them are teenagers. You’re talking about 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds – and there’s no ideology. It’s not like the Taliban or al-Shabaab,” O’Neill said.

Top gang leaders might resist but their poorly trained foot soldiers were unlikely to resist, O’Neill predicted: “They’re not gonna commit suicide defending the turf. They’re gonna drop the gun and run … The one thing the gangs respect is a bigger force.”

But others are doubtful that yet another foreign intervention will bring lasting peace and point to a succession of botched operations in the century since US president Woodrow Wilson sent in the marines after the 1915 assassination of the Haitian president Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The most recent such intervention was the 2004-2017 UN stabilization force Minustah.

The Brazil-led mission initially wrested back control from armed groups that hold sway in many of Haiti’s impoverished seaside slums but UN troops later became embroiled in accusations of human rights violations, sexual abuse and importing a devastating cholera outbreak.

Blinken said he understood why some in Congress had concerns about the mission in Haiti, but said US aid was critical and urged Republican leaders to lift their holds on the funding.

“I know some people have concerns about the United States being the ‘policeman of the world’. Well, here’s a situation where Kenya and a number of other countries have stepped up and are willing to take this on but they need support,” he added.

Members of Haiti’s embattled national police force voice frustration that the resources being used to bankroll the latest security mission are not being used to bolster their own perilous efforts to reclaim the 80% of the capital now controlled by gangs.

Buy ammunition, give us helmets … give us assistance. We can do it,” one police officer said in a recent interview with the Guardian, noting that the Haitian national police didn’t have a single helicopter.

In Kenya, opposition politicians have also attacked sending the country’s police officers into such a dangerous situation. “This mission is a death trap,” Millie Odhiambo told the New York Times.

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