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In Haiti, Kenyan police arrive in a nation that's been out of control since 2021

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The president of Kenya is on a state visit to the U.S. William Ruto will hold talks with President Biden at the White House today ahead of tonight's state dinner. The diplomatic menu will surely include Haiti, where Kenyan police officers started arriving this week. They're part of a multinational force tasked with seizing control of the country from armed gangs. Can that international mission succeed? NPR's Eyder Peralta spent some time with those gangs and brings us this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The only way into the gang-controlled neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince is on a motorcycle. So we ride past the National Palace, past burnt-out cars, we zig past barricades, and suddenly we're in a very different city.

No police. Very few people on the streets.

It feels like a war zone. Windows are shattered, cars lay upside down in the middle of the streets. The walls of one of the police stations have been blown out, the insides ransacked and burnt. It sits like a corpse - a symbol of who's in charge. We make a turn and find ourselves in the middle of a gang parade.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Cheering).

PERALTA: There's a band up front, and behind them, dozens of gang members, men with their faces covered, carrying handguns, assault rifles, machetes and knives. Clearly, it's intended to show force against an imminent international mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE BAND PLAYING)

PERALTA: One of the gang leaders, a man who goes by Passe, calls me over.

PASSE: America, Canada (speaking Creole). Canada and French and the U.S. who made the situation like this. So they want to do, like, to have, like, a bloodshed here in Haiti.

PERALTA: Haiti has been spiraling toward anarchy ever since President Jovenel Moise was assassinated nearly three years ago. In the jostle for power, the gangs, which used to fight each other, created a coalition and started fighting the government. Thousands have died. Nearly 400,000 people have been displaced. A prime minister was forced to resign. The international community installed a transitional government, but the gangs were left out. This chaos, Passe insists, was not created by them. Instead, he says, it was created by Western-backed politicians and businessmen who give them American-made weapons.

PASSE: (Speaking Creole). So we don't make weapons and bullets here in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. So they give us the weapons. So if they want to get the weapons back, they have to sit down with us to find a solution. (Speaking Creole). Basically, we need a seat at the table.

PERALTA: So a seat at the table, and you drop your weapons?

PASSE: No. (Speaking Creole).

PERALTA: "No," he says, "it wouldn't be that easy because those who gave us the weapons have now created new gangs." I meet Leslie Voltaire in Petion-Ville, one of the only neighborhoods still fully under government control.

LESLIE VOLTAIRE: Our No. 1 priority is to establish security in order to have rule of law.

PERALTA: Voltaire is one of seven voting members of the country's transitional government. Their ultimate goal is to steer Haiti toward democratic elections, but...

VOLTAIRE: If we do an election right now, the gangs will be in the parliament, they will be in the presidency, they will be in the Prime Minister's office.

PERALTA: The only way forward, he says, is to pacify the country with the help of an international force. He says over the past couple of years, the U.S. asked Canada and Brazil to lead a force into Haiti. Both declined, and the only country that raised its hand was Kenya. Voltaire says they are aware that Kenya's security forces have a checkered human rights record and have also been unable to quell an Islamist rebellion in their own country.

VOLTAIRE: It's a necessary evil.

PERALTA: A necessary evil. Haiti's own police, he says, is corrupt. According to some estimates, 40% of the police are associated with gangs. So Voltaire says the Kenyan forces are their only choice.

VOLTAIRE: We know that it's not the best thing that we have, but it's what we have.

CAMILLE CHALMERS: (Through interpreter) I believe my friend is wrong.

PERALTA: That is political analyst Camille Chalmers. He says there is a mistaken belief that Haiti cannot sink deeper into crisis. But he says, look at MINUSTAH. In 2004, following a coup d'etat, the United Nations approved a Brazilian-led peacekeeping force intended to get Haiti to elections. When the mission ended in 2017, says Chalmers, Haiti was left in shambles.

CHALMERS: (Through interpreter) The justice system was weakened. So were the jails. The electoral system had lost all its credibility.

PERALTA: The situation now is arguably more complex. The gangs, which used to be enforcers for politicians, have now become well-armed militias fighting for power of their own. Chalmers says, like MINUSTAH, foreign forces will deploy without much input from any Haitians. To Chalmers, the mission is already doomed.

CHALMERS: (Through interpreter) It's the same as before being done in a context of dependence. We give you what we have, what we want to give, without any serious effort to understand the battlefield.

PERALTA: Amid all of the political wrangling, the police in Haiti are adrift. They drive around Port-au-Prince in smashed armored vehicles with bad weapons and little ammunition.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) I could tell you the police itself is demobilized.

PERALTA: That's a current police officer who asked us not to use his name because he fears retribution.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) The majority of police stations have been ransacked and looted, attacked by the gangs.

PERALTA: He describes a police force that hasn't talked to the incoming Kenyan forces, that is not getting any support from the government. Instead, he says, it is the rich politicians and business owners in Port-au-Prince who are directly giving them weapons and ammunition. They're calling the shots.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) When the gangs attacked the rich areas of Port-au-Prince, the business owners gave us ammunition to fight them.

PERALTA: The gangs, he says, were created by the powerful to protect their business interests. On many occasions, he says, he has witnessed police commanders giving gangs a heads-up on their operations. And now that the powerful have lost control of the gangs, he says, they are using the police as their new armed wing. I ask about the Kenyan-led mission.

Do you think they'll be able to take on the gangs?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) No, because you first have to deal with the people who gave them the guns to begin with.

PERALTA: He has no doubt, he says that if the Kenyans just set out to destroy the gangs, the powerful in Haiti will only make more.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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