Kenyan-Led Forces Arrive in Haiti After Months of Gang Violence

Foreign law enforcement officers began arriving in Haiti on Tuesday, more than year and a half after the prime minister there issued a plea to other countries for help to stop the rampant gang violence that has upended the Caribbean nation.

Since that appeal went out in October 2022, more than 7,500 people have been killed by violence — more than 2,500 people so far this year alone, the United Nations said.

With the presidency vacant and a weakened national government, dozens of gangs took over much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, putting up roadblocks, kidnapping and killing civilians and attacking entire neighborhoods. About 200,000 people were forced out of their homes between March and May, according to the U.N.

Now an initial group of 400 Kenyan police officers are arriving in Haiti to take on the gangs, an effort largely organized by the Biden administration. The Kenyans are the first to deploy of an expected 2,500-member force of international police officers and soldiers from eight countries.

“You are undertaking a vital mission that transcends borders and cultures,” President William Ruto of Kenya told the officers on Monday. “Your presence in Haiti will bring hope and relief to communities torn apart by violence and ravaged by disorder.”

The Kenyan officers are expected to tackle a long list of priorities, among them retaking control of the country’s main port, as well as freeing major highways from criminal groups that demand drivers for money.

“Gang checkpoints on these roads are also a major source of their income generated by extorting money from everyone passing through and by kidnapping and holding people for hefty ransoms,” said William O’Neill, the U.N.’s human rights expert on Haiti.

“While much delayed, the arrival of the Kenyans comes at a good time,” particularly since a new police chief and prime minister have been named in recent weeks, he said.

A small assessment team from Kenya arrived in May to begin preparations but found the equipment lacking. That left the United States, the main supplier for the mission, rushing to find armored vehicles and other equipment.

“The Kenyans do not want to be one of these missions that show up on the ground and, for a month, they never leave their base,” Dennis B. Hankins, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview. “They want to be able to see quickly that they are making an impact.’’

Officially called the Multinational Security Support Mission, the deployment is expected to last at least a year, according to the U.S. government. Sanctioned by the U.N. and mostly financed by the United States, its goal is to support the Haitian police and establish enough stability so the transitional government set up elections to choose a new president, as well as a National Assembly.

The U.S. military has flown more than 90 flights into Haiti to prepare for the mission, carrying more than 2,600 tons of supplies. Civilian contractors have been building sleeping quarters for the Kenyan officers at Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince.

In May, Haitian government officials began clearing the airport perimeter of hundreds of houses, which had made it easier for gangs to hide and fire at aircraft, forcing the airfield to close.

The airport has reopened to commercial flights. But gang leaders have said that they will fight the Kenyans, who they consider invaders.

“As soon as we got the airport open and functional and we started seeing military flights, that had a real significant psychological impact on the population,” Mr. Hankins said.

Many experts are guarded in their assessment of the international force, mainly because aside from tackling the insecurity there is no comprehensive plan to address the root causes of Haiti’s many governance problems.

After Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned in late April, it took several weeks for political parties to agree on who would serve on a new transitional presidential council. It was a full month before a replacement for Mr. Henry took office.

Garry Conille, a former U.N. official, accepted the post in late May. His office and the transitional council declined to comment Monday about the upcoming deployment.

Haitian authorities have difficult decisions ahead, Mr. Hankins said, such as whether wresting control of the central hospital in Port-au-Prince from gangs should take place first, or securing the port so that fuel, food and other commodities can flow consistently.

The gangs, he added, did not fight back while preparations at the airport were made. The Kenyans will “support” the Haitian police, but not replace them, he said, so that when the mission ends their departure doesn’t create “a security vacuum.”

So far, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Chad, Jamaica and Kenya have officially offered personnel for the mission.

But the mission has not received much financial commitment.

While Kenyan officials estimate the cost will run up to $600 million, a U.N. fund to pay for it has only $21 million. The United States has pledged more than $300 million to finance the mission.

The Kenyan deployment comes a month after Mr. Ruto of Kenya traveled to the United States at President Biden’s invitation. The four-day trip was the first state visit by a Kenyan president in two decades and the first by an African leader since 2008.

The United States, Canada and France — Haiti’s biggest benefactors and allies — were unwilling to send troops of their own to Haiti.

Kenya was the first nation to publicly offer to do so. Many experts believed the mission would be more welcomed if was led by an African nation.

Experts say that Mr. Ruto, who won the presidency in 2022 after a closely contested election, was using the deployment to further boost his profile on the global stage.

The deployment comes even as Mr. Ruto faces massive protests nationwide against a finance bill that critics say will increase the already high cost of living.

A team of Haitian police commanders recently visited Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, while Mr. Ruto held talks with the Haitian transitional presidential council.

At a police camp in Nairobi, officers who will be part of the deployment made final preparations. They have undergone physical and weapons training and received new helmets and body armor, according to interviews with officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak publicly to reporters.

They have also taken intensive French and Creole courses.

Beyond protecting key infrastructure, the officers at some point will be expected to secure the presidential palace, which remains in shambles after a 2010 earthquake but continues to be a symbolic place of power in Haiti.

“The early deployment of this force is going to be very vulnerable,” said Sophie Rutenbar, a visiting scholar at the New York University Center on International Cooperation who has worked in Haiti.

The initial group is likely to “play it safe” at the start, she said, but even as more officers arrive from other countries, their task will be daunting, particularly since they have not worked together before, do not speak the same languages or have a shared “operational framework.”

Eugene Chen, a former U.N. official who follows Haiti closely, said the international mission seemed to emerge out of a desperation to do something. Without finding ways to support Haiti’s political process, the mission could exacerbate the violence, Mr. Chen said.

“It’s not clear,” Mr. Chen added, “that this is the right answer.”

Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi, and David C. Adams from Miami.

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