MIAMI -- As President Joe Biden heads to Canada today for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, where the crisis in Haiti will be a leading topic, there is one thing that everyone can agree on: Since the U.S. and Canada began targeting Haiti's political and business elite with travel visa bans and economic sanctions in early November, the armed violence and kidnappings by gangs have only increased.
The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta Hurtado, said at least 531 Haitians have been killed and 300 injured since the beginning of the year in clashes between gangs. In February alone, the U.N. office in Haiti registered 253 homicides and 259 kidnappings -- the highest abduction figure in Haiti in a single month since the U.N. began keeping records in 2005, the office told the Miami Herald.
"The situation is all the more alarming for children, who are often subjected to all forms of armed violence, including forced recruitment and sexual violence, with dramatic consequences," the U.N. said in a separate statement it issued Tuesday.
The U.N. said the deadly resurgence of "acts of extreme violence perpetrated by armed groups" has spared no section of Haitian society.
A U.N. official in Haiti said in December that gangs controlled about 60% of Port-au-Prince. Now some analysts estimate that the figure has risen to more than 90%.
"We are living in a reign of terror," said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince resident and political analyst, who on any given day can hear the barrage of automatic gunfire through his walls from warring gangs expanding their territory. "The most basic principle of democracy is absent: The rule of law."
Gaillard and others say that said the Canadian government's recent deployment of two warships and a military plane over the capital have not slowed the atrocities.
Every day, residents "must assess the risk of stepping out of our homes, going to work, bringing our kids to school, being kidnapped, raped or killed," Gaillard said.
The violence intensified on Feb. 27 with yet another armed attack on the working class neighborhood of Bel Air, located a stone's throw away from the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. The National Human Rights Defense Network has documented at least 70 deaths and 50 people missing, director Pierre Esperance said. He added the deadly toll comes on top of the killings of at least 20 Haitian police officers by armed bandits since January.
Three health centers -- Gheskio in downtown Port-au-Prince and Medecins Sans Frontieres in Cite Soleil and the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in the Artibonite Valley -- announced the suspension of operations. Neighborhoods previously regarded as peaceful have now become no-go zones.
At least 11 people were killed, their bodies and vehicles burned, in a retaliatory attack by the Kraze Barye gang in the Route Frères area of Petionville, Esperance said. The gang is led by Vitel'Homme Innocent, who has been terrorizing residents in the hills of the capital in recent months despite a $1 million FBI bounty on his head.
"The police have not developed a strategy to take on the gangs, and they don't have the equipment or capacity," Esperance said.
Haiti National Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers said he couldn't immediately confirm the death toll but confirmed that people were killed and said an investigation into the atrocities is ongoing.
APPEAL FOR HELP
The United States, Canada and other countries have provided security aid to Haiti, including anti-gang and SWAT training and armored vehicles. But police officials say even more is needed to counter the firepower of the gangs, which have armed themselves through shipments of powerful weapons trafficked into the country from the United States, including machine guns, according to a report released this month by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government in October appealed for outside military intervention in Haiti to quell the violence, a remarkable request that underscored the dire situation in a country deeply resentful of foreign intervention. The political opposition called it an attempt to strengthen Henry's tenuous claim to power.
Biden administration officials are pushing to rally a multinational armed force to Haiti, although the effort has stalled, largely because no country wants to lead it. American military leaders do not want U.S. troops drawn into another open-ended peacekeeping mission after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
Canada had expressed interest in a leadership role, according to the Biden administration, but recently Trudeau appeared to pull back, telling reporters that outside intervention in the past had not worked "to create long-term stability."
Brian Nichols, the top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, visited Haiti recently and met with Henry and Frantz Elbé, the national police chief. Henry's spokesperson said the meeting focused on holding national elections and the need for more international support for the police.
During a visit to Newfoundland last week, Trudeau appeared to dismiss the prospect of outside military intervention in Haiti, saying it has not produced long-term stability in the past. He instead touted Canada's efforts to strengthen Haiti's beleaguered police force and promoted Ottawa's policy of applying sanctions against those his government believes are supporting gangs.
Despite Canada's blacklist -- the country has named 17 individuals while the United States has sanctioned five -- the gangs have become even more emboldened.
"This is armed conflict. I don't know what else to call it," said William O'Neill, a human rights lawyer who previously served with the United Nations in Haiti.
O'Neill said the attacks and sexual violence amount to war crimes as defined by the Geneva Conventions.
"These gangs are organized, they have leaders, they make themselves known, they give themselves these crazy names. They have foot soldiers, they have payrolls, which I think is driving in terms of what we're seeing with the kidnappings and the level of extortion going on," he said.
In October, Henry begged the international community to deploy a "rapid action" military force. His request was supported by the U.N. Secretary-General and the U.S., which authored a resolution in the Security Council seeking a deployment. Months later, there are still no takers.
Henry officially called on the Armed Forces of Haiti to reinforce the Haiti National Police in its fight against the gangs.
"We need all of our security forces," Henry said. "The Haiti we want, we will not be able to build it with gangs that are rampant everywhere."
Both those who support and criticize the Canadian and U.S. sanctions say they are to blame for the gangs' new entrenchment and initiatives.
"When they first started with the sanctions, the kidnappings decreased," said Gédéon Jean, a lawyer who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which tracks kidnappings. "But starting in January ... kidnappings skyrocketed."
Jean says the sanctions, which helped tamp down violent protests after the government hiked fuel prices in September, created fear among those who had close ties to gangs, and were either financing them with weapons or money. But as gangs began to see their funding sources dry up, they turned to kidnappings and territorial disputes to fill their coffers.
"Their funding sources are drying up in terms of who has been behind them in the past, the big politicians, the oligarchs and for reasons maybe connected to the sanctions, these folks are feeling the heat, and the gangs have had to turn to other sources of revenue," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said while he's hopeful about the Biden-Trudeau meeting, he fears that nothing will come of it, given Biden's aversion to intervention in Haiti and the focus on the war in Ukraine.
"It's pretty horrible what's happening" in Ukraine, he said. "But it's pretty horrible what's happening in Haiti. ... Twelve million people and an hour and a half from Miami. It's not Yemen, it's not Somalia, it's not Myanmar. It's right in the neighborhood."
Information for this article was contributed by Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald (TNS) and by Chris Cameron and Andre Paultre of the New York Times.