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Opinion | The Haiti Kidnapping Shows Gangs Are Getting Stronger

In the face of mounting resistance to his presidency, Mr. Moïse and his party fell back on a tried-and-true tactic in Haiti: They turned to the gangs to silence opponents. A coalition of armed groups soon expanded into opposition-led neighborhoods through extortion, kidnapping and sexual violence. Mr. Moïse is suspected of having enabled the repression through transfers of money, weapons, vehicles and even police uniforms. Corruption within the H.N.P. and a shortage of resources also led to a retrenchment of security services in some neighborhoods, reversing the hard-won gains in professionalism and reputation of the previous decade.

Some 165 gang factions operate in Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of Haiti’s crime wave. This year, gangs conducted at least 628 abductions — more than a threefold increase from last year’s total. And although the 400 Mawozo gang’s mass abduction of the missionaries has captured the world’s attention, kidnappings of American citizens are not new: In 2020 alone, at least nine U.S. citizens were kidnapped in Haiti.

Today, collusion between armed groups and political elites and the H.N.P.’s shortfalls have allowed Haiti’s gangs to supplant the state. By providing protection, services and food in a country where nearly half the population is food insecure, gangs are capturing the loyalty of the people. By wielding weapons and controlling territory, they are rendering themselves indispensable to the social order, enhancing their leverage over future political outcomes.

Elections to replace President Moïse have been postponed indefinitely. Until the caretaker government led by Ariel Henry can assure Haitians a fair contest — one in which they can express their vote free from intimidation — Haiti will remain in limbo.

There are no easy solutions to address these issues. But international organizations and regional governments do have a role to play in wresting control back from the gangs. A limited footprint of U.N. police could help the World Food Program and other aid organizations serve areas of the country where criminals are impeding humanitarian deliveries.

The U.N. should also enhance its advisory work with the H.N.P. and expand its mandate to support the justice system. From 2007 to 2019, a U.N. anti-impunity mission in Guatemala helped that country lock up criminals, dismantle illicit networks and nearly halve its homicide rate. Leaning on the Guatemalan mission as a blueprint, a similar effort could assist Haitian courts in tackling paralyzing case backlogs, while advising and protecting judges and prosecutors as they go after public officials guilty of conspiring with gangs.

Unfortunately, what the U.N. can accomplish will depend on what China, a permanent member of the Security Council, permits. As China has traditionally sought to limit U.N. involvement in Haiti, regional bodies like the Organization of American States should also seek to carry some of the weight.

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