Ending Haiti’s Crime Wave

April 17, 2012
Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe
The danger signs are literally written on the wall. Many of Port-au-Prince`s graffiti-stained neighborhoods are experiencing a dramatic escalation in homicidal violence. The surge in murder, property crime and assault began less than six months ago and appears to be accelerating. There are genuine fears amongst local leaders and the western donors that the situation will deteriorate further still. Unless support for the national police is redoubled and United Nations peace-keepers scale-up their community-based activities in the city`s hotspots, the situation there could rapidly unravel. 

It was not meant to be like this. Haiti's recent spike in criminal violence should be offset against the remarkable gains in safety and security between 2007 and 2011. In fact, by early last year the country`s homicide rate had dropped to historic lows on par with the global average at 7.5 per 100,000 and well below murder rates in nearby Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Even before the January 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 158,000, poll after poll indicated a growing confidence amongst Haitian citizens in their reconstituted police force and fledgling governmental institutions. 

But the agonizingly slow place of political and economic reconstruction is taking its toll. Notwithstanding modest indications of recovery — from canal cleaning "cash for work" projects in the capital's poorest neighborhoods to small-scale watershed management schemes in the denuded hills encircling the city — Port-au-Prince looks much the same as it did two years ago. And after bitterly contested elections last year in which a political party popular amongst the poor was excluded from the ballot, President Martelly has yet to make good on his campaign promise of 'building back better'. The abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Conille last month confirms that the current administration is floundering. 

With so little to show for billions of aid dollars pledged, some Haitian youth are understandably restless. There are signs that some of the older neighborhood self-defense groups - or `bazes` - are being overtaken by younger, less ideologically motivated and more predatory gangs. Many of these new groups emerged after the earthquake and they are showing less hesitancy than their older counterparts to cross over into competing neighborhoods to prey on vulnerable residents and attack their enemies.

The aftershocks of the earthquake extend well beyond the rubble-lined streets. The gradual reduction of social and development assistance by major donors has resulted in a corresponding drop in the circulation of cash, the erosion of community leadership, and ever more aggressive demands for employment from Haiti`s traumatized youth. Institutional paralysis in the service delivery sector means that garbage is strewn about the city and clean water is in short supply. And while stability operations led by the United Nations and non-governmental agencies such as Viva Rio helped calm the situation in some neighborhoods before and after the quake, they are quickly losing steam. 

Most of the present violence is concentrated in the so-called 'popular zones' of the capital city. In Port-au-Prince as a whole the homicide rate has shot up from below 10 per 100,000 in 2007 to over 60 per 100,000 by early 2012. Recent surveys that we conducted between August 2011 and February 2012 reveal that residents from these lower-income areas are more than 20 times more likely than wealthier residents to be subjected to a property crime. They are also 27 times more likely to be sexually assaulted and 18 times more likely to be physically assaulted. Residents of these densely packed settlements also complain of escalating police misconduct, including bribes and sexual harassment. Predictably, public trust and confidence in the national police shows signs of plummeting. 

Yet if Haiti is to recover from this latest crime wave, a professional national police force is essential. The Haitian government must redouble its vetting and recruitment drive and ensure that police are adequately monitored and rewarded for their service. Likewise, the United Nations and the dozens of donor countries assisting in the reconstruction effort need to encourage the Haitian political establishment to make good on their commitments to rebuilding a meaningful inclusive social contract, one that is inclusive of poor and historically marginalized communities. If it fails in this essential task, the walls will almost surely come crashing down.

Dr. Robert Muggah is associated with the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. He is currently researching violence in Latin America and Haiti, a project funded by the International Development Research Centre.  Athena Kolbe is affiliated with the University of Michigan School of Social Work/Enstiti Pou Travay Sosyal ak Syans Sosyal, Petion-Ville, Haiti.