GONAIVES, Haiti—They mob aid convoys, break into homes to steal food and shoot anyone who gets in their way. Street gangsters have put aid workers squarely in their sights and are subjecting weary storm survivors to life-threatening delays in getting food and water.
The failure of Haiti’s U.S.-backed government to disarm gangs, including the Cannibal Army that started the revolution that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has created a climate of insecurity that jeopardizes lives after the calamity visited on Gonaives by Tropical Storm Jeanne.
“Things are very bad here. People are insecure, and we have to fight for everything,” said Rony Coq, 30, a member of a gang called the Bottle Army because its members fling bottles at enemies.
Coq’s gang operates in Cassolet, a maze of concrete slum homes that was mired in up to five feet of mud Tuesday—10 days after Jeanne.
Nearby, a human vertebra stuck out of a pile of sludge topped by a tire, one of the unclaimed flood victims that residents buried because so many were rotting before officials ordered mass burials.
Officials say more than 1,500 people died in the storm and some 900 are missing, many of whom are presumed among dead. Most of the victims were in Gonaives, Haiti’s third-largest city, where four-fifths of the 250,000 residents were left homeless.
The security chief for the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti, John Harrison of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, visited Cassolet on Tuesday to scout for a safe place to distribute food.
Earlier, only about 40 people lined up for food at an aid center in another neighborhood where U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil had to shoot into the air Monday to control hundreds of people who rioted when they were prevented from looting the food.
“It’s very difficult to get food. We come every day . . . People are getting very frustrated,” said Manette Jean, 31, one of the few people to show up Tuesday.
She said a piece of metal stuck in her foot when she was shoved and nearly trampled during a previous visit to a food distribution center, but that she had to come so she can feed her five children.
Harrison had hoped to use Gonaives’ port, but his group found the dock in the hands of armed men. “There’s a big problem with gangs,” he told The Associated Press. “I think things could get worse.”
That was bad news for the World Food Program, which was chartering a ship to bring food to Gonaives.
Jouthe Joseph of the humanitarian group CARE said Tuesday that about 10 tons of food had been lost to looters in Gonaives, out of 175 tons sent in by international aid groups over the past week, which allowed them to feed about 98,000 people.
Joseph’s figures did not include local aid trucks that have been looted nor a government convoy held up by armed men at the entrance to the city.
That flashpoint for looters was being secured Tuesday by Uruguayan peacekeepers. Interior Minister Herard Abraham said the Uruguayans needed time to settle in but would improve the situation within a few days. “Security will improve,” he promised.
The United Nations sent 150 more peacekeepers to Gonaives over the weekend to reinforce some 600 soldiers already in the city as part of the stabilization force brought to Haiti after Aristide’s ouster.
Brazilian Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, commander of the U.N. force, said Monday that he has only 3,000 of the 6,700 soldiers he needs and could use more help from Haitian police.
Harrison, the Canadian, also complained about the police. “There is no security right now. There are no patrols. There are no functioning police. We’re on our own,” he said.
But Haiti’s force, which has only about 3,000 officers in a country of 8 million people, remains demoralized and poorly equipped since rebels chased them from their stations, killing dozens, in the February uprising that forced Aristide to leave the country.
On Tuesday, the Gonaives police’s only working vehicle happened on a truck being looted of bottled water by a gleeful mob, but the officers kept driving.
Police Commissioner Abner Vilme confirmed Tuesday that street gangs were breaking into people’s homes in the blacked-out city at night. He said his men—down to about 15 since the storm—had tried to negotiate with the gangs but the gangsters did not keep promises to behave.
Some of the gangs are purely criminal, but many are allied and armed by rival political parties. Some, like members of the Cannibal Army, say they were armed by Aristide’s henchmen to terrorize his political opponents, but it later turned on Aristide.
Caribbean leaders have refused to recognize the interim government, saying it unconstitutionally replaced a democratically elected president and because interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue scandalized the region by hailing as “liberators” rebel leaders that include two convicted of murders during a military regime.