Armed Thugs Filling Haiti’s Security Void

Jonathan M. Katz, AP, January 18, 2010

If you don’t kill the criminals, they will all come back,” a Haitian police officer shouts over a loudspeaker in the country’s most notorious slum, imploring citizens to take justice into their own hands.

The call for vigilantes comes as influential gang leaders who escaped from a heavily damaged prison during the country’s killer earthquake are taking advantage of a void left by police and peacekeepers focused on disaster relief.

In the sprawling Cite Soleil slum, gangsters are settling into the haunts they dominated before being locked up and resuming struggles for control that never really ended once they were inside the walls of the city’s notorious main penitentiary.

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There is the potential for violence in any disaster zone where food and medical aid are unable to keep up with fast-growing hunger and mass casualties. But the danger is multiplied in Haiti, where self-designated rebels and freedom fighters–or simply neighborhood toughs–have consistently threatened the country’s fragile stability with a few weapons, some spare money for handouts and the ire of disaffected throngs.

“Even as we are digging bodies out of buildings, they are trying to attack our officers,” Cite Soleil police inspector Aristide Rosemond said, surrounded by officers wielding automatic weapons.

Neighborhood residents say three people died and several women were raped in a small-scale turf war that gangsters nicknamed “Belony” and “Bled” launched in the seaside slum in the days after last Tuesday’s quake.

People who live here have been told not to count on security forces for help.

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