Haitian authorities conceded they had lost their battle to maintain order in Port-au-Prince after the leaders of the city’s crime gangs reclaimed their old turf since being freed when the national prison collapsed last week.
The gangsters have stepped into the law and order vacuum, notably in the sprawling shanty town of Cite Soleil which they dominated before being locked up following police operations supported by United Nations troops over the last three years.
“Even as we are digging bodies out of buildings, they are trying to attack our officers,” said Aristide Rosemond a Cite Soleil police inspector.
The Haitian authorities, already weak and reliant on UN forces, are now crippled by heavy casualties and widespread destruction of infrastructure while international peacekeepers are focused on disaster relief.
Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s prime minister, has despaired of the state’s ability to tackle a new post-earthquake crime wave sweeping his country’s devastated capital.
“The problem is they have weapons so we cannot send the population or just any policemen to capture them,” he said.
The morale and strength of Haiti’s police has been severely reduced by the loss of experienced officers, killed or injured, leaving recently trained recruits to hold the line.
“We do not have the capacity to fix this situation. Haiti needs help. The Americans are welcome here. But where are they? We need them here on the street with us,” said Dorsainvil Robenson, a police officer.
Police officers, whose limited success against slum gang lords has been based on the support of armoured UN troops, have now effectively given up by appealing to local vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.
“If you don’t kill the criminals, they will all come back,” Haitian police officers announce over loudspeakers from heavily armed checkpoints in the slum area.
Residents say that people have been killed and several women raped in a turf war between gangsters nicknamed “Belony” and “Bled” in the six days following the earthquake which destroyed the prison.
“The trouble is starting,” said Jean-Semaine Delice, a 51-year-old father.
Ten Brazilian peacekeepers were killed when a key local UN checkpoint at the entrance to Cite Soleil, known as the “Blue House”, collapsed. The UN also lost its chief, deputy chief and acting police commander in earthquake, creating a dangerous power vacuum at a time when international peacekeepers have committed their diminished forces to aiding survivors.