Haiti Needs to Confront the Causes and Consequences of Violent Crime

The danger signs are literally etched on the city´s walls. Many of Port-au-Prince’s graffiti-lined neighborhoods have recently experienced an unprecedented rise in violent crime. The surge in murder, property crime, and physical and sexual assault began twelve months ago and seems to have leveled off at a new high. Given frustration with the country´s leadership and the absence of visible improvements in day-to-day life, there are genuine concerns that the situation could deteriorate further still.

Some analysts believe that a new crisis could be averted if support for the national police is dramatically increased and United Nations peacekeepers provide enhanced support for law and order. After more than eight years of operations in Haiti and a budget authorized to the middle of 2013, most experts agree that a premature exit of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) could spell disaster. While this may be true, the fact is that any support must address both the causes and consequences of violence lest the situation unravel completely.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The spike in violence in late 2011 and 2012 should be offset against the remarkable gains in safety and security made between 2007 and 2010. Early last year, Haiti’s homicide rate dropped to historic lows, on par with the global average at about 7 per 100,000 people, and well below rates in neighboring Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Even before the 2010 earthquake, poll after poll indicated growing confidence in Haiti’s reconstituted police force and public institutions. And this support endured despite the escape of some 3,000 inmates from the capital city´s central penitentiary in the aftermath of the quake. 

But the agonizingly slow place of reconstruction and chronic political uncertainty is taking its toll. Despite modest evidence of recovery and some new investments around the city and so-called “growth poles,” Port-au-Prince looks much as it did two years ago. And since last year’s bitterly contested election, President Michel Martelly has yet to make good on his campaign promise of “building back better.” The resignations of Prime Minister Garry Conille and the Police Chief Mario Andrésol confirm that the administration is floundering.

With so little to show for the billions of aid dollars pledged, Haitian youths are growing restless. There are signs that some of the older neighborhood self-defense groups – the bazes – are being overtaken by younger, less ideological, more predatory gangs. Many emerged after the earthquake and are showing less hesitancy to cross into competing neighborhoods to assassinate enemies and prey on the vulnerable. And despite the recent capture of gang leaders, relief and development practitioners on the ground are fearful that the situation is getting worse, not better.

Two years on, and the earthquake is still being felt far beyond the rubble-lined streets. The gradual decline of donor assistance is undermining community leadership and resulting in ever-more aggressive demands for youth employment. Garbage is strewn about the city and clean water is in short supply. Whilst stability operations led by MINUSTAH and nongovernmental agencies such as Viva Rio have helped calm the situation in some neighborhoods, these are losing steam. What is more, there are concerns that the government´s current development model is unsustainable and well off-track.

Most of the violence appears concentrated in the capital’s so-called popular zones. Port-au-Prince’s homicide rate has shot up from below 10 per 100,000 in 2007 to approximately 72 per 100,000 by the end of July this year. Household surveys we have been conducting since last August show that residents of lower-income areas are more than 40 times more likely than those living in wealthy areas to be victims of homicide. They are also 27 times more likely to be sexually assaulted and 18 times more likely to be physically assaulted. Popular confidence in the national police is now plummeting as residents complain of misconduct, including sexual harassment.

Worse still, the impacts of Haiti’s crime wave will likely endure long after the shooting stops. Children are especially vulnerable when a death occurs in the family; many are pulled out of school and shunted off to other families as “restaveks,” Creole for unpaid domestic servants. Since mid-2011, the average costs of a physical or sexual assault on a typical household member amounts to a fifth of their annual income. A murder results in expenses that are more than five times an average family’s annual income of $1,200 a year.

The costs of these violent crimes can rapidly accumulate and hit the poorest hardest. For example, burial and funeral costs average almost $5,000 per household. Nearly all of the households we surveyed take out loans to pay these costs. The interest fees charged by moneylenders are extortionate and can spiral up to 150% a month. Compounding all this are bribes that are regularly paid out to the police: up to a quarter of all victims of physical assault and property crimes were asked to pay a bribe to see their cases progress. The average cost of these bribes is about $16.

Despite these alarming trends, there are practical steps that the Haitian government and international donor community can take to arrest the costs of violent crime. A priority is a clear affirmation by the country’s leaders of the gravity of the situation on the ground. This must be accompanied not by political posturing, but rather action to ensure that effective and efficient policing and justice provision gets to under-serviced areas. If they do not, there is a risk that the silent poor will suffer a double burden that could set back development gains for generations.

As signaled in countless reports, Haiti’s government must redouble its vetting and recruitment drive and ensure that police officers are adequately monitored and rewarded for their service. The police force needs to be doubled if it is to provide effective public safety in the capital, and the countryside where most Haitians reside. Likewise, the UN and international donors need to continue pressuring the establishment to make good on its commitment to rebuild a meaningful social contract, inclusive of poor and historically marginalized communities.

The Haitian government and its supporters can also pay more attention to minimizing the crippling debts generated by violent crime. For example, they can support low-interest loan alternatives for families who have lost their loved ones through violence. Likewise, new oversight measures can be introduced to reduce police bribery which, after a gradual decline, appears to be increasing once more. Finally, special measures can be taken to support victimized children, including with medical assistance, so that they are not traumatized for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarape Institute and a principal of the SecDev Group. He is also a professor at the International Relations faculty of the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. Previously, he was Research Director of the Small Arms Survey. He advises the OECD, UN, and World Bank and has worked as a development practitioner and scholar in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia.

Athena Kolbe is a researcher from the University of Michigan School of Social Work and is a co-director of the Enstiti Travay Sosyal ak Syans Sosyal in Petionville, Haiti.

About the Photo: A Haitian police officer detains a lawbreaker in Port-au-Prince’s severely damaged downtown area. January 19, 2010. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Logan Abassi.