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Deaths of police in failed Port-au-Prince slum operation sparks FreeHaiti hashtag, outrage

The United Nations is calling on Haitian authorities to clarify the circumstances surrounding the deaths and injuries of several members of the Haiti National Police in a police operation turned deadly in a Port-au-Prince slum known for harboring kidnapped victims and a notorious gang.

In a statement issued Saturday, the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti said it is shocked by the deaths of members of the security forces in Village de Dieu, Village of God, on Friday. It did not specify how many officers were killed but expressed condolences to the families of the victims, the HNP and to the Haitian people.

Acting Haiti National Police General Director Léon Charles confirmed during a brief press conference Saturday that four officers had been killed and eight wounded. Five officers have been discharged from the hospital, while three are in stable condition, he said. Haiti police also have been unable to locate another officer.

“In a deleterious security context, it is imperative that the circumstances surrounding the tragic events of March 12 be clarified, and that the perpetrators of this killing be arrested, prosecuted and brought to justice. The same is true for all serious crimes committed in the country,” the U.N., which has trained the force, said.

The failed anti-gang operation by specialized units of the Haitian police have shaken Haitians and triggered the trending #FreeHaiti hastag on social media. Many have been seeking answers as to how officers were ambushed by an armed gang under the command of a leader in a slum run by a guy who goes by the name “Izo” and “5 Seconds.”

Significant amounts of ammunition were stolen and two armored police vehicles were commandeered, one of which was set ablaze. Video shared on social media show armed gang leaders desecrating the bodies of slain SWAT officers. One photo also showed heavily armed men sitting on the hood of one of the armored vehicles, riddled with bullets.

The bursts of gunfire from the operation could be heard all morning Friday in Port-au-Prince. That same day, a House Foreign Affairs Committee met in a virtual hearing to discus the ongoing political crisis and deteriorating human rights in Haiti. Several members of Congress, concerned about reports about the force being weakened and politicized, asked questions of the all-female panel of witnesses about the Haiti National Police and its ability to confront armed gangs, which have multiplied in recent years.

The police force, which currently stands at an estimated 14,997 officers, has benefited from millions of dollars in U.S. funding and training. But it has not been enough to counter poor working conditions, a lack of proper equipment and funding from the government, which recently increased its police budget.

Most were unaware of what was taking place in Port-au-Prince, where police were being outgunned in a stark reminder of the country’s revolting security environment. But soon, on Twitter, the #FreeHaiti hashtag started trending as word spread about the slain officers and the failed operation.

On Saturday, #FreeHaiti had been retweeted more than 250,000 times by Haitians including influencers and well-known celebrities like rapper Cardi B and actor Jimmy Jean-Louis.

Officers have struggled to rein in criminality in Haiti, where several kidnapped victims have reported being taken by individuals in police uniforms and in vehicles with official license plates.

Haiti civic leaders and former US diplomat to House Foreign Affairs: ‘Haiti is a mess’

Charles, in a press conference, offered little detail about what went wrong in Friday’s operation, and how his units were ambushed. He said that police have been engaged in a battle against organized crime, especially kidnappings.

“The operation yesterday was a decisive phase in the actions we had already carried out against this phenomenon,” Charles said, describing Village of God as “one of the places where they hold most of the people who are kidnapped.”

He offered sympathy to the families of the slain officers, while stressing that the police will not back down. “The police cannot retreat,” he said. “We have a mission to finish and we are going to keep the engagement we took, which is to protect and serve the population.”

The violence is a new low for Haiti, which has been wrestling with widening insecurity, armed gangs and for-ransom kidnappings. During a live broadcast Saturday of the popular political talk radio show Ranmase on Radio Caraibes, the sister of one of the slain SWAT officers, Wislet Desilus, pleaded for her brother’s body. She said that the gang had requested $2 million in order for her mother to receive his corpse.

“My brother died since yesterday, he was ripped apart. Whatever you can give me, I will take it,” she said, adding that her mother is poor and the family has no money. “Even if it’s just a piece of him that I can bury to console me, so I can tell his child something.”

She said when she heard the news, she went to the SWAT base. “I didn’t find anyone there to receive me; I didn’t find anyone who could give me any information,” she said. “Everyone I found said they couldn’t do anything for me.”

On Monday, a high-ranking gang leader of the Village de Dieu gang, Peterson Benjamin, appeared in federal court in Fort Lauderdale on charges related to the kidnapping of five U.S. citizens, including three minors, in Haiti last year. He faces a nine-count indictment by a Washington, D.C., grand jury, which includes charges of hostage taking and possessing a firearm during a violent crime.

Benjamin was arrested by Haitian police and turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which flew him to South Florida on March 5, along with convicted drug trafficker Lissner Mathieu. Benjamin was taken into custody by the Drug and Enforcement Administration for probation violation.

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