Haiti National Police said Monday that they will soon launch an operation to retrieve the bodies of several church members who were gunned down over the weekend when a powerful armed gang opened fire on the worshipers as they marched into the gang’s territory on the fringe Port-au-Prince.
The worshipers were among hundreds of religious faithful who participated in a march led by Pastor Marcorel “Marco” Zidor of the Evangelical Pool of Bethesda Church on Saturday. Armed with machetes, sticks and a belief they would not be shot at, they marched from the Caradeux neighborhood, where their church is located, toward Canaan, on the outskirts of the capital.
Instead of dislodging the gang, they were met with bullets from automatic rifles.
Several church members were killed, others injured and others held hostage, the evidence of their captivity captured on video by the gang.
Police on Monday did not provide a tally of the casualties. Two days after the tragedy, they still had not been able to retrieve the bodies.
Haiti Police Chief Frantz Elbé announced the forthcoming operation during a press conference. He said an investigation is underway to determine who is responsible for the incident. The Haiti National Police have been widely criticized for not preventing the churchgoers from marching to their deaths.
“The police did everything they could to prevent the crowd from arriving at its destination,” said.
Elbé said he dispatched police officials ahead of the march to meet with the organizers, hoping to show “it’s not a good idea for them to go to Canaan” given the existence of the armed gang.
When the march went ahead, he said, police set up a security pyramid to block marchers from reaching Canaan, but they broke up into several groups.
“They were determined because the pastor told them, ‘They will not get shot,’ ” he said. “There was a belief in this crowd; there was a determination.”
Elbé said that the shooting of the churchgoers happened after a confrontation. Accompanying the marchers, he said, were armed men in olive green uniforms. He did not provide any additional details.
Armed groups today control at least 80% of metropolitan Port-au-Prince, which has seen an increase in violence in recent weeks as neighborhoods fall under the control of gangs, forcing thousands of people to seek refuge in open spaces. Since January, more than 2,400 people have been killed by gangs and more than 950 kidnapped, according to the United Nations.
Elbé said while two decades ago, gangs in Haiti were armed with handguns, today they are outfitted with machine guns, creating far greater havoc throughout the capital and beyond. The Haiti National Police, he said, have had to adapt to the new reality, transforming the way they carry out anti-gang operations.
That transformation, however, isn’t happening quickly enough for some and the challenges have been enormous. Two years ago, an attempt by police to launch an anti-gang operation in a Port-au-Prince slum turned tragic when officers were ambushed and their armored vehicles seized. Video shared on social media show armed gang leaders desecrating the bodies of slain SWAT officers, whose corpses were never recovered.
Despite such history, Elbé said officers are determined to take back neighborhoods from gangs, and that operations are currently underway in communities like Tabarre, where the U.S. Embassy is located, and residents on Monday were awakened at 3 a.m. by gunshots.
One resident described the area around the U.S. Embassy like “a war,” with residents in the nearby Roseau area leaving their homes because of the violence.
There is also an ongoing police operation in Port-au-Prince’s Carrefour-Feuilles, where a gang attack on Aug. 17 created panic and forced more than 5,000 people from their homes.
Elbé said recent operations by specialized police units in Carrefour-Feuilles had led to the seizure of several arms. A number of gang members were also killed, though he did not provide specifics.
“We have mobilized different units inside the police,” he said, declining to provide numbers on how many officers are involved in anti-gang efforts. “The operations will continue.”
The U.N. has said Haiti has only 3,300 police officers on public safety duty on any given day, protecting a nation of 12 million. Not all are involved in anti-gang operations. The U.N. and the United States, which finances the police, have noted that while police have succeeded at times at taking back neighborhoods from gangs, the force struggles to maintain control.
In October, Haiti’s government asked the international community for help by deploying a security mission to Haiti to assist the police. Last week, a 10-member delegation from Kenya, which is considering leading a multinational force, visited Haiti to meet with members of the government, foreign diplomatic corps and the police leadership.
Kenya officials discussed their plan for a static force that would provide security for strategic installations such as the airport, seaport, police academy and main roads. That idea, however, has been heavily criticized by Haitians, who say what they need are foreign personnel willing to help the Haitian police fight gangs.
During the meeting with the Kenyans, the leadership of the Haiti National Police discussed the professional assistance that the force is looking for, Elbé said. Police officials told the Kenyans: “Here is the reality of the security situation in the country; here is the support we hope to have,” Elbé added.
The rest is to be determined, Elbé said, meaning Kenya must decide if it is willing to lead a multinational force into Haiti and the United Nations Security Council must authorize the mission. The United States has said that if Kenya agrees to help Haiti with its security crisis, the U.S. will present a resolution before the Security Council to provide the East African nation the assistance it needs.