Haitian authorities arrested some 59 people, including two US citizens, after a march calling for the reinstatement of the military turned violent, raising doubts over whether an army backed by these groups would be the best choice to combat organized crime in the country.
Hundreds of former and aspiring soldiers took to the streets of Port-au-Prince on May 18 to demand that President Michel Martelly follow through on his pledge to re-establish the army. The demonstrations began peacefully but later deteriorated, with marchers throwing rocks at the UN peacekeeping force and exchanging gunfire with police outside an old military base, reported the Associated Press.
Many of the 59 arrested were charged with possession of illegal firearms and forming a rogue army, officials told Reuters. The two US citizens, Jason Willian Petrie and Steven Parker Shaw, are accused of training the soldiers and providing logistical support for the march. They were reportedly seen walking alongside the marchers, one of wearing a T-shirt with the acronym FADH, the French acronym for the Armed Forces of Haiti, according to the Miami Herald. Both men claimed they were simply helping friends.
Haiti’s army was disbanded in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Artistide, after it took part in a coup against him in 1991. On the campaign trail, Martelly promised to reinstate the force, but has since stalled amid international criticism of the idea.
Since Martelly came to power, illicit groups have emerged in Haiti, using old military bases to train and carry out exercises, and agitating for the revival of the army. The government closed two of these 10 bases in the wake of the march, but there could be 3,000 so-called rogue soldiers operating in the country, according to a May 1 report by the Guardian.
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It is not clear where these groups get their funding, and there have been suggestions that the president might find it convenient to create an army that would be loyal to him. The arrest of the two US nationals clouds the issue further, raising the questions of whether there is foreign involvement in the campaign.
The latest clashes add to doubts over whether Haiti should reconstitute its army. Martelly has said that the force would combat drug trafficking, arguing that the country’s police are underfunded and have corrupt elements. Organized crime is a serious issue for Haiti; according to the US State Department, it is a crucial transhipment point for cocaine traveling from South America to the US, Europe and the Caribbean.
However, many onlookers including InSight Crime have argued that reforming the police should be the priority. Using the army to the fight against organized crime has its own problems, such as increased human rights abuse, as seen in countries like Mexico.
The groups agitating for the revival of the army seem to be prepared to operate on the margins of the law, besieging and disrupting a Congress session in April and threatening violence if their camps are broken up, which suggests that they would not be the best choice to combat organized crime.
Many Haitians seem to back the idea of police reform over a new army; a recent study by Brazilian think tank Instituto Igarape and Canadian thinktank the International Development Research Center found that 60 percent of Haitians believed the police should be the primary enforcers of security.