As Haitian gangs increase control, the police family is left reeling

As Haitian gangs increase control, the police family is left reeling

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Every day when Daniel Marie Carmel’s husband put on his wreath and walked out the door for another day fighting Haitian gangs, she looked to see if he would come home that night.

Friday was the day her husband of 18 years, Ricken Staniclasse, did not smile.

One of the country’s nearly 200 gangs ambushed his police unit that morning, sending gunshots echoing through the streets in an unexpected area – a stretch of the country’s capital, Port-Au-Prince, where the mansion was located.

Lionel Lazarre’s platoon led a police patrol in the sweltering Caribbean heat as officers desperately tried to back up. But help never came, the country’s police union said.

The fight killed three officers, hospitalized a fourth with bullet wounds and left the 44-year-old Staniclasse missing.

Meanwhile, Carmel was afraid for herself and their three children.

“My husband was fighting a lot with the gangs, and we don’t know what would happen to us,” said Carmel, 43, curled up on her red couch surrounded by neighbors. “I can’t sleep in the house anymore because I don’t know what would happen to us.”

The firefight was just the latest example of how Haitian gangs have grown in power and increased in influence, leaving much of the population in a state of terror.

Although the United Nations estimates that 60% of Port-Au-Prince is controlled by gangs, most Haitians on the street estimate that number to be closer to 100%.

Haiti has struggled with endemic gang violence for years, but lawlessness in the country came after the 2021 assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse.

Powerful gangs took advantage of political chaos and discontent with the current government led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry to further consolidate their control.

The government failed to quell the violence, forcing many to flee their homes. Rape, kidnapping and police ambushes are now the norm in the news.

Jolicoeur Allande Serge, director of the police unit that was attacked, said Friday’s blitz in the Petion-Ville neighborhood was a sign of that. He noted that “(the gangs’) are taking advantage of moving into high class areas.”

Kidnappings and kidnappings as high as $1 million have been an integral part of the financing of such armed groups.

Meanwhile, police units struggle to keep up.

Although Canada and the United States have sent armored vehicles and other supplies to Haiti, law enforcement officials say it is only a fraction of what they actually need.

Tensions were still high on Saturday, and in the afternoon Serge stood among a pack of armored trucks riddled with bullet strikes. Officers with automatic weapons, their faces covered in black masks, bustled about.

A group of 50 officers were returning to the area where they fought on Friday night to try to break a gang blockade and search for the missing officer, Staniclasse.

“I lost three men … we are not afraid. We are frustrated because we don’t have enough equipment to fight,” said Serge as he watched a convoy of police trucks roll out of the station. “We need ammo, helmets, armored vehicles.”

Analysts expect the bloodshed to worsen, especially after Haiti’s last ten elected officials ended their Senate terms in early January, leaving parliament and the presidency unfilled because the government failed to hold elections.

Critics say Haiti has become a “de-facto dictatorship”.

Meanwhile, people like Daniel Marie Carmel feel a drain of hope for their country. Carmel said her husband always hoped he could clean up his city. Together, they built a home and a life together. Her 11-year-old son dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps.

“He liked people, he loved helping people,” she said of her husband.

But two years ago, the violence in their neighborhood began to worsen that they applied for a visa to immigrate to the United States, hoping to join the descendants of people who left Haiti. They never got an answer.

“I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, but I’m worried,” she said. “If we could leave the country, my husband would be alive.”

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