PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — They broke down walls, plowed through barricades and manned the fences to prevent an unsuspecting backdoor attack.
Equipped with new tactical training and recently acquired Canadian-made armored vehicles, specialized units of Haiti’s national police force have started to take back control of the country’s main oil terminal and seaports from powerful gangs after two months.
The police operation in Port-au-Prince to restore fuel distribution and access to the ports, where hundreds of containers have been stuck, got underway in earnest Thursday morning, and is expected to continue over the next few days.
There is no guarantee that the gangs, who have been blocking the flow of fuel, water and food since mid-September while demanding the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, will not attempt to retake the terminal. But for now, the police successes are yielding cautious optimism after weeks of despair as the blockade of the port created life-threatening shortages and forced the closures of hospitals and schools.
The police operation was first launched Tuesday. But after police units were outgunned by heavily armed members of the gang coalition known as G-9 Families and Allies, they were forced to retreat.
On Thursday morning, police relaunched their efforts, this time with SWAT teams — many of them recently trained by the French and the U.S. — taking the lead, said two sources who are knowledgeable about the operation. Heavy shooting was reported in the area near the airport, seaports and Terminal Varreux, the fuel port.
By early afternoon, specialized units employing military-style maneuvers, and moving in armored vehicles the government recently purchased from a Canadian firm, were finally able to get access to parts of the Varreux fuel terminal, several people confirmed. Other units remained outside, using bulldozers to remove overturned trailers that had been placed by the gangs and filling in the trenches they had dug to block fuel trucks from crossing.
A government official told the Miami Herald that the police’s success was “thanks to the armored vehicle purchased in Canada.” Another key was a change in the strategy.
Last month, Canada and the United States delivered several armored vehicles and other supplies to help police fight the gangs that are responsible for hampering access to essential goods and services as the country sees a resurgence in cholera due to poor sanitation and the lack of access to drinking water. To date, 2,600 suspected cases of cholera have been reported, half of them children, the United Nations said.
In response to the crisis, Haiti’s government, backed by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, called for the rapid deployment of a multinational force to help police take back control of the ports and the roads from gangs and create “a humanitarian corridor” to get fuel, food and water flowing again.
A U.S.-backed resolution to create such a force is currently before the U.N. Security Council, but this week was put on hold at the request of Canada. Still, Eric Stromayer, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Haiti, touted the resolution in a video message the embassy released on its social media pages.
Speaking in Haitian Creole, Stromayer said the foreign assistance is aimed at helping the Haiti National Police “to improve the security situation and to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.”
The resolution comes on the heels of a unanimous decision by the Security Council to approve a new international sanctions framework against Haitian gangs and those who arm and finance them.
Although the U.N. only sanctioned one notorious gang leader, Jimmy Cherizier, the leader of the G-9 who is better known as “Barbecue,” Stromayer warned that others will also be targeted, “regardless of the country they are a citizen of.”
“That is to say even if they are a U.S. citizen and are complicit in violence and in restricting access to gas,” he warned, ”or are involved in the trafficking of arms, we will interdict them regardless of the country they are in and we will seize their property.”
The State Department, Stromayer said, has already started to impose visa restrictions against criminals and members of their families who are “holding the country hostage.”
“We will continue to add names to the list,” he said. “There are other sanctions we will take. The actions will not end here.”
While the Haiti National Police operation in the fuel terminal is being welcomed in Haiti, the challenge for the police remains retaking control of the entire area where the ports are located and to maintain control without the need to be there around the clock. They also must establish a secure corridor to allow fuel trucks to go in and out of the port and make deliveries to gas stations.
If police do succeed in reopening of Varreux and the other seaports, it won’t mean the crisis is over. The gang blockade is a symptom of the larger problem, observers note, of escalating gang violence.
Volker Türk, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, warned on Thursday that solutions are needed to address the armed violence.
“People are being killed by firearms, they are dying because they do not have access to safe drinking water, food, healthcare, women are being gang raped with impunity,” he said. “The levels of insecurity and the dire humanitarian situation have been devastating for the people of Haiti.”