Under-armed and under fire, Haitian police await late shipments of Canadian armaments
On Sunday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a third shipment of Canadian armored vehicles to Haiti. The vehicles are intended to help the Haitian National Police wage a shooting war with heavily armed gangs that control nearly two-thirds of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
But the three vehicles shipped this week, plus those already shipped to Haiti in two previous shipments, account for only half of the total number of vehicles purchased by Haiti.
The contract period had already been extended until the end of December 2022 – at that time only three of the 18 vehicles had been delivered.
This latest shipment comes not a moment too soon for a police force that sees its officers being killed at a rate of about one every two or three days.
With the delivery of three new mine and ambush protected INKAS vehicles, the Toronto-based supplier has fulfilled half of its contract for the delivery of 18 vehicles.
Three were delivered in October last year and three more landed on January 11th. Both shipments were carried by a Royal Canadian Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft.
frustrated with delays
Frustration at the slow pace of deliveries has heightened tensions within the force, prompting armed protests and strikes by police officers – even as gangs are gradually expanding their areas of control.
The situation for Haitian police has deteriorated so far this year, Canada’s Ambassador to Haiti, Sébastien Carrière, told CBC News.
“It’s been a tough few months,” he said. “They’ve had some casualties, more than I’d say in the past month. Brutal killings.”
Eugene Gerstein of INKAS, which manufactures the vehicles at its Weston, Ontario plant, said he was acutely aware of the conditions imposed by Haitian police.
“I have personally visited Haiti several times with our teams. I spoke to several officers,” he said. “I understand your plight. I understand the predicament.
“I first visited Haiti in 2010, right after the earthquake, and in the 13 years since I’ve seen the country turn into darkness. We really want to help.
“In terms of protection, it’s a terrifying feeling when you’re in an armored vehicle and you hear .50 caliber projectiles slamming into the hull… knowing that it stands between you and death.” We are proud to be a part of this mission. We are proud to help save lives.”
A police force in crisis
As almost the only part of the Haitian state that is still functioning, the Haitian police have borne the brunt of the struggle to keep the country from descending into total anarchy.
Killings occurred in police battles with heavily armed gangs, but also in ambushes, targeted assassinations and attacks on police stations.
When police are evicted from a police station – as recently in the Pernier neighborhood of Port-au-Prince – the gangs often burn down the building to prevent them from returning.
Port-au-Prince is now essentially surrounded by gang territory. The ring around the city is not complete, but anyone who crosses it risks being kidnapped or robbed – or worse.
In late January, a shadowy group known as Fantome 509, made up mostly of current and former police officers, staged angry protests across the city. Shots were fired at the residence of de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry, even though he was out of the country attending a summit in Buenos Aires at the time. Another group besieged the airport as he returned, forcing him to remain in the terminal for several hours.
And in the town of Gonaives, protesting police have stopped showing up for work since six of their comrades were killed in a nearby town by the Gran Grif gang – who mutilated their bodies and posted the videos online. The bodies were not recovered.
CBC News contacted the Haitian National Police but could not muster the resources to discuss these issues.
The INKAS vehicles can provide the police with the protection they need to enter gang territory. They were deployed last October to clear a gang blockade of Haiti’s main fuel terminal that had nearly halted trade and transportation.
INKAS told CBC News the company is working flat out to get the remaining vehicles available as soon as possible. The company said the delays were due to a combination of supply chain issues and changes requested by Haitian buyers after the deal was signed.
When it became clear that the gangs had access to heavy weaponry, Gerstein said, “police felt they needed extra protection.”
“One of the interesting things I’ve heard from them is they’re shooting at us from above,” he said.
“For their confidence, they needed protection in several additional areas. They wanted canopies of their own design, which they changed two or three times. I believe they currently have the bottom line. Looks like they’re happy with that, so we’re happy for them.”
A “trench war” for parts
The supply chain issues that have disrupted manufacturing networks worldwide have also set back the manufacturing process for Haiti’s armored cars, Gerstein said.
“The war in Ukraine hit manufacturers like Volkswagen Audi. It turned out that wiring harnesses for many vehicles that Volkswagen Audi produces are made in Ukraine,” he said.
Gerstein said his company’s vehicles have become embroiled in the same supply chain tangles that are causing new civilian passenger vehicles to pile up in many places across North America.
“Most of the time, a vehicle is finished but is missing a part that could be worth $100, like a sensor. Without this sensor, the vehicle cannot function,” he said.
“In our case, for example, transmission speed sensors were one of the problems we encountered.
“We are doing everything in our power to speed up the manufacturing process. We procure the required parts from anywhere, from all over the world… and work around the clock in shifts. Our procurement department hunts parts all over the world.
“It’s a trench warfare of trying to get parts that someone else is trying to get.”
A pound full of broken vehicles
Meanwhile, INKAS said it had provided “a number of armored personnel carriers for support” to the Haitian police, which were not included in the additional contract.
It’s also a question of training. CBC News has seen video, filmed at a Haitian police vehicle compound, showing a number of armored vehicles made by more than one manufacturer that are clearly broken. Many no longer have wheels. All show handgun scars, sometimes on all sides of the vehicle.
However, some have also raised concerns about operator error and poor maintenance practices.
“Unfortunately, Haiti needs training, a lot of training,” said INKAS Chairwoman Margarita Simkin.
According to both INKAS and Canadian officials, one of INKAS’s brand new vehicles became unusable just days after its arrival when Haitian police locked up the differential and then attempted to bulldoze the vehicle and remove the planetary gears.
“Apart from additional vehicles to Haiti, we have sent several groups of our own personnel to train the Haitian police force with driver training and mechanics,” Simkin said. “We currently have two of our mechanics on site.”
“They care about their country”
The vehicles are not a gift from Canada, but the Canadian Air Force has made efforts to fly them into the country and is expected to continue to do so.
Last week, Trudeau said Canada would send two coastal defense ships to patrol the bay and harbor of Port-au-Prince, an area where there has been a significant amount of gang activity. The ships are also expected to play an intelligence and interception role.
Canada also earlier this month sent a CP-140 Aurora patrol plane to fly over the city for a few days to support police operations. At some point the plane should return.
But the main battle is taking place in Haiti’s streets and slums, where Haitian police can no longer venture without armored vehicles.
Gerstein said INKAS hopes to be able to fulfill his contract shortly; four more vehicles are scheduled to depart in March and the last eight will be delivered within about 60 days.
“I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to Haitian National Police officers, you know, from grassroots level to senior officials, and there’s a narrative that’s always there. They care about their country,” he said. “They care about the future of their children. They risk their lives every day… The criminals can find out what they look like. The criminals can find out where they live.
“They are hard workers and we are trying our best.”