Every day, Vélina Élysée Charlier drives past barricaded neighborhoods and frequently sees dead bodies lying on the street, she said, a result of score-settling between gangs and vigilantes in Haiti’s capital.
After dusk, she never leaves home for fear of being killed or kidnapped. When her 8-year-old daughter got appendicitis one evening, Ms. Charlier said, the family waited until morning to get her medical care since driving to a hospital was out of the question.
“Port-au-Prince looks like something out of hell these days,” said Ms. Charlier, 42, a prominent anticorruption activist in the city and mother of four who lives in a hillside area of the capital.
As gangs were seizing control of one part of Haiti’s capital after another, the country’s fragile government issued a plea nearly 12 months ago for foreign troops to step in and assert order in the crisis-racked Caribbean nation. After that desperate appeal, a force led by Kenya finally seems close to materializing in what would be the first time an African country leads such a mission in one of the Americas’ most unstable places.
But as Haiti’s security conditions spiral further out of control, manifested by a rise in killings around Port-au-Prince as heavily armed gangs try to quell a citizen-led vigilante movement, many in the country disparage the plan as too meager and too late. The criticism underscores deep-seated anxieties in Haiti over foreign interventions, as well as mistrust of Kenyan security forces over their record of human rights abuses and graft.
Ms. Charlier voiced doubt that the Kenyan-led force would be large enough to make headway against the gangs, which are thought to control roughly 80 percent of the capital. The plan calls for the deployment 1,000 Kenyan police officers and several hundred officers or soldiers from Caribbean countries.
“Fighting the gangs will require going into shantytowns, hillsides, terrain that you need to know very well,” said Ms. Charlier. She said that money going to an outside force would be better spent on strengthening Haiti’s own depleted police forces.
Before the Kenyan force even secures the approval it needs from the United Nations Security Council for the mission, the scale of Haiti’s crisis is raising doubts about what the Kenyans can accomplish.
The plan for a force of fewer than 1,500 compares to a 1994 intervention force led by the United States of 21,000 and another force, led by Brazil about a decade later, that numbered 13,000 at its peak.
So far, the United States and Brazil, the two largest countries in the Americas, are reluctant to intervene with their own forces. That wariness reflects doubts over large deployments two years after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fatigue that many governments in the hemisphere have about the nearly perpetual crises in Haiti, especially after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 created a power vacuum in the already volatile nation.
Scenes of anarchic violence have many in Port-au-Prince on tenterhooks. In late August, gang members opened fire on protesters organized by an evangelical church leader, killing at least seven; earlier in the month, gang members burned alive seven people from the same family, apparently in retaliation for a relative’s support of a citizens self-defense movement.
Amid the latest outbursts of gang violence, the United States repeatedly urged its citizens over the summer to leave Haiti as soon as possible. From April to June, at least 238 suspected gang members, including some seized from police custody, were killed in lynchings, according to the United Nations. Some were stoned, mutilated or burned alive.
The vigilante movement, largely comprising ordinary Haitians in Port-au-Prince, coalesced earlier this year. Its members often carry machetes instead of guns, and are known for brutally meting out retribution on the streets.
While the outbreak of mob justice caused abductions and killings by the gangs to decline temporarily, the resurgence in recent weeks has led to a new phase of unrest. Nearly 200,000 people are displaced across the country, according to the International Organization for Migration; the highest concentration of these internal refugees is in Port-au-Prince, where thousands are languishing in shelters.
Esther Pierre, 33, was selling food on the streets of her neighborhood, Savane Pistache, before she fled her home in mid-August. Since then, she and her two children have been living in a camp for displaced people in a Port-au-Prince gymnasium.
“I saw armed men arriving in our neighborhood,” Ms. Pierre said. “Those who wanted to fight them were raped, killed, burned.”
Ms. Pierre said her family left with the clothes on its back.
The Biden administration supports the Kenyan plan. Discussions about Kenya’s offer to deploy a multinational police force in Haiti began about two years ago but began solidifying only this year, Kenya’s foreign minister, Alfred N. Mutua, said.
Both the United States and the Bahamas asked the East African nation this year if it would consider leading a force to help restore order. Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, also reiterated a similar request to Kenya’s president when the two met on the sidelines of the climate finance summit in Paris in June.
Kenya was also motivated to step in order to inspire Pan-African unity and show solidarity with the people of Haiti, where enslaved people ousted the French in a revolution, said Mr. Mutua.
While specific operational details were yet to be finalized, he said he expected the Kenyan police to train their Haitian counterparts, patrol with them and protect “key installations.” He said he hoped the Kenyan officers would deploy to Haiti by the end of the year.
“It’s not a matter of whether we are going to Haiti or not — we are going,” Mr. Mutua said in an interview. “We are convinced.”
Kenya’s security forces have long participated in troop deployments abroad, serving in countries like Lebanon, Sierra Leone and South Sudan. Kenya has 445 personnel currently serving with United Nations peacekeeping missions, according to U.N. data. Kenyan troops also serve as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and under a new regional force deployed in the volatile eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But domestically and internationally, Kenyan security forces have come under scrutiny for their actions.
In Somalia, the Kenyan military, a key ally of the United States in the fight against Islamist extremism, has been accused of facilitating and profiting from illicit exports of charcoal and sugar.
Kenyan law enforcement officers have also been condemned by rights groups, which have accused them of excessive force, carrying out extrajudicial killings and conducting arbitrary arrests. This was in stark display during the pandemic, when their police were accused of killing dozens of people while enforcing lockdowns. The Kenyan police also killed at least 30 people during antigovernment protests this year, according to Amnesty International.
Given that record, activists and human rights groups in Kenya and beyond have criticized the decision to deploy the Kenyan police to Haiti. Many have voiced their concerns to the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. and other governments, and have urged them to drop their support for the deployment.
“Kenyan police are going to export brutality to Haiti,” said Otsieno Namwaya, the East Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Mutua, Kenya’s foreign minister, dismissed those concerns as “hot air” and said he was confident that the Kenyan force would help bring stability to Haiti.
“There’s a reason why the United States, Canada, the whole of the Caribbean nations, many nations in this world are asking Kenya to take the lead,” he said. “It is because they have faith in the professional nature of the Kenyan police.”
U.S. officials say they are focused on not repeating mistakes made in previous stabilization missions in Haiti. The Biden administration does not want the multinational force to engage in constant firefights with gangs but rather to ensure humanitarian aid can safely be sent to the nation, said two U.S. officials who were familiar with the matter but were not authorized to speak publicly.
Still, many Haitians echo the concerns of Kenyan rights groups, highlighting recent interventions as evidence of how they harm the country. Trust in the United Nations plummeted in Haiti after investigations showed that poor sanitation by U.N. peacekeepers after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake had caused one of the deadliest cholera outbreaks of modern times, killing at least 10,000 people.
Gédéon Jean, executive director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, an independent Haitian organization, noted that the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which ended in 2017, sometimes spent hundreds of millions of dollars per year on its operations.
Afterward, Mr. Jean said, it “left behind a police force that didn’t even have a helicopter or good armor.”
Given the proposed size of the Kenyan force, there are also concerns that it could be outgunned. “These guys have .50-caliber rifles mounted to pickup trucks,” Daniel Foote, the Biden administration’s former special envoy to Haiti, who resigned in 2021 over the deportations of Haitian migrants, said about the gangs awaiting the Kenyans. “You can’t do it with unqualified people, and you can’t fix it with rookies going in.”
Mr. Foote added that while he was “theoretically” opposed to an intervention because of past mistakes made in such missions, he believed that the United States had a responsibility to help Haiti and to allow Haitians to guide how such an intervention could work.
“The U.S. should lead a peacekeeping mission,” Mr. Foote said. “They don’t need to send 10,000 troops. They need to send Special Forces guys who go down and figure out how to open up the arteries and go after the gangs.”
Simon Romero reported from Mexico City, Andre Paulte from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington.