On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a third shipment of Canadian armoured vehicles to Haiti. The vehicles are meant to help the Haitian National Police fight a shooting war with heavily-armed gangs that control close to two-thirds of the capital Port-au-Prince.
But the three vehicles shipped this week, plus those already sent to Haiti in two previous shipments, amount to only half of the total number of vehicles Haiti purchased.
The deadline for the contract had been extended already to the end of December 2022 — by which point only three of 18 vehicles had been delivered.
This latest shipment won’t come a moment too soon for a police force that is seeing its officers killed off at a rate of about one every two or three days.
With the delivery of three new INKAS mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, the Toronto-based supplier will have fulfilled half of its contract to deliver 18 vehicles.
Three were delivered back in October of last year and three more landed on January 11. Both shipments were carried by a Royal Canadian Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo plane.
Frustration over delays
Frustration over the slow pace of deliveries has ramped up tensions within the force, leading to armed protests and strikes by police officers — even as gangs gradually expand their areas of control.
The year to date has seen the plight of Haiti’s police take a turn for the worse, Canada’s Ambassador to Haiti Sébastien Carrière told CBC News.
“It’s been a rough couple of months,” he said. “They’ve had some losses, more than usual I would say in the last month. Brutal killings.”
Eugene Gerstein of INKAS, which produces the vehicles at its facility in Weston, Ont., said he’s very aware of the conditions Haitian police face.
“I’ve personally visited Haiti with our teams multiple times. I’ve spoken to multiple officers,” he said. “I understand their plight. I understand the predicament.
“I visited Haiti for the first time in 2010, right after the earthquake, and in the 13 years since I’ve seen the country spiral into darkness. We really want to help.
“In terms of protection, it’s a terrifying feeling when you sit in an armoured vehicle and you hear .50-calibre projectiles hitting against the hull … knowing that this is what stands between you and death. We’re proud to be a part of this mission. We’re proud to help save lives.”
A police force in crisis
As almost the only part of the Haitian state that is still functioning, Haiti’s police have borne the brunt of the battle to prevent the country from slipping into total anarchy.
Killings have occurred during police combat with heavily-armed gangs, but also in ambushes, targeted assassinations, and attacks on police stations.
When police are driven from a police station — as recently happened in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Pernier — the gangs will often burn 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 passing through it is at risk of being kidnapped or robbed — or worse.
In late January, a shadowy group known as Fantome 509, made up largely of active and former police officers, staged angry protests around the city. Shots were fired at the residence of de-facto prime minister Ariel Henry, although he was out of the country at a summit in Buenos Aires at the time. Another group laid siege to the airport as he returned, forcing him to remain in the terminal for several hours.
And in the city 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 — which mutilated their bodies and posted the videos to the internet. The bodies were not recovered.
CBC News contacted Haitian National Police but was unable to get the force to discuss those issues.
The INKAS vehicles can provide police with the protection they need to enter gang territory. They were used last October to clear a gang blockade of Haiti’s main fuel terminal that had brought commerce and transport almost to a standstill.
INKAS told CBC News the company is working flat-out to provide the remaining vehicles as soon as it can. The company said the delays are due to a combination of supply-chain issues and changes demanded by the Haitian buyers post-contract.
When it became clear the gangs had access to heavy weaponry, said Gerstein, the police “felt that they needed additional protection.”
“One of the interesting things I’ve heard from them is, look, they shoot at us from above,” he said.
“They required, for their confidence, protection in various additional areas. They wanted protective canopies of their own design that they’ve changed two or three times. I believe they currently have the final result. Looks like they’re happy with it, so we’re happy for them.”
A ‘trench fight’ for parts
The supply-chain issues that have snarled manufacturing networks worldwide have also set back the manufacturing process for Haiti’s armoured cars, said Gerstein.
“The war in Ukraine has affected 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 been caught up in the same supply chain tangles that are causing new civilian passenger cars to pile up in lots across North America.
“More often than not, a vehicle is ready, but it lacks a part that might be worth $100, like a sensor. Without that sensor, the vehicle cannot operate,” he said.
“In our case, for example, transmission speed sensors were one of the issues that we’ve encountered.
“We’re doing everything in our power to speed up the manufacturing process. We are acquiring the needed parts from everywhere, from all over the world … working around the clock in shifts. Our procurement department is chasing parts around the world.
“It’s a trench fight trying to get parts that someone else is trying to get.”
A pound full of broken-down vehicles
In the meantime, INKAS said it has provided Haitian police with “a number of armoured personnel carriers for relief” that were not included in the additional contract.
There is also a question of training. CBC News has seen video shot in a Haitian police vehicle compound that shows a number of armoured vehicles, made by more than one manufacturer, that are clearly broken down. Many no longer have wheels. All show scars of small arms fire, sometimes on all sides of the vehicle.
But some also have voiced concerns about operator error and poor maintenance practices.
“Haiti needs, unfortunately, training, a lot of training,” said INKAS chair Margarita Simkin.
According to both INKAS and Canadian officials, one of INKAS’s brand new vehicles was rendered useless just days after arriving when Haitian police locked the differential and then tried to push the vehicle with a bulldozer, stripping the planetary gears.
“Aside from additional vehicles to Haiti, we have sent multiple groups of our own employees to train Haiti police with driver training, with mechanics,” said Simkin. “We currently have two of our mechanics on the ground as is.”
‘They care for their country’
The vehicles are not a gift from Canada, but the Canadian air force has stepped up to fly them into the country and is expected to continue to do so.
Last week, Trudeau said Canada would be sending two coastal defence vessels to patrol the Port-au-Prince bay and harbour, an area that has seen a considerable amount of gang activity. The ships are also expected to play an intelligence and eavesdropping role.
Canada also sent a CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft to overfly the city for a few days earlier this month in support of police operations. The plane is expected to return at some point.
But the main battle is in Haiti’s streets and shantytowns, where Haitian police can no longer venture without armoured vehicles.
Gerstein said INKAS hopes to fulfil its contract shortly; four more vehicles are set to leave in March and the final eight are to be dispatched within about 60 days.
“I’ve spent time talking to police officers in the Haitian national police, you know, from rank and file to senior officers, and there is one narrative that is there at all times. They care for their country,” he said. “They care for the future of their children. They’re risking their lives on a daily basis … The criminals can find out what they look like. The criminals can find out where they live.
“They’re hard workers and we’re trying our best.”
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