In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, urban street gangs have the potential to threaten the stability of the entire country.
And when it comes to policing these gangs, most of which are small and geographically isolated, it's a complex challenge.
For decades, machete- and gun-wielding gangs were hired by politicians to crush any resistance to their rule allowing gangs to terrorize the country with complete impunity. It's a practice that's still in use today by politicians to enforce their will.
RCMP Cst. Carl Bouchereau spent a year with United Nations Police (UNPOL) in Haiti as an intelligence gatherer with the Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC). This integrated unit of military officers, police and international civilians gathers intelligence and produces actionable intelligence for the mission leadership.
"Gangs are often hired by politicians or political parties to de-stabilize a region," says Bouchereau. "The population then develops a mindset that they don't have security. The government has been there for a few months and nothing has changed, and the violence is even getting worse."
The gangs are embedded in the neighbourhoods of the capital city and respond to gaps in society and gaps in municipal and social services.
They act like the mafia within their community, says Athena Kolbe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan studying gangs and armed groups in Haiti. She says they provide basic social or material needs, like security, but it comes at a high price.
"When they're providing security, they're doing it by extra-judicial justice," says Kolbe. "They're cutting the hands off somebody who steals in their neighbourhood. They're murdering people who commit crimes in their neighbourhood. Their punishments are a lot harsher than what would happen if justice was actually working."
Armed and dangerous
As the Chief of Internally Displaced Persons' (IDP) Camps for UNPOL in Port-au-Prince, Québec City police officer, Lt. Éric Coulombe, is all too familiar with the violent acts that gangs commit: extortion, murder, rape, stealing, kidnapping and drug trafficking.
After the earthquake in 2010 displaced a million people, a lot of the gangs that were tied to one neighbourhood started sharing territory.
"They're very difficult to police because the population is very afraid of these criminals and they are hesitant to report them for fear of reprisals," says Coulombe.
He says the best way to dismantle and neutralize the gangs is by setting up a network of informants to infiltrate them, which is the approach JMAC has taken.
"We're mainly on the street talking to material sources, talking to some gang members and other people who give us the information on what's going on in the gangs, who killed who for what reason, who kidnapped who, what's going to manifest in a couple of days and what we should expect from the manifestation," says Lt. Jacques Lamontagne, a Montreal police officer who recently completed a mission in Haiti as a team leader for JMAC.
The answer isn't as simple as going in and arresting gang members.
"There are some gangs here that are potentially tied to the Haitian National Police (HNP)," says Lamontagne. "Every gang leader is related to someone who can help him out if the police want to catch him. It's a real challenge for the HNP and a real challenge for UNPOL, which tries to help the HNP get rid of the gangs."
But with the help of UNPOL, Haiti has been working hard to build a professional police force.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done," says Kolbe. "There's still a lot of corruption. There's still a lack of professionalism. There's a lot of room to grow there, but they've made a lot of progress."
The best approach to addressing the complex gang problem is to meet the root causes of why gangs exist in the first place.
Taking an aggressive approach to fight the gangs and throw them in jail doesn't fill that gap in society that they've been filling. Kolbe says another gang will just spring up to meet the needs.
"You can't get rid of gangs by just confronting them aggressively," says Kolbe. "You have to look at who they are, why they exist, what the social conditions are that created the gangs because gangs in Haiti right now are responding to gaps in society and gaps in municipal and social services."