Biden turns to little-known power, Ukraine playbook to help Haiti police fight gangs

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Faced with roadblocks in getting a Kenya-led police mission deployed to help Haiti’s beleaguered security forces root out vicious armed groups, President Joe Biden is borrowing a page out of his response to another global conflict to come to Haiti’s aid.

Just as he has tapped U.S. weapons stockpiles to get around congressional blocks on security assistance to Ukraine and quickly get arms to troops fighting Russia, Biden is doing the same for Haiti in what some observers and former Haitian police chiefs hope is a signal of the United States’ changing security partnership with the volatile Caribbean country.

“It would be a welcome shift to allow the [police] and army to get what they need to maintain order, while restricting the flow to the gangs,” said Keith Mines, director of Latin American programs at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington. “But all needs to be part of a larger security package, including large-scale training and equipping and advising of the security forces and a strategy for diversion of gang members to less destructive activities, while not allowing them a role in governing.”

For years, the U.S. government had refused to arm Haiti’s security forces, limiting its assistance to providing police vehicles and other non-lethal equipment even as police officers struggled to fend off gangs wielding high-caliber, American-made assault rifles.

A longstanding rule invoked by multiple U.S. administrations left the U.S-backed Haiti National police outgunned and outmatched as ruthless gangs tightened their grip on the country, growing so powerful that they’ve been overtaking police stations and once peaceful neighborhoods, attacking prisons and looting and burning schools and hospitals in the latest siege on the capital of Port-au-Prince.

With the violence showing no signs of abating, the deployment of a Kenya-led international force still uncertain and the use of U.S. troops off the table, Biden is using a little-known executive authority to help Haiti, a country not at war with another nation but where an internal conflict is threatening to destroy what’s left of a crumbling government.

Using Presidential Drawdown Authority, Biden authorized Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide up to $10 million worth of weapons, ammunition, bullet-proof vests and helmets from “any agency of the United States Government” and military education and training from the Defense Department to assist Haiti. Most of the equipment will go to the Haiti National Police, whose specialized forces have been engaged in almost daily gun battles with a newly formed alliance of armed groups seeking to overtake the National Palace, the international airport and seaport and critical government infrastructure.

A State Department official acknowledged that some help may also go to the Armed Forces of Haiti, known as the Fad’H, for the first time since it was disbanded.

“Some non-lethal assistance could be offered to the FAd’H through this planned drawdown, if directed following Congressional notification,” one official said about the army, which has been helping the police repel attacks against the airport. “Our general policy toward the Fad’H has not changed, but we do recognize their support of the [police] in combating gang violence.”

Another State Department official said the planned assistance “would support U.S. anti-crime and counter-narcotics objectives and foreign policy goals in Haiti and demonstrate our commitment to providing urgently needed assistance for Haitian security forces.”

The U.S., which once pushed for disbanding the army — which has had a history of participating in violent coups — does not recognize the Armed Forces of Haiti and remains statutorily prohibited from providing arms to its soldiers. However, while the State Department faces restrictions on its funding, the Defense Department doesn’t face the same constraints.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, during a Thursday hearing on countering transnational criminal networks and corruption in the region, said he hopes more can be done to help the Haitian army despite the prohibition on sending them weapons and equipment.

“I understand the history armies have played out in the history of Haiti. But they have been a quite capable force over the last few weeks,” he said. “Without them, I don’t know if the police could have withstood some of the challenges that they have faced. I hope we’ll reconsider that [weapons prohibition], because there are countries that I believe are willing to step forward and provide them some of the equipment they need, but are scared off by the U.S. prohibition.”

‘I want to be supportive’

Concerns about a lack of clear strategy with the Kenya-led mission have led to top Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs committees blocking $40 million in security assistance the Biden administration is seeking. The money is part of a $100 million pledge the State Department has made to help get the Kenya-led Multinational Security Support mission off the ground. Separately, the Defense Department has pledged $200 million.

The ongoing GOP holds and the deteriorating situation in Haiti were raised Wednesday during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power. Power, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration years and pushed for the withdrawal of the last U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti, admitted that the scale of violence unfolding over the last month in Port-au-Prince has been unprecedented.

The administration, she said, needs for the Kenya-led force to be able to deploy.

“That will then make it easier to resume training of the Haitian national police, who have really been courageous in trying to stand up to the gangs in these recent weeks of deterioration,” Power told committee members. “I really sincerely hope that the holds will be lifted on the support that we’re trying to provide the Kenyans in so that they can get the pre-deployment, training and equipment that they need in order to be able to do the job when they do deploy.”

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who chaired the hearing, said he’s “very empathetic to the people of Haiti” and has requested a briefing from the National Security Council.

“I want to be supportive but until I’ve been briefed on what the plan is and, where the money and guns are going to, I cannot in good conscience send money and guns down to a lawless society without a government,” he said, referring to the forced resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry by Washington. “We have a long history in this country of arming countries with weapons and cash and it blows back on us. I want to make sure that what we’re doing here makes sense, not only for the American taxpayer but for the Haitian people. Because if we arm the warlords and fund them, they will be the victims, the people of Haiti.”

Senior Biden administration officials say they have provided more than five dozen briefings about the mission to Republicans, and every day there is a delay in getting funding, is a day Haitian gangs move the country closer to a humanitarian catastrophe.

“It is critical to get a multinational security force led by the Kenyans on the ground in Haiti as soon as possible to help bring about stability and calm so that we can alleviate the suffering of innocent people in Haiti,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said this week when asked about the funding.

“We would like support on a bipartisan basis from the Congress to unlock that funding, which is currently being held. And we’re pressing for that on a daily basis.”

The partisan budget fight in Washington isn’t just isolated to Haiti. Congress has been odds over funding for Ukraine, leading Biden to rely on his authority to take weapons from U.S. stocks in an emergency to get assistance to the Eastern European nation.

Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the so-called drawdown authority has been around since it was established under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

“It was limited to $100 million a year for this kind of situation — a country that needs some equipment but doesn’t have the money to pay for the equipment and maybe we have some excess and we just give it to the country,” he said.

With the war in Ukraine, Congress increased the amount the president could authorize to up to $26 billion, Cancian said.

“The White House is likely using some of the remaining elements of the authority for Haiti,” he added.

The administration has not provided specifics on what type of firearms will be sent to Haiti, where armed gangs have used trafficking routes out of Florida, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic to illegally acquire weapons and ammunition.

Since Feb. 29, an alliance of armed gang leaders have turned Port-au-Prince into a battlefield, looting and vandalizing businesses and government institutions while orchestrating a jailbreak of the country’s two largest prisons.

Tens of thousand of people have been forced to abandon the capital. The United Nations has warned that over 1 million hungry Haitians, many of them children, are on the brink of famine as the seaport and airport remain closed, food prices skyrocket and aid distributions are disrupted by heavy gunfire.

Late Wednesday, members of the current government finally agreed to the publication of an order establishing a new transitional framework for governing. The new transitional presidential council, once formalized, will be tasked with helping Haiti forge a path out of the chaos and onto elections by appointing a new prime minister and government.

While the new council will bring new faces to the leadership posts, it remains unclear if if will tamp down the violence.

In a video circulated on social media Wednesday, gang boss and former cop Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier issued threats against the new council’s seven voting members and two non-voting observers.

Speaking from a vehicle, a Chérizier accused the embassies of the United States, Canada and France of “keeping the country in misery” and hiding behind the 15-member Caribbean Community regional bloc, CARICOM, to come up with a transitional presidential council made up of “nine thieves” and “a gang” of political parties. He accused council members of “fighting for power so you can regenerate the [same] system.”

“Everyone who is going to die in the country, their death will be on your conscience,” Chérizier said. “Everything that will happen in the country will be on you.”

No shortage of ammunition for armed gangs

Mines noted that recent video footage shows gang members with very expensive weapons and the apparent training to use them. There is no indication of a shortage of ammunition, he said.

“It has been amazing to me that U.S. policy was inadvertently arming the gangs better than the police and army,” he said. “The security forces could not get the weapons they needed because of U.S. export limitations to law enforcement agencies, while the gangs, facing no such impediment, were able to acquire heavier and more sophisticated weapons.”

Those export limits not only required the Haitian police to get U.S. permission to purchase arms, it also dictated the kinds of guns and ammunition, which Haiti could only purchase from countries other than the U.S.

Those regulations, say two former Haitian police chiefs, delayed how fast they could get guns into the hands of cops and limited the force’s ability to root out gangs. Take for example the 28th promotion of 800 new police recruits, from just a few years ago.

Michel-Ange Gédéon, who served as police chief between 2017-2020, recalled how the cops couldn’t graduate on time from the police academy because of the shortage of weapons and ammunition.

Gédéon led the national police as the last of the U.N. peacekeepers were preparing to end the mission after 15 years. He asked for armored vehicles, two helicopters, ammunition and automatic rifles for the specialized police units, as part of a Haiti National Police five-year strategic plan. None of it was given, neither by the Haitian government at the time nor the international community.

Acknowledging that the same gangs he battled just a few years ago have more guns and more ammunition today, Gédéon still believes “it’s something we could have resolved in the beginning, if we had enough force, enough power to resolve the issue. But unfortunately, we did not have the equipment, or the guns that I requested.”

As for the weapons on their way to the police force, he said, “it’s a good thing” and hopes it’s the beginning of a new policy.

McClatchy Chief Washington Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.