PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Venite Bernard’s feet are bloodied and torn because, she said, she had no time to grab her sandals when she fled her shack with her youngest children as gangsters roamed the Haitian capital’s most notorious slum, shooting people in their homes.
Now the 47-year-old Bernard and her family are camped in the courtyard of the town hall of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, along with more than 200 others, fleeing an outbreak of violence that is part of what civic leaders say is the country’s worst lawlessness in more than a decade.
“Bandits entered the homes of some people and beat them, and they were shooting,” Bernard said through her tears, lying on a rug in the shade of a tree. “Everyone was running so I left as quickly as I could with the children.”
United Nations peacekeeping troops withdrew from Haiti in 2017 after 15 years, saying they had helped to re-establish law and order in the poorest country in the Americas, where nearly 60 percent of the population survives on less than $2.40 a day.
But that left a security vacuum that has been exacerbated over the past year by police forces being diverted to deal with protests against President Jovenel Moise.
“With limited resources, they have been unable to contain the activity of gangs as they might have wished,” said Serge Therriault, U.N. police commissioner in Haiti in an interview.
An economic downturn with ballooning inflation and a lack of investment in low income districts has also helped boost crime, turning them into no-go areas.
The situation - which diplomats fear represents a growing threat to regional stability that could have knock-on effects on migration and drugs and weapons trafficking - is causing alarm in international circles.
The U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Haiti on Tuesday, its first in 20 years.
Moise’s critics say he has lost control of the country and should resign. The 51-year old says the situation is already calming down and he will carry out his full term.
Residents say gangs fight over territory where they extract “protection” fees and carry out drugs and arms trades.
Politicians across the spectrum are using the gangs to repress or foment dissent, providing them with weapons and impunity, according to human rights advocates and ordinary Haitians.
“When those in power pay them, the bandits stop the population from participating in the anti-government protests,” said Cite Soleil resident William Dorélus. “When they receive money from the opposition, they force people to take to the streets.”
Both opposition leaders and the government deny the accusations.
Moise said in an interview with Reuters last month he was working on strengthening Haiti’s police force and had revived a commission to get gang members to disarm.
“Allegations of unlawful violence will be investigated and responded to by our justice system as a matter of priority,” the presidency wrote in a statement to Reuters on Tuesday.
Critics say, however, that under his watch, authorities have failed to prosecute gang leaders, effectively giving the criminals carte blanche and weakening the authority of police.
“Every time the police stop a gangster, there is always the intervention of some authority or another to free them,” said Pierre Esperance, who runs Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) that monitors rights violations.
Esperance, who addressed Tuesday’s Congress hearing, said more than 40 police officers had been killed this year, compared with 17 last year.
The most high-profile case of apparent impunity is the massacre a year ago in the neighborhood of La Saline, a hotbed of mobilization against Moise’s government, according to rights advocates.
Over two days, gangs killed at least 26 people while police failed to intervene, according to a U.N. report. Eyewitnesses cited in the report say they saw a senior government official with the gang members.
“These allegations raise the possibility of a complicity between the gangs and state authorities,” the U.N. wrote.
The government eventually fired the official, who denied any involvement. Neither he nor anyone else has been arrested or prosecuted over the massacre.
“This dossier (on the La Saline massacre) is in the hands of the justice system,” Moise told Reuters.
Lo Saline residents say they feel abandoned to their fate.
“We never received an official visit after these events,” said Marie Lourdes Corestan, 55, who said she found her 24-year old son’s corpse among a pile of mutilated bodies and whose house was burnt down. “The bandits said they would come back and not distinguish between children, women, and men.”
There have been six massacres since Moise took office, according to the RNDDH, the most recent one last month.
The U.N.’s Therriault said a recent waning of protests was allowing police officers to regain a grip on the overall security situation and Cite Soleil Mayor Jean Hislain Frederic said authorities hoped to convince people to return home next week.
But many, including Bernard, who has been unable to locate her two eldest sons, say they are too afraid.
“I hope my boys are not dead,” she said. “I wish for the end of this violence, and that God helps us to find somewhere to live.”
Reporting by Andre Paultre, Sarah Marsh and Robenson Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien