In the Bible, Canaan was the Promised Land. In Haiti, Canaan was a land of promise, a mountain valley north of Port-au-Prince that drew refugees from the apocalyptic 2010 earthquake.
In the months after the quake, I watched those battered Haitians turn a sprawling squatter camp into a community. Streets, stores, schools. I saw people like 33-year-old Rodrigue Jean, who’d lost a child in the capital’s sea of jagged rubble, lead the cinderblock construction of a health clinic for kids like the new baby his wife would soon give birth to in Canaan. I saw them transform that dusty tract of land into yet another testament to Haiti’s preternatural resilience.
“Here is hope,” Jean told me in November of 2010. “Here’s where we beat death.”
So it was all the more heartbreaking to see death beat Canaan last weekend. Gunmen there massacred more than 20 church parishioners — including children — who were marching to protest the violent gangs that control the new suburb and much of the rest of Haiti.
It was doubly agonizing, though, to hear the atrocity had been triggered in large part by the actions of the evangelical church’s leader, Marcorel Zidor, known in Canaan as Pastor Marco. Zidor, ditching his role as responsible vicar for that of a reckless vigilante, had been whipping up hundreds of congregants to take sticks and machetes, and not just assail the local gangsters but attack them.
The gang leader they were targeting, known as “Jeff,” later — and lamely — claimed self-defense, since other gangbangers have been brutally lynched this year by fed-up Haitians in a vigilante campaign called “Bwa Kale,” or swift justice.
And Haiti’s threadbare National Police — who can’t protect themselves from the country’s mafia onslaught let alone civilians — can only shrug this week as if to say: What can we do?
So the question remains — for the umpteenth time amid Haiti’s gang-led spiral into failed-state chaos — what will the United States and the international community do? And, for the umpteenth time, the answer sounds like: not a whole heck of a lot for the time being.
That’s because the latest “solution” to the crisis — an international police assistance mission that Kenya has said it’s willing to lead — isn’t turning out to be the arrival of the cavalry that Haitians had hoped for. In fact, as Jacqueline Charles at our WLRN news partner the Miami Herald reports, the mission statement appears to have all those foreign gendarmes merely protecting Haitian government infrastructure rather than engaging the actual source of the nightmare: the gangs.
The United States and other countries helping brainstorm the mission argue that if the international cops are guarding ports and ministry buildings, that frees up more of the Haitian police to pursue 5 Seconds, 400 Mawozo, Kraze Braye and all the other criminal groups firing assault rifles and that have 80% of Port-au-Prince and swaths of the rest of the country in their sadistic grip.
But here’s the reality: You could throw every last badge of a “freed up” Haitian police force at the gangs — thugs responsible for some 2,500 murders in Haiti this year, not to mention kidnappings, rapes and hijackings of desperately needed food, fuel and medicine — and the gangs would still own Haiti. Its citizens would still be terrorized.
And they still wouldn’t be able to securely hold the long overdue elections needed to fill the governance vacuum the gangs had been filling even before President Jovenel Moīse was assassinated two years ago.
Yes, international intervention in Haiti this time has to be done less harmfully and more at the direction of Haitians themselves than in the past. But until some show of strength genuinely and ably confronts the gangs, those monsters will harden their rule in Haiti as surely as Vladimir Putin would now be lording over Ukraine had the United States and international community not done the right, proactive thing there.
Last weekend’s Canaan slaughter should be another horrific reminder not just of that actuality but another: the likelihood that as long as gangs roam unchecked by law enforcement, messianic fools like Pastor Marco will keep inciting Haitians to lawless vigilantism — and more bloodletting.
Communities like Canaan, after all, are used to fighting for the promised land by themselves.
Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.