Gang-ravaged Haiti to replace national police head with former chief

By Harold Isaac

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -Haiti will replace the head of its national police force, Frantz Elbe, with former chief Rameau Normil, the prime minister's office said on Friday, as the country faces a gang crisis that has displaced over half a million people.

The Haitian National Police, or PNH, has been at the forefront of a battle against powerful armed gangs that have taken over most of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

A spokesperson from the office of Prime Minister Garry Conille, who was named to the post two weeks ago, confirmed the change by telephone following local media reports and shortly after Conille appointed his cabinet.

The effective date was not clear, but the decision will likely go into force after a decree from Conille and the presidential transition council.

The Caribbean nation's fast-shrinking police force has suffered from a lack of resources while fighting the criminal groups, armed with high-caliber weapons the United Nations says are largely trafficked from the nearby United States.

Normil headed the PNH from mid-2019 to late 2020. Elbe was one of his successors, replacing a chief who served during the 2021 assassination of Haiti's last president, Jovenel Moise, and the kidnapping of 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries by the 400 Mawozo gang.

Moise's assassination opened a political vacuum that allowed gangs to expand their territories, while ransom kidnappings have since become rife.

A recent survey by local rights group RNDDH found that 20 police officers have been killed so far this year and more than 320 since 2015.

Police officers also reported late pay, insufficient training, workplace harassment, dismissal threats, knife and gunshot injuries and equipment shortages - including of weapons, ammunition, shields and vehicles.

"The results of Elbe at the helm of the police are catastrophic," RNDDH director Pierre Esperance told Reuters, saying he believed Elbe should be prosecuted.

"He spent his whole time establishing relationships with the gangs, reinforcing the gangs and preventing cops from doing their job and risking their lives."

Elbe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Haiti's ombudsman, the Citizens' Protection Office, meanwhile asked that Normil produce a plan to control the gangs and improve the police force "without delay."

It also called for authorities to offer explanations for the many killings and "spectacular" escape of some 4,500 prisoners under the "complete indifference" of previous authorities.

The gang violence has, according to the U.N.'s latest estimates, pushed 578,000 people from their homes. Thousands have been killed and millions pushed into acute hunger.

The PNH, Haiti's main security agency, has been in talks with counterparts from Kenya, which pledged to lead a long-delayed U.N. security support mission requested by Haiti in 2022.

RNDDH's Esperance said his organization hopes Normil will "work to de-gangsterize the country and dismantle the gangs so the Haitian population can breathe."

(Reporting by Harold Isaac; Additional reporting by Sarah Morland; Editing by Kylie Madry, Cynthia Osterman and Muralikumar Anantharaman)