As gangs attack a critical port, ‘Haiti will go hungry soon’

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – First the gangs blocked the roads into Haiti’s capital. They then attacked the airport. Now they have breached the city’s main port, cutting off the capital from one of its last remaining lifelines for food and supplies as the country teeters on the brink of collapse.

On Wednesday evening, dozens of gang members stormed the main port terminal in Port-au-Prince, looting containers, damaging the port’s security apparatus and forcing the terminal to suspend operations indefinitely, said Philippe Coles, the president of Caribbean Port Services. , which operates the terminal.

“It’s total paralysis right now,” Coles said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The gangs are in control. They have the upper hand.”

The port’s closure could have disastrous consequences for a capital now 80 percent controlled by gangs who have terrorized residents in the past week with a wave of killings, kidnappings and attacks on police stations. Thousands of prisoners escaped from the two largest prisons this weekend. The stench of dead bodies on the streets has driven some families to leave their homes, human rights activists say. Gang members have surrounded the international airport, forcing the suspension of flight operations, and set fire to police stations. Roadblocks by gangs across the country have made it almost impossible to reach the capital by land. The country’s border with the Dominican Republic is closed. Even the country’s controversial prime minister has been unable to return to his country; earlier this week he flew to Puerto Rico instead.

“Everything has stopped. Medical supplies and food cannot come to Port-au-Prince. At the moment, nothing can enter the country by sea, air or road,” said a shipping industry executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. “It’s a disaster. Hunger will be the next step.”

On any given day, about 5,000 containers are stored or transported through the city’s main port, APN, representing about 80 to 90 percent of container traffic into the capital, Coles said. While other ports outside Port-au-Prince remain functional, deliveries to the capital are made virtually impossible by the gang roadblocks. In a country that imports most of what it consumes, the port’s containers carry crucial food products – rice, pasta, milk, fresh vegetables – as well as medical supplies.

APN also serves as a coastal terminal for fuel and other supplies to the North and South, with road access disrupted by multiple gang checkpoints, said Ann Hauge, the manager of an international port that aims to serve Haiti’s southern coast.

“If you were a gang leader, you would definitely go after APN,” Hauge said. “It is the jugular vein of Haiti’s economy.”

Human rights activists warn that the country’s isolation could worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis in the poorest country in the hemisphere.

“These ships are the dry docks with the most food containers,” Mercy Corps said in a statement. If we don’t have access to those containers, Haiti will soon go hungry.”

Jean-Marc Biquet, head of Doctors Without Borders in Haiti, said the country is at high risk of shortages of medicine and blood in the coming weeks.

“If there is no air, port or road opening, all hospital institutions, including Doctors Without Borders, will soon be unable to provide care,” Biquet said.

The armed attack on the port came days after the gangs sabotaged the terminal’s power station, cutting off electricity and potentially spoiling crucial fresh food products, Coles said. Then on Tuesday, gang members shot and killed a port guard as they again tried to reach the power plant.

As the port has suffered one attack after another, workers have occasionally taken the desperate measure of stacking containers on top of each other to create a barricade against the gangs. But on Wednesday evening that was impossible.

“The security team was essentially under siege,” Coles said. “If a group of 50 or 100 thugs come in with these war guns, these machine guns, they will break whatever security force you have.”

Coles said he had not yet assessed the damage or determined how many containers had been damaged. He first received reports of gang members roaming the terminal stealing merchandise around 3 a.m., and the port was not “gang free” until Thursday afternoon.

Soldiers arrived at the port, but Coles said the army was “not well enough equipped to combat this type of gang operation.” Police also struggled to fight back against the gangs in the early morning.

“All this gang activity has left the police spread thin,” Coles said. “They actually had to make a choice: airport or port. I think they chose the airport.”

The gang members managed to enter the port terminal at five or six different locations – including the main entrance – and by Thursday afternoon the terminal was still not fully secured. The gangs could probably return. Coles said it could be possible to resume operations at the port within 24 to 48 hours, but only if police manage to secure the port. Even then, it is unclear when the port will be able to restore power.

“I’m sure the losses will be quite significant,” Coles said.

Coles said he had spoken to the US embassy about suspending operations at the port. “Unfortunately, they didn’t tell me anything.”

Few police officers were seen on the streets of Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. The gangs have set fire to a dozen police facilities in the past week, Lionel Lazarre said, head of the National Union of Haitian Police Officers.

“The police are on their knees,” Lazarre said. “It can’t even protect its own infrastructure”

While some supermarkets in Port-au-Prince remain open, many products have already run out as the gangs disrupt supply routes within the city. Many residents are too afraid to enter the gang-controlled streets to find necessary food and water. Supermarkets and small businesses have also been looted.

“Haiti can’t take it anymore,” said Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network. “Something urgent has to happen before the ports can reopen and the planes can fly again… Many people will die if we remain in this situation for the next three days.”

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