Vetting of new Haiti police chief under scrutiny

Newly appointed chief of the Haitian National Police, Frantz Elbé, speaks at a ceremony for his installation after the resignation of former interim Police Chief Léon Charles, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 21, 2021.

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Shortly after being named the head of Haiti’s national police late last month amid a surge in gang violence, rampant kidnappings and a life-threatening fuel shortage, Frantz Elbé promised to tackle the Caribbean nation’s crime problems while motivating cops inside his department’s beleaguered force.

But Elbé, who was appointed by interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry to replace embattled interim Police Director General Léon Charles, who resigned over a week ago after less than a year in the job, could find his past overshadowing those efforts.

Several human-rights advocates in Haiti are accusing Elbé, the former Inspector General of the Haiti National Police, of being involved in police repression and human-rights abuses dating back to the early 2000s. He’s also accused of having links with a once powerful gang leader and kidnapper in the Croix-des-Bouquets area, Jean Elie “Ti Elie” Muller, and being godfather to his son. Muller died in 2008 in a Port-au-Prince hospital after being shot in the thigh during his arrest by Haitian police for his alleged involvement in several kidnappings., including that of a 20-year-old student who was brutally murdered.

Elbé, contacted by the Miami Herald soon after his naming about the allegations surrounding his policing career, did not respond to several requests for comment.

“We at the National Human Rights Defense Network have our concerns over the appointment of Frantz Elbé,” said human-rights advocate Rosy Auguste Ducena, describing the contents of a March 29, 2004, legal complaint accusing Elbé of being involved in the disappearance of three anti-government activists. “He was a police commissioner, and occupied various posts. At another moment he was a departmental director. All of this shows that, even though he was implicated in human-rights allegations, he managed to make a career inside the police institution.”

Ducena said given the multitude of problems facing Haiti, the country needs someone in the top cop job who is above reproach, and not one whose nomination implies he’s part of a political deal.

“There cannot be a political nomination at the head of the police because today the problems within the police are many, the issue with insecurity is grave, and it’s not a political nomination that we need,” she said.

As director of the national police, often called PNH, its French acronym, Elbé is tasked with not just tackling the country’s rising tide of violent gangs and kidnappings, but also building up a battered force plagued with bad cops who have ties to gangs, issues of discontent within its ranks over poor pay and working conditions, and low morale. The force is also tasked with providing help in the ongoing investigation into the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, which is now in the hands of an investigative judge.

According to the United Nation’s latest report, as of Sept. 3 the Haiti National Police roster stood at 14,881 officers — or 1.25 officers per 1,000 inhabitants, which is significantly below the international standards for the country of 11.5 million citizens.

William O’Neill, an international human-rights lawyer who worked for the United Nations while it worked with the U.S. to build a new civil police force in the mid-’90s, said putting a police officer in the top job while there are questions about his own human-rights records and relations is “extremely troubling and unhelpful.”

“Somebody like this is just too enmeshed in the past and too identified with bad things, whether he is criminally culpable under laws. It’s the perception that matters too,” O’Neill said. “You just need somebody who is above any kind of criticism or suspicion because PNH is in dire straits and it’s going to need someone who can reassure the population.”

Haitians, O’Neill said, already lack confidence in the police, which is a huge obstacle in trying to tackle kidnappings and other crimes by armed gangs.

“We worked really hard in ‘95 to start with a new name, new uniforms and new everything; rigid recruiting requirements and vetting,” he said of the building of the new force to replace the disbanded Haitian Army. “For a while people had confidence in the police, and then it all unraveled. This doesn’t help in creating a bond of trust with the population and the police.”

Between 2010 and last year, the U.S. has provided $312 million to strengthen law enforcement and the capacity of the Haitian police, the State Department has said. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has allocated an additional $15 million to partnering with the police on top of existing efforts, including $12 million specifically to strengthen its capacity to respond to gangs.

Multiple sources tell the Miami Herald that no advance notice was given to the U.S. about Elbé before his appointment. They also note that Elbé had previously been vetted by Washington and passed.

That process is now being called into question, given the allegations dogging Elbé, which come at a time when Haitians and foreign diplomats are demanding increased vetting of members of the Haitian police force to root out bad cops.

A State Department spokesperson did not address the allegations specifically, only that “the Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs routinely vets recipients of U.S. security assistance, including Mr. Elbé.”

“Strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms remains a cornerstone of our foreign policy throughout the world,” the spokesperson said in reference to whether the administration is aware of the allegations. “We will continue to raise these issues with Haitian counterparts.”

The Port-au-Prince human-rights group Fondasyon Je Klere, or Open Eyes Foundation, recently issued a report accusing Elbé of being a human-rights abuser. The foundation’s president, lawyer Samuel Madistin, remembers the March 2004 complaint and was involved as a lawyer.

Elbé “has a past rapport with gangs, armed groups in various places where he served,” Madistin said. “It’s very disturbing that it’s someone like this who they selected to put at the head of the police.”

Among the allegations, the 2004 report mentions an alleged relationship between Elbé and Muller, the gang leader known as Ti Elie.

“The gang leader Ti Elie with whom Superintendent Frantz Elbé appeared in broad daylight in a baptismal ceremony is a man of unparalleled cruelty,” the foundation said.

Muller’s gang was behind the first recorded cases of kidnappings in the Croix-des-Bouquets region, the same area where 17 missionaries, 16 of them Americans, were taken at gunpoint on Oct. 16 by the 400 Mawozo gang. The missionaries remain in the hands of their captors.

At the time of the first registered kidnappings, Elbé had just arrived as head of the police station.

Among the abductions the Ti Elie gang was linked to was that of a 20-year-old student, Farah Natacha Kerby Dessources. In November 2006, she was raped and tortured despite the payment of a ransom, and according to a March 30, 2009, order issued by investigating judge Etzer Aristide, she also had acid poured into her eyes before she was killed and left on a heap of trash, the foundation said in its report.

At the time of his rise, Ti Elie reportedly had 275 soldiers who were armed with automatic rifles as well as grenade and rocket launchers, the report said.

The human-rights and police repression allegations against Elbé first surfaced in 2004 during the nationwide protests movement against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The police force was highly politicized and officers were accused of using armed groups to terrorize the protesting population.

During the period, Haiti was engulfed in protests by both supporters and opponents of Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas political party. The report notes that Elbé, a police commissioner during Aristide’s tenure, took a stance in favor of armed gangs, as he supported Aristide as part of his duties and rigorously fought anti-Lavalas militants.

At the time, Elbé was in charge of the police station in Grand-Goâve, where a group of young people were organizing anti-government demonstrations. To help police the protests, he requested assistance from agents in Port-au-Prince, Miragoâne and Petit-Goâve.

After police arrived, one person, Stanley Rodney, was dead and another person was injured. Several opposition activists were forced underground. Three of them, Pierre Jabin Bellerice, Jean Bed Bellerice and Luxon Obin, decided to head to Delmas 41 in the capital to escape the repression. They were later arrested around 10 a.m. on Feb. 21, 2004, the foundation wrote.

Elbé, according to the report and Ducena, left his jurisdiction to come after the young opposition activists. He was joined by the head of the Delmas 33 police station at the time and several armed gang members, including a powerful gang leader named Jean Anthony Rene, who went by the nickname Grenn Sonnen.

Elbé’s vehicles, the report said, were identified at the scene. After being taken to the Delmas 33 police station, the three activists were never seen again. After Aristide fell eight days later amid a bloody coup, the family of the men filed a report with the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, the predecessor of the National Human Rights Defense Network.

A delegation of human-rights activists later went to the Delmas 33 police station to investigate and found that the men’s names were never registered in the police station’s day-to-day arrest registry.

“The risk of using the PNH for political ends is high with Frantz Elbé,” the report said.

The report also points to evidence of unexplained wealth, along with a building that Elbé allegedly built in the Croix-des-Bouquets area while a police commissioner, and ownership in a private security company called Sécurité Plus S.A. 47.

“On the company’s website, you can read the advertisement made by Frantz Elbé in these terms: “To secure your companies, your residence, you can trust SECURITE PLUS S.A.,” the report said.

“A Director General of the PNH cannot, without conflict of interest, be a shareholder or owner of a private security company,” the foundation said.

O’Neill, the human-rights lawyer, said not every cop in Haiti is tainted. Some have tried to do right despite the pressure and threats. But if there are well-founded allegations or serious reasons to believe that someone has committed a human-rights violation, he said, he should not be appointed director.

“We are not talking about sending someone to prison. That would correctly require a much higher burden of proof and solid evidence,” he said. “There is not a right to be a police officer, or the head of the police. It’s a privilege. … If there are any suspicions, it should be ‘No. We will find other people.’ ”

This story was originally published November 1, 2021 10:40 AM.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.