PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Two officers with Haiti’s rapid-reaction force pulled up to a bridge in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to set up a checkpoint and do an afternoon’s worth of work searching for guns, drugs, wanted criminals and kidnapping victims.
On each side of the bridge were neighborhoods under siege by gangs. In one of them, Haitian officials believe a powerful gang, 400 Mawozo, is holding a group of American and Canadian missionaries hostage for ransom. But the officers couldn’t venture into the nearby streets: the criminal organizations surrounding them have better guns, better motorcycles, and more fuel.
So the officers kept to the bridge, frustrated at the power imbalance that leaves them helpless and much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the nation under the control of criminal organizations like 400 Mawozo.
“We took this job knowing the risks,” said Edvie Boursiquot, 41, an officer with the rapid-reaction force who joined the police 14 years ago. “But we need to go to work knowing that we have a government that supports us, that it is looking out for us. That we are given what we need to fight the gangs, better arms, better motorcycles.”
Gangs have long been powerful in Haiti, often serving as muscle for politicians who, in turn, provided them with weapons and vehicles. But under Haiti’s last elected president, Jovenel Moïse, and since his assassination in July, the power of gangs has only grown, while that of the police, dependent on an increasingly depleted state, has diminished, leaving officers even more underfunded, underequipped and severely underpaid.
The power gap was evident on a recent morning, as the Haitian police’s rapid-reaction force, known as the Motorized Intervention Unit, set up a checkpoint on a bridge. On either side were gang-controlled neighborhoods that had been nearly emptied as impoverished residents preferred to abandon homes and possessions rather than live under the sway of a gang that kills and robs at will.
The police know that in one of the neighborhoods, Croix-des-Bouquets, the dominant 400 Mawozo gang is holding 16 Americans and a Canadian hostage, threatening their lives if the religious aid organization they belong to does not pay a ransom of $1 million per head.
But entering the neighborhood is out of the question. So the officers instead worked on the bridge, checking passing cars for guns, drugs and wanted criminals, frustrated by their inability to do more.
“The conditions have changed,” said Ms. Boursiquot, who rode to the checkpoint on the back of a colleague’s motorcycle because there was not another one for her. “They get worse every year.”
Ms. Boursiquot’s colleague, Ulrick Jacques, 40, interjected, pulling down the balaclava he wears to protect his identity from gang members so reporters could see the anger on his face.
“I am ready to fight, but I need the peace of mind that this government is backing me,” Mr. Jacques said. “That every day I go to work, no one will starve at home, that I can feed my children.”
Instead, Mr. Jacques and Ms. Boursiquot said, they have not received a raise in years while gangs swell their ranks and arm themselves with more sophisticated weapons than they have.
Both officers had joined the police 14 years ago and had been promoted over a year ago, moving up a rank, they said, but they had not yet received the raise that accompanies the promotion and can barely support their families on the $220 they earn a month.
What few government-issued benefits they have, like food or health care, are being clawed back.
When her daughter broke her knee last year, Ms. Boursiquot took her to the hospital, only to discover that the government had bumped her three children from her insurance. She had to pay $90 — close to half her monthly income — to mend her daughter’s knee and for medication. Her husband, who left years ago, does not help support their family.
Hunger is now a regular aspect of lives, their families joining the ranks of the undernourished in Haiti, Mr. Jacques said. Officers receive a special debit card that allows them to buy food at grocery stores, he said, but the government has not topped it up in over two months.
Of Haiti’s 11 million people, 4.4 million need food assistance, according to the United Nations.
“We are down to our nails,” Mr. Jacques said, his voice shaking with rage. “How can you explain that schools are open and we cannot afford the tuition? That grocery stores are full and we can only look at the food from the outside?”
The two police officers worried that they, too, could soon join the increasing number of Haitian citizens who are internally displaced by gangs.
A few miles south of the police’s checkpoint on the bridge, a stone’s throw from the United States Embassy, is the Tabarre Issa neighborhood, where over 3,000 people fled this year after gangs fired on their homes and warned them to leave or be killed.
To the north is Croix-des-Bouquets, where the 400 Mawozo gang is holding the kidnapped missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries and their children, the youngest an 8-month-old.
In a brazen display of authority, when the leader of 400 Mawozo issued his execution threat against the hostages, he did so on the streets of Croix-des-Bouquet, surrounded by hundreds of gang members as American and Haitian officials surveilled the area.
The Motorized Intervention Unit, or B.I.M. as it is known, was started in 2007 under President René Préval, intended to be a rapid-response unit of the police, able to mobilize quickly on motorbikes and quad bikes, nimbly navigating the traffic-gnarled streets of Port-au-Prince.
The force, considered almost an elite unit with special training and funding, was considered one of the most efficient and effective units of the Haitian police until President Michel Martelly was sworn into office in 2011.
The unit atrophied under Mr. Martelly’s presidency, the government using the B.I.M. to provide personal protection to officials and their family members and to guard government buildings. A large order of motorbikes intended to replace the police’s aging fleet was made and paid for under Mr. Martelly’s government, but the vehicles were never delivered, causing a scandal.
Now, the force uses lower-cost Chinese bikes called Loncin, which police officers say tend to fall apart.
On the bridge into Croix-des-Bouquets, the police continued to check vehicles and Haitians who streamed by on foot — among them Nahomie Bauvais, 25, who had her 2-month-old in her arms.
She hates the insecurity that hangs over her neighborhood, but feels she has no option beyond hoping that the gangs leave her and her two children alone and that the government retakes and exerts control over Croix-des-Bouquet again.
It is a long shot, she knows. And it would not solve all of her problems. If the government is unable to provide the basics — electricity, security, trash collection — even in wealthy neighborhoods where powerful politicians live, there is little reason to believe it will do so in impoverished ones like hers.
“There is no state here,” Ms. Bauvais said. “I live day by day. What else can you do when you hear gunshots through the night and wake up, hoping for the best?”
She worried about the growing appeal of gangs to former classmates and friends who idle listlessly on sidewalks, playing game after game of dominoes, no jobs to go to or food to eat.
“We have to look out and protect ourselves,” Ms. Bauvais said.
Comments like that irk Mr. Jacques, who argues that he and his colleagues try their best, even if they feel just as helpless as civilians like Ms. Bauvais.
“We are here working, but can you really work? When you have no motorcycles, no fuel to go from neighborhood to neighborhood?” Mr. Jacques asked. “The population sees us with bad eyes, they think we aren’t doing anything. They don’t know that we try, but we cannot.”