Witnesses: Men in police garb massacred civilians in Haiti
When a police truck carrying men in uniform pulled into an impoverished neighbourhood in the Haitian capital on November 13, 2018, residents thought it was an official operation.
Maybe police were finally trying to head off a war between the gangs that run protection rackets in the market next to the sprawling collection of cinderblock shacks and low-rise public housing.
Then the men opened fire. Joined by local gang members clad in black, they went house to house with long guns and machetes, pulling unarmed people into the narrow alleys and killing them with single shots or machete blows, witnesses told The Associated Press (AP).
"When I saw them I thought they were providing security, but then I realised they were shooting at the population," said 55-year-old resident Marie-Lourdes Corestan. "They were shooting, and I was running to save my life."
Witnesses, a human-rights group and a Catholic charity that collected bodies after the November 13 massacre, told The AP that at least 21 men were slain over a 24-hour period in the La Saline neighbourhood.
Some residents and local rights groups say the killers were gang members working with corrupt police to seize territory in the La Saline gang war. But others accuse Haitian government officials of orchestrating the massacre to head off anti-corruption protests that often start in the neighbourhood, an opposition stronghold.
What's certain is that the killings reveal a startling erosion of security in Haiti since UN peacekeepers ended their 13-year mandate in October 2017 because conditions on the island had supposedly improved.
Port-au-Prince residents interviewed by the AP said the number of neighbourhoods in the capital considered "no-go" zones controlled by armed gangs has grown to at least half a dozen since the departure of the heavily armed UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti.
"These lawless zones are multiplying," said Marie-Yolene Gilles, head of a local rights group, Fondasyon Je Klere, which put the death toll as high as 25.
"The authorities have said nothing," Gilles said. "They haven't even condemned this massacre."
The UN force was sent to Haiti in 2004 after the overthrow of President Bertrand Aristide. It was replaced in 2017 by a smaller UN mission that has continued a police training programme that has helped boost the number of Haitian officers from less than 4,000 during Aristide's time to more than 15,000 today.
The police, however, are widely seen as corrupt, inefficient and ill-equipped to take on heavily armed gangs that often serve as enforcers of Haiti's fragmented political forces.
UN officials said they expect to complete an investigation into the killings within weeks.
"There were worrying episodes of violence in some of the most notorious neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, areas where state authority is limited," Helen Meagher La Lime, head of the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, which replaced the UN peacekeeping force, told the UN Security Council last month. "Investigations by both the authorities and human-rights organisations are ongoing, and our human-rights service is also working to determine what happened."
Thousands of people live in La Saline, many working in the neighbouring market that sprawls for more than a mile and where vendors sell everything, from produce trucked in from the countryside to used clothing imported from South Florida.
Residents live in cinderblock homes with sheet metal roofs, many barely big enough to hold a single mattress. They cook over open fires in alleyways so narrow that two people can't pass without touching shoulders.
Gangs of armed young men control the neighbourhood, often pulling out pistols to resolve local squabbles. The gangs' main income comes from protection payments from market vendors and importers anxious to keep the road to a nearby port open, making control of La Saline a valuable franchise.
Armed gangs have bought or stolen untold amounts of Haitian police gear in recent years, so the degree of official involvement in the La Saline massacre remains unclear.