More than 12 people were reported killed over the weekend in clashes between rival gangs in Haiti's capital, a spate of violence blamed on groups battling for control over voting centers ahead of the country's election on Sunday.
On Monday, Radio Metropole reported multiple fatalities in the impoverished Cité Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Haitian police have yet to release a statement about the killings. Local human rights groups are collecting information, but representatives said it was still too early to confirm the number of dead or the exact circumstances of the murders.
The mayor of Cité Soleil, Esau Beauchard, who was appointed by President Michel Martelly, said that the brother of former parliamentarian Almetis Junior Saint-Fleur was among those killed in an armed confrontation with a specialized unit of the Haitian National Police. Saint-Fleur, who is running for deputy in Cité Soleil under the Organization of People in Struggle (OPL) party, blamed the mayor and a rival deputy candidate for the bloodshed.
An anonymous source told Haiti's Radio Kiskeya that notorious gang leader Gabriel Jean Pierre was involved in the killings. Arrested in September 2014, Jean-Pierre was released in late December. According to Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network, groups close to the government distributed weapons to Jean-Pierre in January 2015.
"It was right at that moment that the situation deteriorated in Cité Soleil…Gabriel is protected by the national police, who are in cahoots with him and his armed gang," Esperance told Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste in February.
Election-related violence is nothing new in Haiti, particularly in Cité Soleil. During the first round of voting in the country's parliamentary election in August, armed gangs and political party supporters forced nearly all major voting centers in the densely populated neighborhood to close. Voters across the country endured similar episodes, with incidents of violence and fraud prompting the country's electoral council to cancel balloting in 25 districts. Nationwide, results from nearly a quarter of all voting booths were discarded due to fraud, or were never collected because of disturbances.
Haitian authorities and their international backers have promised to do better on October 25, when the presidential and second-round of legislative elections will be held. Last week, Pierre Louis Opont, the president of the electoral council, called on the government and international community to ensure a "heavily armed force" that is in "combat position" and prepared to prevent electoral violence.
'This sends a clear signal to those who are doing wrong to keep doing it.'
An anonymous State Department official told the press the day before Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Haiti in early October that the government had a responsibility to provide security so that "we don't see the kind of disorder we saw on August 9." The recent flare-up of violence in Cité Soleil has raised the specter of another electoral disaster on Sunday.
Presidential candidate Moise Jean Charles, one of a handful of frontrunners in the race, expressed solidarity with the victims, adding that "Haitians in Cite Soleil and across Haiti will not be deterred by these cowardly attempts to suppress and manipulate the elections of October 25."
According to Beauchard, the mayor of Cité Soleil, the recent killings involved a new police unit called the Departmental Operations and Intervention Brigade (BOID). Created in June, the unit boasts 254 officers that received two months of training from the United Nations. Vladimir Paraison, director of the police in Haiti's West department, is ultimately in charge of the BOID. He has been criticized previously for his treatment of anti-government protesters.
"[Paraison] doesn't respect what the 1987 Constitution says about people's rights to protests," Pierre Esperance, director of Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network, told the Miami Herald last June. "He doesn't want to accept people's rights to protests."
The BOID is expected to play an increased role in providing security on election day. A spokesperson for the UN forces in Haiti did not respond to a request for comment, but an official with the international electoral observation mission in the country said violence is a top concern.
"Security, or lack thereof… is definitely acknowledged as being a problem," the official said, speaking candidly in exchange for anonymity. "There is what happens on election day, but almost more important is what happens leading up to election day. Will there be intimidation? At what level? Will sanctions be taken against those responsible?"
The upcoming election is seen as a key test for the Haitian National Police. During the August vote, officers were criticized for either standing on the sidelines or directly contributing to the unrest in efforts to tip the outcome in favor of their preferred candidates. Earlier this month, 61 members of Congress wrote a letter to Kerry calling for the US to hold Haiti's police accountable.
"For a number of years now, our government has helped Haiti strengthen its national police; now is the time for the national police to demonstrate that it is able and willing to protect Haitian citizens as they exercise their most fundamental democratic right," the letter said.
In the West department, home to more than 40 percent of the country's registered voters, intimidation aimed at depressing voter turnout can have a huge impact on the results. During the August vote, national turnout was about 18 percent, but just 10 percent in the West.
The West department is where Martelly, who is constitutionally barred from running for reelection, faces his greatest opposition. Although opinion polls in Haiti are notoriously unreliable, the data consistently points to the West being the weakest department for candidates from the ruling party. A poll released last week from ICR, a company run by Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra, found Martelly's approval rating in the West at just 28.6 percent, compared to a nationwide average of 39.1 percent.
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The West also showed the second lowest percentage of voters who would choose a candidate endorsed by Martelly. The president has been actively campaigning with Jovenel Moise, the PHTK candidate for president. In a wide open election where few expect any candidate to receive a majority and avoid a runoff, small changes in turnout in the West department could have a big impact on the results.
If violence and irregularities occur again this weekend, it could also be impossible for international observers to sign off on the results. At a public event in Washington, DC last month, the head of the Organization of American States election monitoring division, Gerardo de Icaza, said that the number of missing votes in August would have been "enough to void" the results if it had occurred in a national race. De Icaza suggested that because the August vote was for local races, problems could be handled at the local level.
With a national election coming on Sunday, the legitimacy of the vote hangs in the balance. Sixteen of the nearly 2,000 candidates who participated in the August election have been sanctioned and removed from the electoral process, and the electoral commission has warned parties and their supporters that additional actions could lead to even harsher penalties this time around.
From a human rights perspective, Esperance believes the actions didn't go nearly far enough.
"The sanctions are a selective process because many of the candidates who committed fraud, they are still involved in the electoral process… that's unacceptable," he said during an October event in Washington. "This sends a clear signal to those who are doing wrong to keep doing it."
Follow Jake Johnston on Twitter: @JakobJohnston