As Haiti’s President Michel Martelly begins his first week in power, among the legions of challenges facing the new leader is breaking the grip of organized crime and drug trafficking in his chaotic, disaster-struck country.

Martelly took office on Saturday, inheriting a country which some call a failed state. With an absence of government control, deeply embedded corruption, and widespread poverty, all worsened by the catastrophic earthquake of January 2010, Haiti has the conditions in which organized crime can flourish.

The U.S. State Department says Haiti is a major transit country for drugs from South America, while some eight percent of cocaine entering the U.S. is estimated to go through Haiti or the neighboring Dominican Republic. Much of the trade is thought to be directed by foreign groups, including Colombians, Jamaicans, and Americans, but there are also homegrown local gangs. The security issues this trade brings in its wake, like gang violence and corruption, stand in the way of efforts to rebuild the country.

Martelly has said he plans to combat insecurity and drug trafficking by re-establishing the Haitian army. According to the president, the new force would be charged with securing the country’s land borders and guarding its coastline, as well as leading the fight against organized crime.

Taking control of the country’s frontiers will prove crucial to Martelly’s security strategy. The island nation’s long, porous borders make it a ideal transit point for drugs, which mostly arrive in planes and boats from Colombia and Venezuela. There are clandestine landing strips in the interior, and plenty of secluded areas along the coast for boats to dock unseen. The land border is equally permeable; even before the disastrous earthquake of January 2010, the U.S. had criticized the management of the mostly unguarded land frontier with the Dominican Republic, with the Dominican Army also underfunded and undertrained.

Haiti’s Coast Guard, part of the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d’Haïti – PNH), numbers only 99 people, according to the U.S. State Department, a figure which was set to double in spring 2011. Even the anticipated team is a very small force to guard the more than 1,500 km of coastline.

However, the plans for a new army have many critics. Some point out that the country is severely lacking in resources to set up and equip the “modern army” that Martelly is touting. Without sufficient funds to train and pay soldiers properly, it’s not clear that an army would be able to effectively fight the drug trade. Many members of the chronically underpaid police are involved in trafficking, tempted by the sums offered by drugs and kidnapping gangs. Martelly has cited corruption as one of the reasons a proper army is needed, saying that the civilian police “are badly paid and sometimes neglected, which leads them astray.”

But if there isn’t the money to pay the police, or rehouse Haitian’s legions of tent-dwellers made homeless by the quake more than a year ago, it’s not clear where the government will find the funds to pay the army properly and stop them succumbing to the lure of drug money.

The Haitian army forced then-President Jean-Betrand Aristide out of office in 1991, and the former priest disbanded the force after he returned to power in 1994. There are fears, both in Haiti and abroad, that reviving the army could bring back elements responsible for abuses against civilians during the military regime. Elements in the old army were also accused of drug trafficking by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), while the International Crisis Group said that there was “large-scale” involvement of “all ranks of the army” in the drug trade.

Martelly has emphasized how important it is for Haiti to take charge of its own security – and indeed, in a country with so much influence from foreign aid donors and charities, he may have a point. The new president has expressed his backing for MINUSTAH, the UN body in Haiti, and said that the commission would be part of the transition to a Haitian army. MINUSTAH head Edmond Mulet has backed the idea of the new force, but warned that it will take a long time to establish the organization before it can replace the UN.

Martelly’s promises of a first-class army may turn out to be, at least for now, unworkable campaign rhetoric for the consumption of an electorate tired of foreign control. But his willingness to acknowledge the issues of police corruption and drug trafficking signal that this former pop star is prepared to address the problems of organized crime. With strong backing from the U.S., he may be able to make headway.

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