Officials in Haiti are calling on authorities to break up a group of disaffected, violent police officers that has in recent weeks created chaos in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, in an effort to regain control of the country's spiraling security crisis.
Justice and Public Security Minister Rockfeller Vincent announced March 23 that he has instructed the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d'Haïti -- PNH) to dismantle the heavily armed contingent of largely active and former police, known as the Fantom 509.
Vincent said that the group “seeks to wreak havoc in the country using voyeuristic and macabre modus operandi while posing as police officers.” The PNH will also be tasked with uncovering the group’s “source of criminal funding and, if necessary, the white-collar manipulators” facilitating their activities.
The Fantom 509 first emerged in 2018, when the union representing the rank-and-file of Haiti's national police (Syndicat de la Police nationale d’Haïti -- SPNH) was protesting to demand better pay and working conditions. Most recently, the police union has distanced itself from the group while also pushing to support the protection and rights of officers, according to local media reports.
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In the past three years, the Fantom 509 has continued to disrupt SPNH and PNH demonstrations, sometimes even attacking government forces in the process.
In February 2020, for example, violent confrontations between members of the group -- often masked and armed -- and members of the Haitian military left two dead and a dozen others injured in Port-au-Prince, AFP reported at the time.
Later that year, in September, the Fantom 509 again carried out attacks in the capital. The masked men in police uniforms targeted government vehicles and set ablaze the buildings that house the National Identification Office (Office national d’identification -- ONI) and Economic and Social Assistance Fund (Fonds d’assistance économique et sociale -- FAES), according to reports from Le Nouvelliste.
Since then, the group has seized upon ongoing unrest over the economic, health and political crises unfolding in the country. In mid-March, the Fantom 509 set fire to several police stations in the capital to free four colleagues jailed on charges that they participated in a February coup d'état attempt against President Jovenel Moise.
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The attack came on the heels of a botched raid in the gang-controlled Village de Dieu, or Village of God, community. Four officers were killed in the March 12 operation, while eight others were wounded. Members of the force were later joined by civilians to demand authorities retrieve the bodies of the victims, which has yet to occur.
Those protests, in which civilians and police officers have participated, have continued, and two more officers were shot and killed March 21 by suspected Fantom 509 members in the Delmas neighborhood of the capital. Days later, on March 24, a Haitian court ordered the release of the individuals -- including a judge and high-ranking police official, among others -- arrested as part of the alleged coup attempt against the embattled head of state, whom some argue has overstayed his mandate, according to the Associated Press.
The Fondasyon Je Klere (FJKL) watchdog group has denounced the deadly violence carried out by the Fantom 509. In a March 21 statement, the group said the Fantom 509's actions “advocate the supremacy of force over civil power,” adding that the rogue officers “reject” human rights and the rule of law.
The National Police has so far identified several suspected members of the Fantom 509 who are wanted on murder charges and for destroying property. Haitian Police Chief Léon Charles has also voiced his opposition to the group, stressing that the police force will track down and immediately remove those “who believe they can act with impunity,” Le Nouvelliste reported.