Quake left a security nightmare in its wake

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 – Globe and Mail

PORT-AU-PRINCE — It’s a strange sight on a traffic-choked downtown street across from a park that has become a crowded tent city: several dozen young men locked behind the wrought-iron bars of a rectangular, birdcage-like structure outside a police station.

The police say the men are looters, caught in the act. An officer gestures over his shoulder to rolls of fabric, building materials and dusty electronics.

A prison it’s not. But for now, and for no one knows how long, that’s where the alleged looters will stay.

Port-au-Prince’s prison, and its main courthouse, were destroyed in the earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, letting loose hundreds of convicts whose freedom haunts the imagination of residents across the city.

Port-au-Prince is a security nightmare. In addition to destruction, the earthquake left pure chaos in its wake.

It also took a serious toll on the police force. Of the 7,500 National Police in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake, more than 970 are either dead, badly injured or missing.

More than looting, aid groups are worried about rape, which they fear is rife in tent cities and spontaneous settlements, where privacy is a bedsheet or a piece of corrugated steel and proper latrines are non-existent.

But the police say they’ve been making patrols. And looting has been getting far more attention, with vigilante justice common as people punish those who are thought to be pillaging the wreckage.

Bodies have been found with their hands tied behind their backs.

Last week, police shot a person said to have been among a mob looting a Centreville store.

But in a devastated city trying to pick up the pieces, just about everyone is looting something – salvaging building materials and whatever else survived the quake to put their own lives back together.

Each district has its own makeshift jail, says officer Patrice Maxius, surveying his inmates.

He doesn’t know how long they’ll be there, or when they’ll be charged.

The situation isn’t ideal, he admits, but with no real jail and no courts to try the accused, what else can they do?

“We can’t just let them go like that,” he said. “We’re in a crisis situation. … But the criminals didn’t die in the earthquake.”

The men in the strange iron birdcage, for their part, insist they’re entirely innocent and implore curious passersby to get them out.

Pierre Richard, 24, insists he doesn’t even know what was being sold in the store he’s accused of stealing from – he was just walking by.

He pulls a photo from his pocket and thrusts it between the bars.

“This is my daughter,” he said. “She’s just a year and a half old. She needs me.”

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