Blinken Says a Multinational Force is Needed to Help Haiti's National Police Restore Order

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- United States State Secretary Antony Blinken said Wednesday that a multinational force is needed to help Haiti's National Police restore order, echoing recent appeals made by United Nations officials who warn that the country's insecurity is worsening.

Blinken briefly spoke about Haiti and other issues during a one-day trip to Trinidad and Tobago, which hosted a three-day conference held by the 15-member Caribbean trade bloc known as Caricom.

Caribbean leaders have been meeting regularly about the situation in Haiti. Caricom Chair and Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit noted that the group supports Haitian-led solutions but he also called on the U.S. for help.

"It's no secret, Mr. Secretary, that the United States will have to play a very crucial role," he said as he introduced Blinken on the conference's final day.

Blinken spoke one day before the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to meet and talk about Haiti amid mounting pressure on the international community to deploy a foreign armed force that Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested in October.

So far, the council only has approved sanctions on gang members and high-profile figures believed to support gangs that now control an estimated 80% of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where killings, rapes and kidnappings have soared.

Haiti's National Police is underfunded and lacks resources to fight the surge in violence, with only an estimated 13,000 active-duty officers serving a country of more than 11 million people. Some Haitians, tired and frustrated of the violence, have embraced a violent uprising aimed at killing suspected gang members.

The country's understaffed police force desperately needs between 1,000 and 2,000 international police experts trained to combat armed gangs, U.N. independent expert for Haiti William O'Neill said Wednesday.

O'Neill, who has been working on Haiti for over 30 years, told a news conference: "I have never seen the situation as bad as it is now."

During a 10-day trip to the impoverished Caribbean nation that concluded last week, he met with senior Haitian National Police leaders, including the inspector general, who told him 80 officers have been suspended and are under investigation for misconduct or criminal activity.

He also described as "horrific" conditions at the national penitentiary in the capital, pointing to squalid, hot and overcrowded cells where detainees are kept for hours at a time with no water or toilet facilities. O'Neill stressed that over 80% of those in detention have never been tried, saying he talked to a man accused of a petty theft who had been in prison for seven years awaiting trial.

O'Neill said Haitians he talked to from all walks of life want outside help, but are very clear they don't want another U.N. peacekeeping force. He said they do want expertise in tackling gang violence to support the police.

Blinken said he supports calls for a multinational force to restore security: "This is an area of intense focus for us."

He also promised to keep pushing financial institutions to defer debt payments in the case of natural disasters, with the Caribbean region battered by storms that have become increasingly stronger.

In addition, Blinken pledged nearly $5.5 million to help small farmers increase their productivity and access technology as the region fights climate change.

"One in two people in the Caribbean cannot afford a healthy diet," he noted.

Accompanying Blinken was U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat who said the U.S. and the Caribbean have mutual security concerns and common economic interests.

"Caricom nations are not an afterthought," he said. "A lot has been accomplished by Caricom in the past 50 years, but we know there's still a lot of work to do."