On the ground in Haiti
Linda JohnsonNews Public Sector
Nick Copeland arrived in Haiti as Canadian and American military forces were preparing to leave. The emergency phase that followed the Jan. 12 earthquake was over, and the Garda World executive was preparing to set up company operations — geared at first toward search and rescue — for the long haul.
But, coming into Port-au-Prince in early March, he thought the city
still looked very much like one in the grip of the initial emergency.
As his plane landed, he was struck by the sight of American Humvees, UN
helicopters and planes and the 82nd Airborne Division coming into the
“It’s a full-scale relief operation underway but with a slightly
militaristic face, which could be concerning,” said Copeland, managing
director of Garda World’s operations in Latin America and who is based
in Buenos Aires.
The airport, a temporary shelter required because the
permanent airport is too dangerous, has no baggage carousel. It’s
“Even the first 10 minutes are quite a stressful, sweaty time, just
trying to find your belongings,” he said.
“And you get out onto the street and there’s a huge traffic jam and
people shouting and it’s generally an immediate environment that
doesn’t look that benign and possibly isn’t — with UN vehicles,
armoured personnel carriers on the street, armed UN soldiers and
American soldiers. It looks more like a war zone in those first
It’s only later, he added, you come to understand that the strong
military presence acts primarily as a deterrent.
In the weeks following the quake, Garda’s work was focused on finding
missing American and international NGO workers and getting medical aid
for them. The company helped evacuate some client organizations to
safer areas or, for those who weren’t moving, provided advice on
Two months later, the company was preparing to provide a
wider range of security services to organizations that were looking
ahead, Copeland says, “beyond the initial short-term relief phase to
the reconstruction and recovery phase.”
With the shock of the
destruction passed, other risks were appearing. The situation was
“Some of them wanted to upgrade their risk-reduction program because
there was a great change in the environment there. In certain zones
like Peiton-Ville, which historically was the upscale, rich
neighbourhood up in the hills, suddenly having an influx of internally
displaced people in tents in front of their houses — it was a very
destabilized situation,” he said.
Garda, which plans to be in Haiti for at least a year, has one main,
“anchor” client there — an NGO that works with several governments,
including that of the U.S. — as well as a number of other clients. Like
most international organizations, the company is based in
Port-au-Prince, but the work has taken staff to many parts of the
country, to cities like LéogÃ¢ne in the southwest, to the western
provinces and to Cap Haitian, in the north.
Garda itself has more than
30 staff there and has partnered with a local company that employs more
than 1,000 guards and security officers.
In setting up operations, the first problem was shelter, says Copeland,
who arrived March 4. Hundreds of thousands of homes had been levelled
and hotels destroyed; at the same time, the staffs of hundreds of
international organizations were arriving. Garda worked with local
contacts to find accommodation, ideally ones that had office space so,
as he says, “there wouldn’t be the time and vulnerability of getting
transport to and from office and accommodation.”
Infrastructure was poor before the quake; afterwards, much of even that
was gone, leaving, for example, almost no fixed phone lines in the city
and an hour of electricity a day. People in Haiti have to be
self-sufficient now, Copeland says, and Garda set about solving some of
these problems. They visited medical facilities, making sure they knew
how to get there, how to get in and how to use them.
They set up
communications (Wi-Fi Internet, satellite and mobile phones). The security system they established included static guards around the
base, secure transport, trained and licensed security officers, and a
network of risk-reporting and ex-patriots.
They vetted drivers,
installed basic and more advanced medical trauma equipment, put in
plans for movement restrictions and curfews, and arranged for a 24×7,
professional, expatriate security manager who, Copeland says, once
worked for British security forces and has “a lot of experience in
these kinds of situations.
“So it’s security management that brings together an integration
solution that the clients can plug into and benefit from, and they can
therefore focus on their important work and not have to worry about
logistics, security and where they’re going to sleep and who’s going to
be cooking their meal,” he said.
Security problems in Haiti are, of course, huge and they can be
complex, says Copeland, who’s worked for Garda for six and a half
years. Many of the issues that affect local people — who often feel
these problems first and more intensely — will eventually affect
Some of the biggest issues arise out of homelessness. After the quake,
many people took up temporary shelter; now they have to decide whether
to stay or go. Some are being encouraged or forced to move.
anger and distress, which has led to a higher incidence of theft and
street violence aimed at NGOs. Inside the camps, health and social
problems, such as disease, assault, petty theft and looting, are
becoming frequent and can also quickly spread onto the streets
“The people have suffered enormously and have mental and psychological
trauma,” Copeland said, “and so your day-to-day street level activity
can suddenly combine a minor situation with a bad situation and trigger
some unrest, particularly at relief distribution points where people
are hungry and want to access the food quicker than they are able.
Understandably there’s impatience — impatience for progress, impatience
for transitional accommodation rather than temporary, impatience for a
real plan rather than just relief.”
And foreign workers are sometimes seen not just as targets of
discontent, but also of opportunity.
They may appear wealthy, so easy
sources of cash. Some locals look on NGOs as having taken the donated
money and goods that really belong to Haitians.
“There’s lots of mistrust and suspicion,” Copeland says. “It’s a
complex situation that is evolving. It changes day by day. How the
internally displaced people and the local populace are managed and
helped in a sustainable way — or not — has a huge influence on the
security and risk levels for the internationals.”
Criminal gangs are another growing threat, Copeland says. Some 4,000
convicts escaped at the time of the quake, and, though some have been
recaptured, many are still free and reforming into gangs, who may be
planning attacks against NGOs and relief convoys.
The departure of the military troops may open the way to more
sophisticated crime, Copeland adds. NGOs have already been subject to
kidnapping, with some workers picked up outside restaurants or stopped
in their cars.
So far, people have been held for only a few days and
for small amounts of money, about $100,000, but such a situation still
causes, as he says, “great anguish and has the potential for real
problems and dangerous consequences.”
Perhaps the worst thing about the situation now, he adds, is its
unpredictability and, he believes, it’s unlikely conditions will get
The UN International Donors’ Conference in March pledged
$5.3 billion over two years, but experience shows that it could take
six months for that money to produce tangible benefits on the ground.
Before then, the people have to cope with the rainy season and, in
September, the hurricane season. So, if hopes go unfulfilled, all of
this could create a more vulnerable and angry populace.
“That might push them towards street or organized crime, and it might
create a vacuum for political interference, which in the past has
sometimes resulted in actual criminal activity pushed on by the
political side to encourage fear and control of the populace,” he said.
That is one scenario, but Copeland believes there are other, more
positive ones. Most people are grateful for foreign support, and basic
relief is getting through. Haitians are very stoical; they’re picking
themselves up and starting to live their lives again.
Much, too, he adds, will depend on the actions of foreign workers and
their sensitivity to the feelings of the local people. All in all, he
judges the situation as manageable.
“It is not a high-risk destination. It is a moderate-risk destination
where precautions need to be taken for both safety and security
reasons, from the poor driving standards to the issues around diseases,
around issues of crowds getting involved in community conflicts, in
looting issues and unpredictable crowds, protest situations. It’s
really the unpredictability of the situation, particularly in
Port-au-Prince, which needs to be carefully monitored and managed,”
“The inequality persists, but there’s still laughter as well as tears. In
fact, I saw very few tears when I was there, even in three weeks. I
probably saw more smiles than I did that.
“So it’s a situation that isn’t as bad as you think, but it still needs
to be properly planned and the risks reduced. But the only way to
really understand is to go there, and that’s what we did, and,
hopefully, that’s helpful to some of our clients.”
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