Recent study shows significant homicide drop in Port-au-Prince

PORT-AU-PRINCE _ Haiti's capital has seen a significant drop in homicide rates in recent years despite a public perception that the poor Caribbean country is rife with crime and violence, two social scientists said Wednesday.

In addition, most Haitians view the national police force favorably and see no need to bring back the disbanded army, according to the preliminary findings of a study shared with The Associated Press.

The findings contradict a widespread view that the Haitian National Police force is unpopular and people have felt under siege from violent crime both before and after the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago.

International development experts Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe collected their data from four separate household surveys done from 2005 through last month with the help of Haitian researchers. Two of the surveys each included 1,000 people who moved into the settlement camps that sprang up after the January 2010 quake.

The experts say their study, supported Canada's International Development Research Center, indicates Haiti has seen a sharp drop in homicide rates in recent years, based on trends seen in ther interviews. Homicides in three densely populated neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince dropped from 19 per 100,000 people in 2004, when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted, to three per 100,000 in 2009, their report says.

``We found that the security situation wasn't as lawless as portrayed in Haiti,'' said Robert Muggah, a fellow of international relations at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Kolbe, a doctoral candidate in social work and political science at University of Michigan, said the decline in reported homicides coincided with a trend that Haitian police are being used less as a political tool.

The findings echo global crime trends.

Haiti does not feature among the top 58 most violent countries classified by the recently released Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, which sponsors studies on crime trends worldwide. Haiti is also an outlier in the Western Hemisphere. Jamaica, ranked third the most violent country in the world, had an average annual homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 from 2004 to 2009. Honduras had 50 per 100,000.

When people were asked how serious an issue crime, nearly half of those interviewed said ``very minor.''

But the problem seemed more severe in the camps, when compared to the general population. More than 1 percent of those interviewed from the general population said they had been victims of physical assaults, while 15 percent in the camps did.

The survey found respect for the national police even though the force has long been associated with rights abuses and corruption allegations. More than half of the nearly 3,000 people interviewed in 2010 said they would go to a police officer if they were robbed, compared to 36 percent who said they would turn to a neighbor, friend or relative.

``This was a little unexpected,'' said Muggah.

Three-fourths of those interviewed said they thought the Haitian National Police should be the country's ``primary security provider.''

The latest round of interviews was done after the administration of President Michel Martelly announced it would restore the national army, which was disbanded in 1995 because of a long history of abuses and involvement in coups.

Of those surveyed since the announcement, 65 percent ``strongly disagreed'' that the military should be re-established, while less than 1 percent ``strongly agreed.''

In another area, the study found that few Haitians report using the services of the thousands of non-governmental groups operating in Haiti.

Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they used latrines set up after the earthquake, but no one who was interviewed told of participating in ``cash-for-work'' programs, temporary jobs led by humanitarian groups. Only 31 percent said they used lights installed by NGOs to read at night.

Muggah conceded those interviewed might withhold information because it could be in their interest to encourage more foreign aid, but he said the findings still offer insight on how NGOs can better operate.

``What this allows NGOs to do is step back a bit and reflect on what they're doing for their services,'' he said.