In Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, there is a police impound lot where dozens of brand-new vehicles sit gleaming in the sun, sporting the logos of aid groups that poured into the city to help in the wake of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1 million homeless.
Haitian police are holding the vehicles for ransom, American aid workers say, demanding exorbitant sums for registration technicalities. The relief workers call it a brazen display — even for a country known to be rife with corruption.
When many of the vehicles were brought into Haiti, as cries rang out from beneath the rubble, there was no Haitian government to register the vehicles. The factory that made license plates, for instance, was destroyed.
But in mid-March, less than two months after the earthquake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale, Haitian police began to impound vehicles without tags.
Relief groups are given a choice, American aid workers say: Pay a fine of 50 percent of the vehicles’ value, which quickly adds up to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for most groups, or wait two to three months for paperwork to be processed.
Another option is a temporary workaround: Hiring a police escort for $100 per day per vehicle will ensure other Haitian police don’t fine aid workers or impound vehicles. The average Haitian wage is $7 a day.
Five Americans from four aid groups confirmed the vehicle registration problem in Port-au-Prince. No governments would discuss the issue — the State Department, U.S. A.I.D., the United Nations and the Haitian embassy in Washington all declined talk to The Daily Caller about it.
Although developing countries often use vehicle duties as a lucrative revenue stream, aid workers say they are shocked at the callous disregard Haitian authorities have for their fellow citizens — who are, to this day, living in tent cities and waiting in miles-long bread lines.
Jay Cook, a volunteer with the group Water Missions International, which has installed treatment systems that are providing hundreds of thousands of Haitians with fresh water, said he is shocked and baffled by the Haitian government’s actions.
“Why would you stop somebody from giving water to a 2-year old? Why would you slow that down? Why would any human even consider that? How greedy can somebody be?” Cook said.
The police don’t always impound the vehicle for its lack of tags; sometimes they just fine the driver. George Greene, also with Water Missions International, said the police tend to impound the vehicle if the driver is Haitian, and fine if it’s an American.
Besides the “point blank, ‘I’m going to get in your face and graft you’” actions, as Cook put it, relief groups are spending many of their hours there navigating Haitian bureaucracies and cutting through red tape.
Leeann Little from the group World Hope International said a shipment of about 500 donated mattresses was delayed when the Haitian customs office demanded the manifest from the ship that brought in the cargo.
After elevating the issue up the chain of customs officials, World Hope was finally able to get the shipment several weeks later, but not before government workers pilfered five of the mattresses. “At least it was only five,” Little said.
Shipments and cars that have gone through proper channels now that the government is operating again are delayed for months. While cargo containers await Haitian inspection, relief groups pay shipping companies – who want their cargo containers back – an ever-escalating demurrage fee.
To get a vehicle registered, groups need approval from three government agencies – one that provides government insurance for the vehicle, a Ministry of Finance that determines its value for tax purposes and a transportation agency that issues the license.
Since the license factory is in ruins, Haiti give drivers a paper certificate to show cops when pulled over.
While delays hamper relief efforts, Haitians suffer.
Satellite images show massive tent cities building up in open spaces. “Tent” doesn’t quite describe the structures, which essentially put a bed sheet over Haitians’ heads to block the sun.
Haitians are living in the tent cities in most cases because their homes were destroyed or remain dangerous to live in because of structural damage.
Rainy season – and hurricane season – is arriving, and aid workers fear the wet weather will exacerbate the already terrible conditions, potentially facilitating the spread of illnesses.
Food is reaching the destitute, shipped in by relief agencies. But Haitians often must wait in miles-long lines to get it, Cook said.
Aid workers say vehicles are crucial to their relief efforts. The vehicles are used to transfer supplies and workers to the neediest areas in the region.