PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Only a week before responsibility for maintaining security here is to shift from the United States to the United Nations, the Haitian government is struggling to contain a sudden surge in crime and street violence.
Frustration over the crime wave, which has included slayings of political figures as well as robberies and break-ins, has led to a series of vigilante attacks against suspected lawbreakers. Since early March, vigilante groups have lynched more than a score of people suspected of crimes and would have killed several others if foreign troops had not intervened.
"To live in Port-au-Prince today is a real nightmare," the newspaper Le Nouveliste said in a commentary. "Bandits on every street corner. The civilian population finds itself on its own, defenseless and at the mercy of crime that is more and more organized."
Government officials have warned citizens to guard against plots to destabilize the country by groups loyal to the former military dictatorship. It is not clear to what extent the rise in crime is politically motivated, but there is wide agreement that it is eroding confidence in the government and in the foreign military and police presence here.
On Friday, the 20,000 U.S. troops in Haiti are to transfer responsibility for public order to a U.N. force of 7,000 peacekeepers, a prospect that has only deepened the capital's sense of insecurity.
"You cannot develop a country and a constitutional democracy in this kind of climate," said Necker Dessables, executive director of the Justice and Peace Commission, the human rights arm of the country's Roman Catholic Church. "The fear of the people that they have no protection has become an important challenge not just to the government but to all of society."
Suspicion that the lawlessness is part of an organized campaign deepened this month after the killings of a lawmaker who was running for the Senate in elections set for June and of a member of a peasant group long persecuted by the former military junta. Both men were found shot to death in their cars. No arrest has been announced in either case.
Last week, after a series of daylight holdups and car thefts, the capital was hit by vigilante violence. Over two days, 21 theft suspects were beaten, stoned or hacked to death by enraged groups, mainly residents of working-class neighborhoods.
At a news conference on March 15, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide attributed the surge in crime and the vigilante violence to a security vacuum left by the disintegration of the army and police after his restoration to office on Oct. 15.
"People think the government is not functioning, so they can do whatever they want," he said.
Father Aristide was particularly critical of the remaining Haitian police and judicial authorities, whom he described as "cowardly" and derelict in their duties. "If the people who are responsible for making justice don't bear their responsibility, they will push the country toward total catastrophe," he said.
Since U.S. troops began arriving Sept. 19, more than 6,000 people have been arrested on criminal charges. But because courts and prisons are not functioning normally, most of them have been released. Raymond W. Kelly, a former New York police commissioner who is head of the international force monitoring the Haitian police, estimated that fewer than 100 of those arrested have been tried and convicted.
After a disturbance at a prison late in February, Haitian and international monitors found that only 15 of the 527 inmates had ever been convicted of crimes. The majority of the prisoners had been awaiting trial far longer than the period permitted by law. As a result, more than 200 prisoners have been released, a move that has stirred public rage and put many career criminals back on the streets.
With the interim police force seemingly impotent and the training of a permanent force in a U.S.-sponsored program barely under way, Father Aristide urged Haitians in early February to join together in "brigades of vigilance" to assure the security of their neighborhoods.
Father Aristide's recommendation stirred controversy here. Before he was overthrown in 1991, opponents had accused him of inciting mob violence by public statements.