From Security to Humanitarian Assistance

At the Epicenter of the Crisis

Por Dialogo
abril 01, 2010

Immediately after the earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010,
thousands of people from different parts of the world flocked to the country to
offer humanitarian aid. the biggest challenge in the first hours and days that
followed was trying to organize all this help. Much of the planning for this huge
task fell under Maj. Gen. Floriano Peixoto’s responsibilities. The U.N.
Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, Force Commander talked to Diálogo
magazine about coordinating the relief efforts, the lessons learned from this
experience and the sorrow of losing friends and staff members to a devastating
natural disaster.

DIÁLOGO: What changed in MINUSTAH’s routine after the

Maj. Gen. Peixoto: We are here to carry out a stabilization mission,
working under the umbrella of the United Nations. That was MINUSTAH’s profile when
it was created in 2004. The military contingent present in Haiti has been working
all these years to guarantee security in the country, so that local institutions can
function normally. The earthquake radically changed our modus operandi and our
Besides the security component, we shifted to dedicating substantial time and
resources to humanitarian aid. So my subordinates — of whom there were 7,000 and are
now 8,500, and could reach 9,000, according to the U.N. Security Council’s
authorization — now have a double mission: humanitarian aid and security, activities
that are interrelated.

DIÁLOGO: Did the military personnel participating in MINUSTAH already
have this humanitarian aid profile?

Maj. Gen. Peixoto: Yes. However, I’ll be honest: We never thought about
an earthquake. We were prepared and had contingency plans to face hurricanes,
torrential tropical rains, like those we faced here in 2004 and in 2008. That is,
we’d done planning along those lines, but not for an earthquake. All the troops who
came to Haiti to serve under my command — we’re talking about 18 countries,
including the United States and Canada — have extensive previous training, including
a focus on humanitarian aid.

DIÁLOGO: You mentioned 18 countries. What was it like to integrate
these troops, especially after the earthquake, when there was an increase in the
number of military personnel in Haiti?

Maj. Gen. Peixoto: All the military personnel who arrived here after
the earthquake, including troops from the United States, Italy, Dominican Republic,
Canada, Jamaica, and other countries, came with the intention of strengthening the
humanitarian aid in the country. We have a very close relationship with these
troops, more specifically with those from Canada and the U.S., which substantially
increased their troops in Haiti in a very important way. This coordination has been
and is still being provided by a part of the U.N. mission called the JOTC [Joint
Operational Task Center], which coordinates the activities of all humanitarian aid
organizations in the country.
When it comes to strategy, I am personally in contact with the other troops,
especially with the Americans and Canadians, who are here in much larger numbers
than other countries, with [Lt.] Gen. [Ken] Keen and with [Brig.] Gen. [Guy] Laroche
for the United States and Canada, respectively. On the operational level, this
interaction has worked exceptionally well. All the armed forces represented in
Haiti, whether from Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, Jordan or
Nepal, just to mention some of them, work together very harmoniously.

DIÁLOGO: What will be the biggest challenge from now on?

Maj. Gen. Peixoto: Undoubtedly, moving people from the camps to other
locations. The biggest challenge is to convince these people to leave the places
where they are now for more organized camps, with better structures for support,
health and shelter, so that in the future they will be able to return to their
places of origin in better and more dignified conditions, in a cleaner city
completely free of debris.

The U.N. has established three main phases. The first is to remove the
debris, then to restore normality in the country, possibly with elections happening
in November. The third phase will be reconstruction, which will continue until
December 2011 when the U.N., along with the Haitian government, will re-evaluate
what will come next for the country.

DIÁLOGO: When it comes to security, do you think there will be an
increase in the crime rate if the gangs are able to reorganize?

Maj. Gen. Peixoto: What I can guarantee to you is that the situation is
absolutely under control. It’s very important to emphasize the difference between
criminality and security. Robbery, rape, kidnapping — this is criminality. This is a
problem for the Haitian police. If cases like these increase sharply, then yes, this
can have repercussions on security. However, I repeat, criminality is different than
Criminality is the examples I mentioned. Security is something that often is
not even visible. For example, it’s the fact that institutions are functioning; it’s
ensuring that people have freedom of movement; guaranteeing normality throughout the
country; guaranteeing the functioning of the institutions; of the ports and
airports; of the land and sea borders: this is security, which is absolutely under

DIÁLOGO: What lessons have you learned from the earthquake that you can
share with other military personnel elsewhere in positions similar to

Maj. Gen. Peixoto: There’s a wide range of lessons learned in various
fields and levels. I wouldn’t be able to list them all here, but I’ll focus on
three. The first is the need to coordinate efforts. This coordination of efforts is
extremely important to avoid the loss of any kind of international or domestic
humanitarian aid due to a lack of coordination. The second lesson is the capacity to
move troops rapidly and with agility, especially from areas that weren’t affected to
those that suffered a greater impact. We did this and had great success. The third
lesson learned, and now we’re getting into the tactical-operational field, is to
know how to carry out food distributions with a great deal of discretion and caution
when it comes to the times, locations and security structure. But the main lesson, I
would say, is to remain calm, coordinated and capable of making decisions via an
efficient command-and-control system that allows the instant activation of any unit,
as well as the capability to relate to and interact with other forces in order to
stimulate interoperability among a variety of troops from different countries.

DIÁLOGO: We all share the pain of the Haitian people, but you suffered
very significant personal losses of people very close to you. Could you tell us what
you felt and still feel with regard to these losses?

Gen. Peixoto: It is indeed very painful. One hundred and one people
from the U.N. mission died, including 24 military personnel, 18 of them from the
Brazilian contingent. Out of those 18, I lost two colonels who worked with me in our
day-to-day functions, besides all the other members of my office, such as my
personal assistant; they all died. This is and will always be a very sad memory for
me, as I’ve lost military and nonmilitary friends. These were people who worked with
me every day here at the U.N. headquarters. This is very hard. To be in Miami at the
time of the earthquake and without a way to immediately return to the country hurt
very much.
I was only able to come here with the help of the U.S. Southern Command, of
Gen. [Douglas] Fraser, who made air transportation available from Miami to Haiti,
and I am extremely grateful to him for that. That’s what made it possible for me to
be here in command of the military contingent and of the mission 12 hours after the
earthquake. We as military personnel are trained to face chaotic situations, with
high levels of tension, a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, but this time, this
experience profoundly marked my personal and professional life.