World News

When Things Fall Apart — Gangland Violence and Haiti

Haiti’s gangs have seized nearly total control of the country. They have carried out a prison break of nearly 4,000 people and forced the nation’s acting president Ariel Henry to seek refuge in Puerto Rico. Gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier has called for Henry’s resignation and foresees a role for himself in the country’s political future. On Monday, Henry announced his resignation in favor of a transitional presidential council.

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March 14, 2024 03:53 EDT

A spectacular prison break, orchestrated by prowling gangs, with 4,000 criminals running amok; a people terrorized by random gangland violence; a plane carrying sitting the prime minister of the beleaguered nation forced to land in another part of the world because of the gang takeover of the country’s only operational international airport — these surreal scenes are not from some doomsday Hollywood script but have unfolded in very quick succession in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Forever hostage to misfortunes, the once-proud Caribbean nation, the first black nation to unshackle itself from the yokes of colonialism some two hundred years back, is now a helpless hostage to its own homegrown criminal gangs. 

The color of terror

Gangs is nothing new to Haiti. They have been around in the country for decades. It is hard to overstate the enormity of power of these non-state actors over Haiti. 80% of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is controlled by various gangs. Large parts of the country are ungovernable as gangs fight turf wars over control of territory and exert influence. According to UN estimates, gangs killed close to 5,000 people in 2023, and the spiraling violence has driven some 300,000 Haitians from their homes.

Haiti’s descent into anarchy has been a long time in the making. Decades of authoritarian rule created a situation where the ruling elites facilitated the emergence of organized criminal gangs in exchange of political support and loyalty. They also weaponized them against rival political parties and factions. This saw the emergence of Papa Doc Duvalier’s dreaded paramilitary Tonton Macoute, who are the predecessors to several dozens of gangs currently terrorizing the country.

However, most recent audacious criminal interventions demonstrate the abyss into which the most unfortunate country in the Americas is sliding. 

Haiti’s gangs often run a parallel system of governance in the areas under their control. The ineffectual state has often relented to these power demarcations. Now, however, a country-wide gangland alliance has emerged, seeking to dethrone a sitting national government. In response, the government in power has declared a national emergency. It is unlikely, however, that this move will thwart the advancing gangs from taking over the country. 

Prior to the declaration of national emergency, one powerful gang leader, Jimmy Chérizier (aka “Barbecue,” for a penchant for dispensing with opponents by burning them alive), had declared a coordinated attack by various gangs operating in the country to remove Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry. A former police officer who leads an alliance of gangs in the capital, Chérizier’s group feeds on years of official corruption, poor governance, near-total impunity and general absence of order in the country. To hammer home the seriousness of his intent, Chérizier has gone on record stating: “All of us, the armed groups in the provincial towns and the armed groups in the capital, are united [in this stated objective].”

Chérizier’s threats are materializing very quickly. Members of his gang sought to rake over the country’s international airport to stop the prime minister, who was on an overseas trip, from landing. While Henry landed safely in the US territory of Puerto Rico, the gangs upped the ante by making fearful threats to the people of the country. Chérizier has demanded the prime minister stand down — warning that the country is headed “straight for a civil war that will lead to genocide” otherwise.

The existing political crisis in the country has also allowed the gangs to seek out a new role for themselves. While previously their vocation was primarily to extort, torture, kill and terrorize for personal gains, they have found a newfound goal in the current climate of political disorder following the killing of the country’s president Jovenel Moïse in July 2021.

It is not that Moïse was some kind of political messiah. He was barely popular. However he was an elected president and was to many Haitians something close to a legitimate political leader. While the country has not selected a new president, Henry runs the government as an acting president. Many Haitians consider Henry an impostor. 

The sum of all fears

To the country’s criminal gangs, Henry represents a threat. Just before the country plunged into the current darkness, Henry had made a trip to Kenya to seek assistance of some kind for a quasi-military intervention in the form of a peacekeeping force to rein in the gangs and their spiralling violence. The UN Security Council approved this would-be deployment of a Kenyan-led multinational force. This mission was to be funded by voluntary contributions, with the US pledging logistic support and $100 million in financing.

Lauding this move and the seeming shape of things to come, Haiti’s foreign minister Jean Victor Généus, pointed out, that the venture”is in fact an expression of solidarity with a population in distress…It’s a glimmer of hope for the people who have been suffering for too long.”

The Security Council’s gang-eradication plan for Haiti has been in the pipelines for over six months now. Of late, Henry has been very eager to bring the plan to fruition. The orchestration of country-wide anarchy by the gangs can be seen as a strategy to “scare off” any external force seeking to impose order which ostensibly implies clipping the wings of these marauders.

Riding on the general public’s dissatisfaction with Henry, the gangs of Haiti have now embraced a political cause. Their goal to bring down the sitting government.  As Chérizier put : “We ask the Haitian National Police and the Military to take responsibility and arrest Ariel Henry. Once again, the population is not our enemy; the armed groups are not your enemy. You arrest Ariel Henry for the country’s liberation.”

According to the Security Council, Chérizier’s criminality and orchestration of random violence against civilians over the years “have directly contributed to the economic paralysis and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.” 

Chérizier, however, has a long view on the country’s embattled politics and wants to take advantage of the existing policy paralysis in governance. While consolidating the power of the gangs in the power vacuum created by Moïse’s assasination, he has also surreptitiously pushed a nationalist agenda. He is opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Haiti. To a people proud of breaking free from French colonial rule through a successful slave revolution in 1804, this message has united many Hattians against the current government.

Chérizier has floated his own “peace plan” that demands total amnesty for gang members and a country governed by a “council of sages,” implying that leaders such as himself would have a formal political role.

… the writing on the wall

For now, Chérizier seems to have the upper hand. Henry announced on Monday that he and his government would resign in favor of a “transitional presidential council.” The effectiveness of such a body remains to be seen.

For all intents and purposes, Haiti is a dysfunctional state. It has been lurching from one crisis to another for well over three decades now. This unfortunate land, the first black republic in the Western hemisphere, is continually blighted by both man-made as well as natural disasters. It is as if God has given up on this poor nation and its 11.45 million desperate inhabitants. 

If the country’s past if anything to go by, the current bout of anarchy is going to get far worse before the situation returns some kind of normalcy.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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