By: Camila Torres Jaramillo
October 31, 2022
The United Nations reports that 4.7 million people in Haiti, the poorest of all countries in the Americas, are currently facing acute “catastrophic” hunger. Gang violence is jeopardizing the safety and welfare of Haitians in the midst of an acute political, economic, and health crisis. In response to international fear, on October 21, 2022, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a harsh “sanctions regime” intended to target gang leaders in Haiti.
Non-state armed groups and Haitian politics have co-existed since the 1950s. In 1958, President François (Papa Doc) Duvalier created the Tonton Macoutes, a personal militia, to silence any enemies of the regime and enforce their rule. Although the Macoutes were disbanded in 1986, they were not disarmed. Coups, contested elections, protests, and violence followed the demise of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986. This environment empowered politicians and political parties to delegitimize the electoral process by informally using armed groups to intimidate voters and opponents. While powerful paramilitary groups directed by the government date back to the Duvalier dictatorship, the root of today’s gang crisis stems from the second presidency of Jean Bertrand Aristide between 2001 and 2004. When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power in 1994, he disbanded the Haitian Armed Forces and any pro-Duvalier paramilitary groups. As a result, former soldiers created armed groups in opposition to Aristide. In the capital, local youth groups, affiliated with Aristide’s Lavalas political movement, set up defense groups in response to attacks by groups of the former soldiers. Aristide, facing political unpopularity and conceivable political demise, armed these youth groups for his own protection. Initially, the groups acted on behalf of Aristide, but this would not last long. In time, the groups used those weapons to dominate small neighborhoods. By the time Aristide left Haiti, these gangs were unofficial leaders who controlled parts of Port-au-Prince and zones in other cities such as Cap Haïtien, Gonaïves, and Jacmel.
Today, nearly 200 gangs operate across Haiti, with an estimated 100 in Port-au-Prince, controlling up to 40% of the capital city. G9 Family and Allies, a federation of nine gangs, led by Jimmy Cherizier, also known as “Barbecue,” is the largest and most powerful gang in Port-au-Prince. Gang proliferation stems from guaranteed funding by politicians and businessmen in exchange for legal refuge from the police and the judicial system. Moreover, the nonexistent economic opportunities for the youths contribute to gang perpetuation. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, increased gang violence has threatened Haiti’s already frail security and human rights predicament.
Between January and May 2022, 540 people were kidnapped and more than 780 were killed. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet articulated that “armed violence has reached unimaginable and intolerable levels in Haiti.” Haitian police struggle to contain the gang violence because they are outnumbered and outgunned. Unfortunately, turf wars are affecting civilians and aid organizations indiscriminately. The violence and kidnapping have delayed and, in some cases, paralyzed aid shipments. “We regret that we are in no position to answer the needs of the people in the metropolitan area (of Port-au-Prince),” said Annalisa Lombardo, country director of German NGO Welthungerhilfe, which runs several aid programs and provides food to 60,000 people. “The safety risk is getting shot.” The security situation is immobilizing aid operations where “214,000 in the capital alone thought to be in need of emergency assistance.”
In addition to murdering innocent people, gangs are weaponizing rape. A UN human rights report finds that gangs in Haiti are using sexual violence to instill fear, punish, subjugate, and inflict pain. The gangs use sexual violence against children, women of all ages, and even men
in the context of kidnapping. The report details horrific “acts including collective rapes and brutal public humiliation designed to sow chaos, enforce territorial boundaries and punish civilians for perceived disloyalty.” Seeking safety beyond the boundaries of their own neighborhoods puts them at risk for attack.
The gang violence crisis in Haiti has prompted UN Security Council action. In demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry and protesting his plan to cut fuel subsidies, the G9 coalition blocked the distribution of diesel and petrol for more than a month. The fuel shortage effectively forced hospitals to limit care and gas stations to close. By blocking the ports, G9 has trapped “vulnerable Haitians in a cycle of growing desperation, without access to food, fuel, markets, jobs and public services, bringing the country to a standstill.” Drafted by the U.S. and Mexico, the resolution will also block weapon and military equipment sales, institute a travel ban, and asset freeze for those participating in or financing gang violence.
Price inflations effectively negate access to food and fuel. Parents keep their kids at home fearing the violence on the streets. Gang violence thrusts Haitians into harm’s way on a daily basis. The UN resolution is a starting point for the rest of the world to pay attention to what is happening in Haiti. However, the real change must come from within. Because previous international efforts have failed, institutional change must be Haitian led for any change to have a fighting chance.