The Causes and Global Implications of Haiti’s Gang Takeover

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From Left Top to Right Bottom: Gang Members in Port-au-Prince, wounded civilians in Haiti, Haitian gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, and thousands of Haitian refugees Images: New York Times, BBC, CNN, and Council on Foreign Relations

By Hank Bartholomew

In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the roads lie deserted, with charred and smashed buildings on either side. In some neighborhoods, fires burn night and day, consuming streets with smoke. Highways and roads are without life, their only occupants upturned and smashed cars. Trucks and buses sit abandoned in the middle of the street, surrounded by craters and wreckage. The only vehicles still in operation are armored cars or pickup trucks filled with masked, armed men. Community centers and churches are filled with civilians, while outside a violent struggle occurs between powerful gangs and the fragmented government police force. Haiti is locked in an internal conflict that has utterly crippled the island nation.

So how did we get here? It’s a complex and heavy question with no single answer. Haiti’s past is complicated, as is its current situation. It is complex and often confusing, but necessary to consider if the current conflict is to be understood.

In 1492, Haiti was discovered by Spanish explorers. In 1697, after years of fighting, the Spanish turned over much of Western Haiti to the French, which named the colony Saint-Domingue. The colony came to be one of the wealthiest nations in the French Empire, focusing on the production of exportation and cash crops (Haiti eventually came to be responsible for approximately forty percent of the sugar and and sixty percent of the coffee imported by Europe). A cash-crop economy, Haiti was dominated by plantations and enslaved African workers. Almost 800,000 African were enslaved and forced to work on plantations in Haiti. Conditions for slaves were brutal; late in the eighteenth century, the average life expectancy for a slave in Haiti was twenty-one years.

In 1791, a slave revolt ignited what came to be known as the Haitian Revolution, a thirteen-year violent struggle for independence from France. In 1802, when the revolution’s leader, former slave Toussaint Louverture, declared Haiti’s independence, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the invasion and occupation of Haiti in an attempt to put down the rebellion. After the French suffered heavy casualties from Haitian guerilla tactics, the French abandoned the invasion. In response to the invasion, Haitian revolutionary leaders ordered the killing of Haiti’s remaining white population, resulting in the deaths of some 5,000 Europeans. 

Haiti’s path after independence was filled with turmoil. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former revolutionary leader, assumed a dictatorship, until he was overthrown in a coup d’état. In 1843, then-president Jean-Pierre Boyer was overthrown, and Haiti was ruled by a string of emperors and generals, with few managing to command power for long stretches of time. In 1874, under the leadership of Michel Domingue, Haiti introduced a new constitution, leading to a long period of development and democracy in the island nation. This period eventually collapsed in the early 1900s.

Much of Haiti’s instability during this period stemmed from economic woes. In 1825, the newly independent Haiti signed an agreement with France in which France demanded an indemnity of over what is $5.2 billion USD today. France claimed their lost assets in the Haitian revolution–primarily slaves–ought to be repaid by Haiti. In return, France granted Haiti diplomatic recognition.

This agreement would be disastrous for Haiti, and devastate its young economy. The island nation, still reeling and rebuilding from its revolution, was forced to take loans out from French banks in order to meet their installments, only further weakening Haiti’s economy. As recently as 1911, for every $3.00 Haiti generated in coffee taxes, $2.53 were lost to indemnity payments. In 1922, an agreement between France and the United States shifted Haiti’s reparation payments to the U.S.. Haiti did not fully repay their 1824 debt until 1947. 

With such a great percentage of income lost to this treaty, Haiti lacked the funds to industrialize. The industrial revolution of the 1800s came and went, with Haiti mostly sidelined, unable to invest in its own infrastructure. 

Claiming concern over Haiti’s political instability, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the occupation of Haiti by U.S. soldiers in 1915. Many believe that the American invasion was primarily to restore and protect American economic assets in Haiti. 

The American occupation was brutal. Soldiers declared martial law, and the two major rebellions against foreign occupation were brutally suppressed with thousands of executions and human rights violations, including torture. Forced labor was used to produce American infrastructure projects, but Haiti’s economic condition saw little improvement. The American occupation ended under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934, closing the chapter on another period of bloodshed in Haitian history.

From 1934 to modern day, Haiti has struggled to establish a strong and secure government. Coups, revolts, and violence have marred its past, even into the twenty-first century. Much of this stems from the 1824 indemnity payments, which sent Haiti into an economic spiral it has yet to escape from. Furthermore, Haiti has suffered a string of natural disasters in the last twenty years, including a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that demolished infrastructure and created a humanitarian crisis…

…which brings us to Haiti’s current situation. Armed gangs have wielded enormous power in Haiti for over half a century, beginning in 1957.  François Duvalier, Haiti’s oppressive and totalitarian president, came to heavily rely on armed gangs during the political instability that accompanied his rule. In 1959 he created the Tonton Macoute, a paramilitary force that served as Duvalier’s bodyguard, and would eventually develop greater power and influence than the Haitian military. When Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, was removed from office in 1986, the Tonton Macoute dissipated into a variety of street gangs, many of which Haitian leaders continued to utilize, often for protection, intimidation, and political violence. 

But now, it’s different. Instead of fighting one another and working for politicians, Haitian street gangs have united, and are launching coordinated efforts against the current Haitian government. This change in tradition is because of a variety of factors, all coinciding at the right time.

First, Haiti’s street gangs are at one of the strongest points they’ve been in recent memory. Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, and the ensuing chaos, allowed for the escapes of several thousand incarcerated gang members from prison. Additionally, gangs are making greater efforts to recruit young, homeless teens, offering them stability, shelter, and a community, in exchange for service in gang wars.

Then, there is a flow of powerful, military-grade weapons into Haiti. The best evidence suggests that this flow of weapons comes from the Southern United States, particularly Arizona, Georgia, and, above-all, Florida–all states where firearm restrictions are weaker or lesser than many parts of America. Miami, Florida, has been of particular importance, serving as a hub for gun-running to the Caribbean. 2020 estimates by Haiti’s disarmament commission suggest that  there are as many as 500,000 small arms in the nation, just 38,000 of which are legally registered. Guns reach Haiti via cargo ships or small personal aircraft, and although greater efforts have been made to intercept these shipments, experts believe American authorities are only scratching the surface. 

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the unification of Haiti’s gangs. There are two main causes of this unification, both primarily focused in Haiti’s capital. First, there is Jimmy Chérizier, a gang leader better known as “Barbecue.” Barbecue was a former police officer, who, with his charismatic personality, has risen to become the head of the G9 gang, which occupies some of the most essential commercial areas of Port-au-Prince bay. G9 focuses on extortion, and has a history of utilizing mass violence to carry this out. In an interview with NPR, Barbecue claimed that he convinced Haiti’s rival gangs to stop fighting amongst each other and unite against a common enemy. He calls this alliance Viv Ansanm, translating to “living together.” In Haiti, Barbecue is a mythical figure; in some neighborhoods, there are murals likening him to Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. He has come to be the face of the gangs in Haiti, and his leadership has led to their new measures and actions. The other explanation for Haiti’s gang unification is that their alliance was to defend themselves. Haitian Prime Minister Henry Ariel, who has been stranded in Puerto Rico while the gangs prevent his return, called for the deployment and help of foreign forces to restore order to Haiti earlier this year. As of this writing, 1,000 Kenyan soldiers are preparing to invade and occupy Port-au-Prince. Some experts believe the gangs within the city have united in order to fight the foreign force, which poses the biggest threat to their operation in at least the last three years.

For allies of Haiti’s government, the gangs are nothing more than violent groups that care only about power and profit. But for some Haitian citizens, and those on the ground, the situation is less clear. Citizens in neighborhoods that Barbecue controls are often safer than the ones outside. Much of Port-au-Prince has struggled for food, but in some gang-controlled neighborhoods, the gangs provide food for citizens. This being said, in most gang-territories, this is not the case, and citizens are looted, beaten, and killed. Many are shot and left in the street to die.

Barbecue and other gang leaders argue that their actions are simply a result of circumstances. In an NPR interview, when the gang boss was asked about the wide scale violence and looting that have characterized the gang takeover, he argued, “Everything you say right now is true. But all of the extortion and all of the mistreatment is because the government allowed those things to happen.” He argues the government’s wide-scale corruption and Haiti’s economic spiral are to blame for the gangs; they are just a product of the system. Barbecue claims to simply want a “seat at the table”, and that the violence of the gangs is an instrument with which to capture the world’s attention and obtain that seat.

The gang occupation has made it difficult for humanitarian aid, and in many cases, gangs have been actively opposed to any form of foreign intervention. On May 24th, two different gangs attacked the compound for Missions in Haiti, an Oklahoma-based missionary group that runs a children’s home, school, and churches in Haiti. Victims of the attack were Jude Montis, director of the organization, David Lloyd III, and his wife Natalie. Ms. Lloyd was the daughter of Missouri State Representative Ben Baker. These deaths represent the growing power and confidence of gangs in Haiti, but also the chaos that has enveloped those who want no part in the conflict.

In Port-au-Prince, the gangs appear to be winning. The United Nations estimates gangs control around eighty percent of the capital city, and they have almost complete control over the economically significant Port-au-Prince bay. The last remaining fixture of the government, the Haitian National Police Force, continues to hang on to its position, but their numbers have dwindled significantly. By the end of 2023, over 1,600 police members left the force, and by the end of the year, estimates said there were only 13,196 police officers still in active duty. In March of this year, gangs launched coordinated attacks on the Port-au-Prince National Penitentiary, resulting in the escape of over 4,000 inmates. This April, gangs launched an attack on the national palace, which was repelled by police. Gangs target police stations and government buildings, using explosives and rifles. Police have responded with patrols and checkpoints. In many cases the police are outgunned; their weaponry is mostly light arms, while gang members have powerful, high-caliber weapons and even drones. Earlier this year, gangs stormed the house of police commissioner Frantz Elbé, then set it on fire when they realized he was not home. In January of this year alone, sixteen police officers were killed, with dozens more wounded. Estimates say the total death toll of all Haitian citizens was over 2,500 from January 1 to March 1 of this year.

The gang violence has also led to a massive humanitarian crisis. Over 50,000 have fled Port-au-Prince for other regions of Haiti, with the UN warning rural areas are not prepared to handle such a large displacement of civilians. Many of these areas are still recovering and rebuilding from Haiti’s 2021 earthquake, which killed over 2,000. The UN’s International Organization for Migration released a statement detailing how, “It should be emphasized that [these] provinces do not have sufficient infrastructure and host communities do not have sufficient resources that can enable them to cope with these massive displacement flows coming from the capital.”

Currently, the United Nations is debating sending an international force to restore order to Haiti. If so, it would be eerily similar to a 2004 operation in which UN troops, in collaboration with American forces, occupied and attempted to restore order to a Haiti dominated by gangs.

As of this writing, the most imminent foreign intervention will come from the Kenyan force that is expected to arrive any day. But gang leaders in Haiti, including Barbecue, have announced that they are ready for a long and brutal fight. They will wage a war of attrition, and claim that after enough casualties, international forces will abandon Haiti to its own devices.

For now, it appears the situation in Haiti will not be resolved any time soon–or without significant bloodshed. But what’s happening in Haiti is a reminder of the constant influence of the past.