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How Haiti became a failed state

By Nicolas Forsans (Special to BHN)


The US military started airlifting embassy staff out of Haiti overnight as the Caribbean island descends further into chaos. Rival gangs have joined forces to overrun the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in an attempt to force the resignation of the acting president, Ariel Henry.


The gang leader behind the violence, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, has warned there will be a “civil war that will lead to genocide” if Henry does not step down.


Over the past week, Haiti’s gangs have carried out a series of coordinated attacks on prisons and police stations, breaking more than 3,800 criminals out of Haiti’s two biggest jails, while also laying siege to the country’s port and airport.


Haiti is already facing a humanitarian crisis. It is among the poorest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 90% of the population living below the poverty line. And following the recent wave of violence, around 15,000 people who were already housed in internal displacement camps have been forced to leave again.


Henry came to power in 2021 under a deal agreed with the opposition following the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse. Henry is widely considered illegitimate by the Haitian public and was due to stand down by February 7. But he seems to be extending his stay.


The country last went to the polls in 2016 and there is no timetable for new elections. Over the past six years, the Haitian parliament has ground to a halt: no major laws have been passed and only one budget was voted on.

The regime is weak and lacks control over the country’s territories, leading to a situation where Haiti finds itself hostage to its criminal gangs. US officials have said they will not pressure Henry to leave, but they are urging him to facilitate the transition to a democratic government.



Turbulent history

Violent gangs are not new to Haiti. Between 1957 and 1986, Haiti was ruled as a dictatorship by the Duvalier family. Following an unsuccessful military coup in 1958, François Duvalier sought to bypass the armed forces by creating a private and personal militia called the “Tonton Macoutes”.


The Macoutes  consisted of illiterate fanatics-turned-reckless gunmen acting as a paramilitary force. They were not accountable to any state body or court and were fully empowered to dispose of the paranoid president’s enemies.

The group was dismantled in 1986, but its members continued to terrorize the population. Gangs have been involved in massacres, attacks on labor strikes or peasant uprisings, and politically motivated assassinations ever since.


Haiti took its first step toward a full democratic transition in 1990, electing Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. But the Aristide government was overthrown by a military coup the following year and the Haitian army was subsequently dismantled. The Haitian army was a highly corrupt force, but doing away with it meant the country could no longer fight organized crime.


By that time, Haitian drug traffickers were working closely with Colombia’s Medellín Cartel. They were corrupting officials and the police while shifting hundreds of tons of cocaine from Colombia to secluded docks in Haiti and onwards to the US. Drug trafficking became a little known, yet significant source of income for Haiti’s political and business elites who provided protection and logistical support for drug traffickers.


Efforts aimed at disbanding certain armed groups and even the armed forces never fully succeeded. They never disarmed and have converted themselves into far-right vigilantes such as community defense groups and paramilitaries.


Haiti was then struck by an earthquake in 2010. This allowed thousands of inmates to escape from crumbling jails and take over these self-defense groups. These younger, less politically affiliated and loosely organized gangs are developing into the criminal organizations that are wreaking havoc across Haiti today.


A state run by gangs

Gangs have grown rapidly in number over the past few years. An estimated 200 criminal gangs now exist in Haiti, and around 95 in the capital, Port-au-Prince, alone. This has resulted in massive insecurity, kidnappings, and large-scale attacks on the police, politicians, journalists and civilians.


Gangs now tend to be affiliated to two groups. The most prevalent gang structure is that of “G-9 and Family”, a federation of nine gangs led by alias “Barbecue”. Founded in 2020, the G-9 has been linked to Moïse and Henry’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale – PHTK), for whom the federation is alleged to have ensured votes.


The G-9’s focus is mostly on extortion and kidnappings. It has taken taken control of key economic activities, including the main entry and exit points of Port-au-Prince, and critical infrastructure such as ports and oil terminals, charging “protection payments” for any institutions that operate in these areas.


The recent jailbreaks were a joint operation with “G-Pep”, another gang federation that was previously linked to PHTK’s political opponents.


No end in sight

To bring this crisis to an end, Haiti needs an elected government. But holding elections in this climate won’t be an easy task, nor will it solve the deep-rooted causes of lawlessness.


The conditions for free and fair elections do not currently exist, and the infrastructure that would make them possible is absent. Equally, any free and fair election should take place in a context where gangs do not intimidate voters to vote in a particular way.


In October 2023, the UN Security Council voted to send a Kenyan-led multinational security force to Haiti to reign in the gangs and their spiralling violence. However, the peacekeeping mission has been delayed and no other countries have come forward to provide the resources required to restore peace.

But an election is long overdue, and the status-quo will not solve anything.




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