The problems that simmer beneath the surface in Haiti rarely make it into the news. Only a few events occasionally bubble to the surface, like the thousands of migrants who suddenly showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border in September 2021, followed by the kidnapping of a group of missionaries and their dramatic escape several months later. Gangs physically control more than 60 percent of the capital city and all of Haiti’s major highways. They are holding the country hostage and choking economic life for all, whether through kidnapping ransoms, bribes to corrupt police and officials, illegal fees, or outright murder. Many gang members are young men from poor urban areas, much the same demographic that make up the massive migrations across the Mexico-Texas border.
Last October, the UN representative in Haiti called for the creation of a humanitarian corridor in Haiti to facilitate the movement of fuel from a gang-controlled terminal to areas of humanitarian need. At that point, things in Haiti seem to have started to change. Within a week, Haiti’s Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry appealed for an immediate international military intervention to address his country’s extreme gang problem. According to Defenders Plus, a prominent Haitian human rights group, gangs had been responsible for at least 2,769 deaths in the capital city alone over the previous nine months.
By October 21, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2653, its first sanctions regime in five years. Targeting Haiti, the resolution included asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargo measures. The United States and Canada then airlifted armored fighting vehicles to the Haiti National Police and then began discussing if and how to carry out an international armed intervention against the gangs.
Although some kind of immediate response to the lawlessness in Haiti is necessary and would benefit security and stability in the region, a direct international military intervention, with foreign troops in the streets directly battling the gangs, would not be the right solution. Haitians themselves need to rein in the power of the gangs, though they will need the right kind of outside help.
The Problem of Gangs and Corruption
Financed by powerful business actors willing to pay for protection and intimidate competitors, revenues from kidnapping, and bribes, the gangs exploit a weak security and judicial system in Haiti run by corrupt politicians ruthlessly jockeying for position. Some of the gangs have become so powerful they have begun to make political demands in a bid to capture the state. In frustration and fear, many in the middle class say they are ready to pay the gangs for safety.
The gangs generally rely on their young members, but youths are only nominal members of the gangs. They join because the gangs take advantage of their frustrated need for social validation in their communities, and above all because of their economic desperation. The numbers of youth gang members and their frenetic and risky behavior, which make them highly valuable to the gangs, are a function of their youth and an expression of misdirected resentment against a system that does not provide them with opportunities. Rather than demonstrate commitment to the gang, their behavior reflects their desperate need to feel part of something. This is an important but easily overlooked similarity between Haiti’s gangs and West Africa’s violent extremist and child soldiers phenomena, who fight for ideological or religious reasons. This makes Haiti’s gang members, some as young as nine years old, a vulnerable element of many of Haiti’s gangs. They will fight enemy gangs and prey on unarmed citizens, but being neither ideologues nor military men, they will cut and run in a serious firefight.
Many of the boisterous populist statements made by gang leaders are little more than well-nuanced arguments (usually full of disinformation and conspiracies) to whip up youth grievances into support for the gang’s crimes against rule of law. Gang leader “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former police officer, talks incessantly about the dire economic plight of the neighborhoods under his gang’s control, in a populist effort to portray himself as an urban Robin Hood and to paint his criminality as a war against a predatory state. This resonates well with young people who have never seen any services or benefits from the state. Some 20 miles away near Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, the 400 Mawozo gang boldly took to the radio to claim that its kidnapping of French clergy was revenge for France’s colonial-era abuses.
The Beginnings of an International Coordinated Response
Haiti’s issues are of immediate and serious concern to its neighbors and to North America. Its large and uncontrolled migration benefits international human traffickers in South and Central America all the way to the United States border. Its use as a conduit for drugs into North America strengthens Central American drug cartels. Its rife corruption and weak institutions favor trafficking in weapons and international money-laundering systems from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to Panama and Mexico.
At the North American Leaders Summit that took place in Mexico on January 9, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and U.S. President Joe Biden were joined by their foreign relations and immigration policy teams for discussions that included coordination on Haiti especially regarding immigration, the U.S. border, trafficking in weapons and drugs, responses to international corruption and joint efforts to address Haiti’s gang violence and instability. They committed to continue coordinating with the UN Security Council to support Haiti’s national police. Immediately after the summit, Canada sent more armored vehicles to Haiti, and the United States issued a tighter but clearer and more manageable policy toward migration from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Though the number of migrants that would be admitted into the United States is limited, many Haitians at least welcomed the establishment of a clear process with straightforward rules.
Even though the international community hasn’t agreed on how to structure anti-gang deployment, Canada and the United States have been moving forward vigorously with Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) type sanctions against corrupt public figures, criminal supporters of money laundering, and other practices that support corruption and gang crime. Though these developments have been slow in coming, they may be emboldening some positive changes within Haiti. This week Haiti’s Superior Council of the Judiciary signaled to the Ministry of Justice that it had determined that some 30 judges were in dereliction of duty and would not be recertified, demonstrating a level of performance of the judiciary’s certification and vetting system that has not been seen in Haiti for years. At the same time, Haiti’s Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry has finally formally designated a commission mandated to steer the country toward an electoral process. Comprising a political figure, a leading member of the business sector, and a leader from the religious community, this commission may indicate the prime minister’s commitment to national elections and a visible plan to step aside.
The Right Kind of Intervention
Haiti’s citizens welcome the sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada. But the next steps are equally challenging. The citizens are holding mass protests and strikes, refusing to comply with political control or pay illegal fees. So to most people, denying corrupt politicians access to their millions of dollars is welcome but somewhat abstract. Likewise, the decertification of corrupt judges and the naming of a high commission to steer a transition toward elections is welcome, but equally abstract. People are still getting kidnapped and killed on the street and have to leave their homes due to gang violence. Many Haitians living in urban areas today have not experienced peace. As a Haitian governance specialist who works for the U.S. government told me:
no amount of strategy will work without public safety and accountability. And no political accord will solve anything without destruction of the gangs, because those who are funding the gangs have already lost control of them. Today’s talk of capacity building and technical and logistical support, and creation of administrative and legal systems to restore the rule of law are urgent, but Haiti has been receiving these types of support since the last dictatorship fell in 1986.
From 2004 to 2017, a UN “stabilization mission” was tasked with quelling gang violence and creating a modern police force. MINUSTAH’s mandate was a series of short-term authorizations that never had a sustainable impact. After the departure of MINUSTAH, the gangs grew back very rapidly and have overpowered what is now a weak and underfunded police force. The current speculative discussions about a foreign military or police action against the gangs are a lose-lose proposition. The question is “how” not “when.” Clearly, any direct interventions that involve foreign forces, even if fully successful at dismantling the gangs, would only undermine the credibility of Haiti’s law enforcement forces among its own citizens. Meanwhile, mounting violence by the gangs makes immediate intervention urgent and necessary.
Fighting gangs and training the police do not have to be done separately. In fact, for many reasons they are best done simultaneously. An immediate intervention to dismantle the gangs that is conducted by Haiti’s national forces with technical advice from an international team working from within secured training facilities (i.e. that is not engaged in direct street operations), would empower Haiti’s own national forces to take on the gangs. In this way, it would be a popular intervention because the “face” of the intervention would be a national one.
Helping Haitians Help Themselves
The right kind of intervention would also free Haiti’s youth to join the numerous community-building efforts that are operating below the radar such as public safety, creation of disaster response preparedness units, humanitarian response, ecological restoration, vocational training, and construction. These quiet, small, but effective efforts are inspiring models. Remembering MINUSTAH, the international community will not contribute troops or police to a multinational ground operation against the gangs—nor should they. But international actors would support youth civic participation and governance-building. Local community organizations are having positive results with such good-governance development programs, but have few resources of their own.
To have long term effect, a winning strategy would target not only the gangs but also corrupt business forces and the high-level corrupt politicians in Haiti along with their international enablers, money launderers, and weapons suppliers. It would also have to strengthen the judicial, prosecutorial, and administrative apparatus needed to back up street-level anti-gang law enforcement, and allow Haitians to wrest their governance from the forces of corruption. Between the U.S. and Canadian sanctions and the Haitian government’s decertification of corrupt judges, this process has already begun.
Bertrand Laurent is a governance anthropologist with over 30 years of experience working on economic development, governance, and youth crime issues in Haiti, Jamaica, the Southern Caribbean, West Africa, and Madagascar. He has been an international senior technical specialist whose consulting work has been primarily funded by several U.S. and international development agencies. He is currently executive chair of the Caribbean Institute for Sustainable Development.