Haiti: Gangs, Violence and a State in Total Chaos


A few days ago, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an official visit to Haiti, trying to shed light on the situation for the world to see. Tweeting from Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, Guterres expressed his solidarity with the Haitian people and called for an international response against the lawlessness and violence that has swallowed the country. It is not the time to forget Haiti, he said, but have his words fallen on deaf ears? The situation in Haiti is more complicated than it seems, and the more delay there is to an international response, the more dead bodies will be piling up throughout the country.

A Nation in Recovery

On January 12, 2010, Haiti was hit with a 7.0 Mw earthquake leaving the island nation in a state of total devastation. Around 220.000 people lost their lives while thousands more were injured. The UN responded with a disaster fund relief, to try and help the nation to recover. However, 13 years later, and despite billions of dollars poured into the country, the situation seems more chaotic than ever. The domino effect started in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake when the disorganization and weakness of the Haitian state came to light. At that period, the President of the country, René Préval, seemed unable to grasp the reality of the situation in his nation. At the crucial moment when the people of Haiti needed a strong firm leader to guide them through, he disappeared from the public sphere, reducing himself to a bystander role inside of being the main actor.

It did not help at all that the growing corruption as a result of Préval’s lack of policies was in the way of the nation’s recovery. For decades, Haiti has had the stigma of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and that is reflected in the response to the 2010 earthquake. Apart from an absent President, Haiti suffered from a long series of incompetence from its public sector. A weak central administration seems to be the root of the problem, coming up as a result of unstable governments over the years. Instead of focusing on a drastic reformation of its public administration that could help develop its urban and rural areas, the Haitian governments were focused on taxation and policies that would increase their public funding. This resulted in an uncontrollable state of bribery and lawlessness, where unskilled contractors were commissioned to build houses in unsafe areas without urban planning and safety standards. As a result, many areas became hazardous environments that simply could not sustain the catastrophic impact of the earthquake. This was the first humanitarian crisis that served as a domino for what was coming up 10 years later. A state in chaos with citizens showing little or no trust toward government officials.

The Assassination of Jovenel Moïse

On July 7, 2021, the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated at his home in Pétion-Ville. He served as the 43rd President of Haiti from 2017 until his assassination in 2021. During his presidency Moïse was praised for his role in the reconstruction of the country, focusing on building hydropower plants and water reservoirs. In addition, he focused on the infrastructure of the country, which suffered a lot in the last decade. He built several roads throughout the country while rebuilding and repaving already existing ones. However, due to several allegations of corruption, especially in the infrastructure domain, Moïse’s presidency was met with mixed emotions. On one hand, he was praised for his iron will and efforts to stabilize the country, but on the other hand, he was accused of consolidating all power to himself and crumbling any sort of political opposition against him.

Although he was accused of corruption on certain infrastructure projects, Moïse was determined to deal with the ongoing violence that was caused in his country by notorious gangs of arms and drug dealers. It is believed that the real cause of his assassination was his knowledge of certain powerful people in Haiti that were involved in criminal activities. It is believed that Moïse had in his possession certain documents that involved former President Michel Martelly and many other powerful people around him that were part of the Haitian cartels that control the drug and arms smuggling in and out of the country. However, after 2 years of stalled investigations and multiple arrests, the case of his assassination has not been solved, with many fearing that the perpetrators are still pulling the strings in Haiti’s political arena. Thus, the situation in Haiti has deteriorated, with gangs running the streets and a temporary government unable to cope with the increased violence.

A Fight For Survival

In the streets of Haiti, only one thing matters. Survival. Years of neglect by their governments, combined with political violence, corruption, and an alarming number of natural disasters, have left the Haitian people with very few options for survival. Many have joined the increasing number of gangs that became the product of political instability. For others, this disturbing number of gangs has left them paralyzed against uncontrollable violence. It is estimated that over the last decade, the number of gangs has increased all over the island. According to a report issued by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, there are over 200 gangs in Haiti, with most of the gangs holding the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, hostage under their influence. It is believed that about 90 gangs fight for control of the capital city.

With limited military and police force ensuring stability, the armed gangs of Haiti have become the new norm of day-to-day life.After the assassination of the former President and the earthquake that hit the country just a month after this event, the political profile of the country changed instantly. There is no President, there are no government officials, and there is no police force capable of stopping the violence. As a result, in some cases, gangs have become the guarantors of limited security for the people of Haiti. Armed gangs control most of the economy in the country, holding key infrastructures and services, such as electricity and water supply. They are profiting from illegal arms trafficking as well as drug smuggling, kidnapping, and establishing protection rackets. Many gangs have evolved from armed neighborhood watch to violent political forces with the power to recruit new members daily and establish their authority over large territorial areas around the island.

International Intervention: A recipe for disaster?

Although Antonio Guterres emphasized the need for international intervention in Haiti to restore stability in the country, his call for help might find some resistance as the perils for a foreign intervention seem to find little to no support. Haiti has a long history of international interventions, with the most painful being the U.S. occupation of the island from 1915 to 1934, where all the key aspects of the Haitian economy were controlled by American bureaucrats that further damaged the already fragile economy of Haiti. U.S. and UN forces also intervened in the late 90s, restoring the leader of Haiti at that time, Jean Bertrand Aristide, after a military coup ousted him for three years. However, even then, the presence of foreign troops did nothing to restore order, with political elites using violence through third parties, particularly gangs, to fight for power in the Haitian political arena.

Apart from their failure to successfully restore order and stability, foreign forces have been accused of taking sides in local politics, being heavily influenced by political oligarchs who used their forces as means to achieve their own goals. At the latest session of the Security Council, Russia and China were skeptical about the authorization of international intervention in Haiti. The Russian Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy emphasized the need to listen to all Haitian voices, especially the ones that are against this proposition. It is important to stress the fact that Russia was eager to help Haiti when the former President of the country was alive. However, after his assassination and the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, it seems that their political goals on the island have changed.

Can international intervention again be the key to the stability of the country? Some voices from the inside of the social structure in Haiti say yes, repeating an old French quote: “Another humiliation won’t make much of a difference”. The humiliation part emphasizes the numerous failed interventions in the country before. What harm can one more do? However, this is the same pathetic mindset that has sunk the country into uncertainty and chaos. Two things need to be focused on and changed. Firstly, the removal of the current Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Since his rise to power, Henry has been a disaster for Haitians, abandoning the country to the mercy of political and gang violence. In addition, he has been one of the main suspects in the assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse, as he is accused of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate him. Not to mention, that a lot of the political figures around him are responsible for making the situation in Haiti more chaotic by supporting different armed gangs for their political gains.

The second most important task that needs to be resolved in Haiti before even talking about any potential international assistance, is the situation on the ground with the various armed groups. It would not be fair to say that everyone in Haiti that owns a gun belongs to a gang. The fight for survival is an agonizing one and if people are left without government and police protection, they need to protect themselves as much as possible. Until the situation is not solved on the ground and politicians take responsibility for their actions, supporting and funding criminals, we can not talk about intervention and especially a military one. There needs to be unity among the people under a single banner that can quite possibly come out of the slums and violence that surrounds the country. There has to be a clear clarification between armed gangs and armed groups, both of which project different goals. It’s only after these problems are solved in Haiti that we can talk about foreign help and assistance.

Nikita Triandafillidis
Nikita Triandafillidis
Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs


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