Haiti’s criminal landscape has been shaped by the country’s tumultuous history, marked by longstanding political instability, economic challenges, and repeated natural disasters.
Gangs and other criminal networks in Haiti have gained strength and influence since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, which remains unsolved. The Caribbean nation’s lack of legitimate political leadership paired with its worsening security situation has led some experts to warn that Haiti’s domestic crime problems could have long-term, region-wide impacts.
- Criminal Groups
- Security Forces
- Judicial System
Haiti is one of the 15 sovereign countries in the Caribbean region. It occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic to its east. To its west, across the Windward Passage, lie Cuba and Jamaica. To the north sit the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas, and the US state of Florida.
The nation’s porous maritime and land borders, and its proximity to the United States, make it an ideal transit point for drugs, arriving in planes and boats from Colombia and Venezuela. A plethora of clandestine airstrips in the interior and secluded docks along the coast have long helped traffickers move drugs through the country.
The country’s location has made it particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes, which have caused significant economic damage and resulted in political instability. These disasters have generated flows of international aid to Haiti, but these have been the subject of corruption scandals. International post-disaster assistance has also extended to the security realm, but those deployments have also been plagued with problems.
Haiti’s turbulent political situation, frequent natural disasters, and poor economic situation have led hundreds of thousands of Haitians to flee the country in recent years. This exodus has fueled the growth of human smuggling networks that traverse the dangerous and, at times, fatal seas between Caribbean neighbors.
After becoming a French colony in the 18th century, Haiti’s enslaved population revolted in 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. After years of fighting, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804.
After independence, Haiti was beset by political instability, economic difficulties, and foreign interventions, including an occupation by US forces from 1915 to 1934. The Duvalier family, led by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and later his son Jean-Claude, nicknamed “Baby Doc,” ruled Haiti as a dictatorship from 1957 to 1986.
During the 1970s and 1980s, most cocaine consumed in the US was trafficked through the Caribbean, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Drug trafficking became a major source of income for Haiti’s political and business elite, who used their connections to protect drug traffickers and launder money. The government of Jean-Claude Duvalier was particularly notorious for its involvement in drug trafficking. The regime provided protection and logistical support for Colombian drug traffickers who used Haiti as a transit point.
In 1986, protests and strikes motivated by economic and political grievances ousted Baby Doc Duvalier. Haiti underwent a brief democratic transition in 1990 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president. However, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup and forced into exile the following year. A military regime ruled the country until 1994, when US troops intervened to restore Aristide to power. Upon returning to power, Aristide disbanded the Haitian army, a highly corrupt security force, but this move also robbed Haiti of another method of fighting organized crime and drug trafficking.
Aristide’s presidency during the latter half of the 1990s was marred by involvement in corruption, political violence, and participation in drug trafficking. During his terms as president, Haitian drug traffickers worked with the Medellín Cartel, and later the Norte del Valle Cartel, to move hundreds of tons of cocaine from Colombia through Haiti and into the United States, allegedly bribing local officials, police, and even Aristide himself.
In 2004, Aristide was overthrown again, and a UN peacekeeping mission was established to stabilize the country. Drug traffickers continued to shift their operations to overland routes via Central America after authorities cracked down on smuggling along the maritime passage. Nonetheless, the US State Department estimated that by 2006, 8% of the cocaine reaching the US still went through Hispaniola.
In 2010, a devastating earthquake killed over 200,000 Haitians, displaced millions more, and caused widespread destruction.
Shortly after the earthquake, in 2011, Michel Martelly was elected president, inheriting control of a country with dire poverty levels, rising violence, and deep-seated corruption. Martelly was accused of embezzlement in the famous Petrocaribe scandal in 2017, involving the disappearance of $3.8 billion from a Venezuelan oil subsidy program meant to provide discounted oil to Haiti.
In 2016, Haiti again held elections, but fraud and voter suppression allegations sparked protests and delegitimized the newly elected Jovenel Moïse. In 2018, protests erupted across Haiti, calling for the resignation of Moïse, who was accused of corruption and mismanagement of the country’s resources.
In 2021, Moïse was assassinated at his home in Port-au-Prince, plunging the country into further political turmoil. Ariel Henry became the de-facto acting Prime Minster while the country erupted in protests and violence.
Since the assassination, the interim government has struggled to control much of the country. Pervasive gang governance of Port-au-Prince, mass kidnappings, and the never-ceasing flow of guns into the country have contributed to Haiti’s continued deterioration.
In 2022, the UN, US, and Canadian governments imposed coordinated sanctions targeting Haitian gang leaders, politicians, and business elite for their alleged role in drug trafficking, money laundering, and financing criminal activity, but there have been few consequences so far.
Hundreds of gangs exist throughout Haiti, and Port-au-Prince has seen the worst violence stemming from criminal groups. The UN estimates that the gangs control 60% of the capital city, but many Haitians believe nearly the entire city has fallen under the control of criminal groups. A few groups are among the most powerful.
G9 and Family (G9 an fanmi – G9) is a gang federation of nine of the strongest gangs in Port-au-Prince. G9 is led by Jimmy Chérizier, alias “Barbecue,” a former police officer. The group was previously linked to the Moïse and Henry’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale – PHTK), acting as vigilante enforcers for the party. Barbecue cut ties with them after Moïse’s assassination, however, as the group has gained significant political capital in the areas it controls in Port-au-Prince.
G9 and Family are focused mainly on extortion but also carry out kidnappings for ransom and have taken over public services such as electricity or water provision for payment. Barbecue and G9 have twice blockaded Terminal Varreux, Haiti’s largest oil terminal, a coordinated effort by criminal groups to restrict access to fuel across Haiti to destabilize the government.
The group’s main rival is G-PEP, another gain federation led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre, alias “Gabriel.” PHTK’s political opponents broadly support the group, but it remains unclear to what extent it receives material or financial support. They are allied with 400 Mawozo, one of Haiti’s largest singular criminal groups, who rose to prominence by kidnapping 17 Western missionaries in 2021 but have also abducted thousands of Haitians.
Many other gangs exist, but other noteworthy groups include the 5 Seconds gang, which has captured critical infrastructure and facilities, such as Haiti’s Supreme Court building, and ransomed the government for their release. The Kraze Barye gang, led by Vitel’homme Innocent, has also risen to prominence after killing several police officers and burning down a police station in early 2023.
Haiti has weak security forces, plagued by corruption, ineffectiveness, ties to gangs, chronic understaffing, and underfunding.
The principal law enforcement agency is the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d’Haiti – PNH), created in 1995 to replace the disbanded Haitian Armed Forces, accused of human rights abuses and involvement in coups.
The absence of a functioning elected government means that security forces face little supervision or instruction, and have often veered into crime. Chronically underpaid PNH officers have been accused of involvement in arms trafficking, state-sponsored massacres of civilians, and direct ties or membership in some of Haiti’s gangs.
A heavily armed contingent of active and former police, known as the Fantom 509, operates as a criminal group and has previously attacked government buildings and facilities to demand better pay and working conditions for police officers.
Haiti’s Coast Guard, part of the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d’Haïti – PNH), suffers from similar understaffing, despite being tasked with guarding the more than 900 miles of coastline.
The judicial system in Haiti has faced many challenges in recent years, including limited resources, corruption, and political interference. Overburdened by postponed judicial appointments, an upsurge in violence, and protests by judges and court clerks calling for improved salaries and working conditions, the system has all but collapsed.
In June and July 2022, gangs invaded the Supreme Court building in Port-au-Prince, destroying records and evidence.
Haiti’s prisons are plagued by overcrowding, underfunding, limited resources, and poor oversight.
Haitian prisons house a range of detainees, many of whom committed misdemeanors, like petty theft or minor disputes, or are imprisoned arbitrarily for protesting and violent criminals or gang members.
As many as 80% of the nation’s nearly 12,000 prison population is being held in pre-trial detention, meaning they have never had a trial due to the country’s deteriorating justice system.
Repeated mass prison escapes also highlight the shortcomings within the penitentiary system. Over 170 inmates escaped in a single event in 2016, while over 300 broke free during a shootout between guards and armed assailants.
Prisons also suffer from a critical shortage of food and staff, leading to well over 100 incarcerated Haitians dying in 2022.
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