An arms trafficking scandal involving the Episcopal Church has highlighted the privileged customs statuses that religious and non-governmental organizations enjoy in Haiti, which may offer arms traffickers a route to bring high-powered weapons into the country.
Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network (Réseau National des Défense de Droits Humains – RNDDH) released a report on October 14, regarding arms trafficking accusations for which three church officials and other individuals have so far been arrested.
According to the report, church officials were involved in an attempt to ship powerful weapons from the United States to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
On July 14, Haitian customs authorities seized 17 semi-automatic weapons, 12 shotguns, and four pistols from containers addressed to the Episcopal Church and sent by Florida-based company, Rémy Multi Services. An assortment of ammunition and $50,000 in counterfeit bills were also discovered, the report detailed.
Haitian authorities ordered an arrest warrant against the church’s president, Father Jean Madoché Vil, on September 23 for suspicion of arms trafficking, local media reported.
Father Vil is the highest-ranking member of the Episcopal Church to be accused of trafficking weapons. But he isn’t the only one.
HaitiLibre reported that Father Frantz Cole, the church’s executive secretary, was arrested on August 17 on suspicion of his own connection to the July weapons seizure. Jean Mary Jean Gilles, the church’s accountant, was also arrested.
The church has previously denied any involvement in arms trafficking.
“If individuals show up at customs to pick up containers in the name of the Episcopal Church, they can only be false documents used by criminal networks,” the church said in a July statement.
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The church’s international infrastructure and customs status make it an attractive option for traffickers looking to take increasingly powerful weapons into a country already neck-deep in gang-fueled violence.
Whether the Episcopal Church of Haiti is responsible for the arms trafficking attempted under its name remains unclear. But the church’s name, prestige, and the shielding it enjoys from strict oversight are enticing to criminal actors.
The RNDDH noted that some institutions have “such morality and reputation that customs officers have become accustomed to letting their containers through without checking their contents.” But at least one other container shipment for the church has been refused because “the quietus of the Episcopal Church of Haiti was used by too many people,” the RNDDH stated.
RNDDH’s executive director, Pierre Esperance, told InSight Crime that the privileged status of the church and other non-governmental organizations within Haiti allows individuals to import goods that can be exempt from taxes and customs.
“These organizations don’t pay any taxes. That’s why people within the organizations sell and make a business out of this customs [privilege],” he said.
Churches in both Latin America and the Caribbean have previously served as vessels for illicit economies. In 2021, a Christian non-profit was accused of a far-reaching money laundering scandal just across the border in the Dominican Republic.
A more infamous case took place several years ago in Guatemala when the founder and lead pastor of the country’s largest evangelical church were implicated in a money laundering scheme on behalf of one of Guatemala’s top drug traffickers.
In Haiti, these loopholes are particularly concerning as arms traffickers appear to funnel higher-caliber weapons into a country in the midst of a crisis.
US officials have already begun sounding the alarm that Haitian arms trafficking is graduating from pistols to more military-grade long rifles, according to Anthony Salisbury, chief of the Miami Homeland Security Investigations office.
Referencing the seizures of belt-fed machine guns and .50 caliber rifles, Salisbury told The Miami Herald in August that “in the wrong hands, these weapons are capable of causing untold destruction.”
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