Haiti's Acting Prime Minister landed in the capital after a foreign trip to be greeted by police rioting, diminishing political credibility, ever-stronger gangs, and no promise of the international military aid he has pleaded for.
With 14 police officers killed since the start of the year, armed demonstrators, believed to be policemen, some in uniform and wearing balaclavas, stormed the prime minister's residence on January 26. According to the newspaper Haiti Libre, they smashed car windshields, destroyed surveillance cameras, and shot into the air.
On the same day, a separate group of protestors tore through the capital Port-au-Prince, blocking roads and setting tires on fire. They eventually made their way to the city's main airport, where Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry was returning from international travel. The mob briefly prevented Henry from leaving before security forces were able to extract him, according to the Miami Herald.
The violence has not only targeted Haitian officials. The Bahamas' charge d'affaires and his team were stopped by Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d'Haiti - PNH) officers during the January 26 protests and had their weapons and vehicles seized. The Bahamian Prime Minister promptly ordered the departure of all diplomatic personnel from Haiti.
While the mob did not claim affiliation to a specific group, similar tactics have been used by a heavily armed contingent of active and former police known as Fantom 509, with media outlets claiming the group was responsible. Fantom 509 first appeared in 2020 and has been accused of wide-ranging acts of violence, including looting and burning homes, killing members of the public, and even attacking the visiting national soccer team of Belize. The government has labeled them a "terrorist group" and has fired or arrested officers associated with the group.
Murders of Police and Protests
The 14 police officers slain this year bring the total of officers killed to 78 since Henry took office in July 2021, according to a report from Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network (Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains - RNDDH).
Six police officers were murdered on January 25, the day before the protests, by members of the Gran Grif gang during an attack on a police station in Liancourt, a municipality in the central department of Artibonite, the PNH confirmed on social media.
Less than a week earlier, members of the Kraze Baryè group, led by a well-known gang leader named Vitelhomme Innocent, engaged in a shootout with PNH officers in Métivier, a neighborhood in the south of Port-au-Prince. Three officers were killed in that exchange, one later succumbed to injuries, and one disappeared. Two other gunfights earlier in the month left four other officers dead.
Vitelhomme's men went on to burn down a police station in Pétion-Ville, a neighborhood south of Port-au-Prince, on January 29. The station had been abandoned for several days.
At the same time, numerous officers have gone on strike to protest dangerous working conditions and a perceived lack of support from the government, according to the Miami Herald.
No More Elected Officials
Haiti's last elected senators ended their term in office on January 11. This leaves the country without a single elected official, a decline in democratic governance that has worsened steadily since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. The Senate should have 30 members, with 119 lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies. None of these remain in office, a former Haitian interior minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed to InSight Crime.
Yet even before this situation, the Haitian political elite has come under severe scrutiny, being part of the problem. Links between Haiti's political elite and organized crime caused the United States, Canada, and the United Nations to impose a slew of sanctions against current and former Haitian politicians for corruption, drug trafficking, financing gangs, and money laundering.
Henry has fired any member of his cabinet targeted by the sanctions, but this has not brought him much relief. He has himself been under investigation for alleged connections to the murder of President Moïse in July 2021.
Business elites have faced similar scrutiny. According to an investigation by the New Republic magazine, Haiti's richest person, Gilbert Bigio, is accused of financing gang operations. Bigio owns a private port just north of Port-au-Prince, where local media has speculated that gangs have been able to import some of the heavy weapons they are battering the PNH with. In December, Canada sanctioned Bigio and two others for "protecting and enabling" armed criminal gangs.
Renewed Calls for International Aid
Struggling to maintain his legitimacy, Henry has insisted that an international task force is the only way to rein in gang violence and reestablish order. Last October, he published a document asking for "the immediate deployment of a specialized armed force...to stop throughout the territory the humanitarian crisis caused by, among other things, the insecurity resulting from the criminal actions of armed gangs and their sponsors."
He has not stopped trying to raise support since then. When Henry arrived in Haiti on January 26, he was returning from a trip to Argentina, where he attended the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (ECLAC) summit. There, he reiterated his request for a specialized multinational force to help Haiti.
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Henry has found some backing. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has voiced support for deploying a specialized armed force while calling on governments to stop deportations of Haitian migrants. The Dominican Republic has also echoed Haiti's concerns.
But potential leaders of the international effort, namely the United States and Canada, have expressed little interest in sending a military force to help Haiti.
"Haiti must address its continued insecurity challenges," US Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood told a United Nations Security Council on January 24, while Canada's UN Ambassador Robert Rae said future solutions "must be led by Haitians and by Haitian institutions."
Opposition to such an intervention in Haiti has been strident. "An international intervention would mean carnage. The United States does not know the Haitian context," said the former interior minister.
Other observers, however, state that the worse Haiti's security crisis becomes, the more inevitable such an intervention will be.
"US or other foreign forces could establish a modicum of security and stability, particularly in Port-au-Prince, where gangs have largely overtaken the police," said John D. Corciari, associate dean for research and policy engagement at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, in an interview with InSight Crime.
Resistance to sending troops to Haiti is understandable. From 2004 to 2017, the Brazil-led United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) sought to restore and maintain the rule of law and public safety. It left under a cloud, accused of causing a cholera outbreak and of soldiers engaging in human rights abuses and sexual violence.
As the violence has worsened, the number of gangs has grown. Haiti now has around 200 gangs, with 95 based in Port-au-Prince, according to an October 2022 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
The United Nations estimates that the gangs control 60% of Port-au-Prince, but many Haitians believe nearly the entire city has fallen in control of criminal groups, according to the Associated Press.
And the power and political leverage enjoyed by the larger gangs has increased rapidly during Henry's time in office. They are now replacing state institutions as the de facto authorities in much of the Haitian capital.
The clearest example of this has been the G9 and Family gang alliance, which began in 2020 as a criminal federation of nine of the strongest gangs in Port-au-Prince. The group is led by Haiti's most-powerful gang figure, Jimmy Chérizier, alias "Barbecue." The former cop garnered significant power in the political world due to his links to the ruling Haitian Tèt Kale Party (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale – PHTK), that of both Henry and Moïse.
Under Moïse, Barbecue acted as a bridge between the gangs and the government, uniting the legal with the illicit to commit state-sponsored massacres. He previously received material, logistical and financial support from senior officials in the Moïse government, supplying gangs with money, weapons, police uniforms, and government vehicles to carry out the attacks, InSight Crime has previously reported. While more fractured than before, his G9 gang alliance remains the most powerful criminal force in the capital today.
G9 has consistently battled another of Haiti's most powerful criminal structures, the G-PEP federation. Led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre, alias "Gabriel," it provides another example of gangsters amassing political power in Haiti. The G-PEP has a significant presence in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Cité Soleil and previously secured some backing from the political opposition to PHTK, including Réginald Boulos, a Haitian business magnate and former presidential candidate.
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Originally, Haitian gang leaders had government patrons who paid them for specific jobs or attacks. But now, Barbecue, Gabriel, and other figures are on the verge of another transformation. With little opposition, apart from their own in-fighting, and with plenty of firepower, these gang leaders could become warlords. They control public infrastructure, shut down entire neighborhoods, kill and loot with impunity, and largely determine the daily lives of tens of thousands.
The 5 Seconds from the Village-de-Dieu neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, led by alias "Izo", has proven particularly effective at gaining local power and influence. In 2022, the 5 Seconds gang attacked public infrastructure around Port-au-Prince, occupied the country's Supreme Court building for months, created choke points north and south of the capital to extort drivers, and controlled the sale of black market gasoline, which has become essential in Haiti.
"They already are warlords. And, believe me, the likes of Barbecue, Vitelhomme, and Izo are far more popular in their neighborhoods than Ariel Henry. They are the only political masters in Haiti, and they may make a union between themselves," said the former interior minister.
Of these gang leaders, Barbecue has most regularly shown his strength. His repeated blockades of Port-au-Prince's main fuel depot, Terminal Varreux, is a glaring example of gangs targeting crucial services. This sparked fuel shortages, shut down hospitals, and prevented the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Twice in the last two years, he has used these blockades to earn alleged payoffs from the Haitian government.
And while the fuel terminal is partially operational as of January 2023, "the National Port Authority and other commercial ports remain under constant attack by gangs. Road transportation remains at risk, with cargo shipping containers and goods being regularly hijacked and stolen," the UN Integrated Office in Haiti found.
"Haiti is on the brink of a wider conflict that could cost more lives, cause much suffering, and have adverse ripple effects across the region," said Corciari. "Readying the troops is appropriate, but there needs to be much more sense of urgency on the diplomatic and political front."