Rural gangs have clashed with police in Haiti’s primary agricultural region in the latest sign of criminal violence disrupting food production and pushing the Caribbean nation closer to an acute hunger crisis.
Kokorat San Ras, a violent rural gang with a history of police killings, attacked the town of Estère in the Artibonite department on February 22, according to reports by Haitian news outlet Le Nouvelliste.
The gang fired at police with automatic weapons, forcing officers to retreat to the town’s police station, which they later abandoned. The shootout left at least four people injured, news outlet AlterPresse reported.
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Though the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d'Haiti - PNH) reclaimed the police station later that day, the wider pattern of instability in Artibonite remains worrying.
Artibonite is Haiti’s main agricultural region and is a hotspot for rice cultivation. Though US rice dominates local markets, 90% of Haiti’s domestic rice production takes place in Artibonite, where 34,500 hectares of fields were given over to the production of rice and staples as of 2010.
The attack in Estère is just the latest in a series of violent events that have worsened an already grave situation in the country's vital agricultural zone.
In January and February, the Baz Gran Grif gang carried out several raids on municipalities across Artibonite. Violence peaked in late January when the gang murdered six police officers in an attack on a police station in Liancourt. The string of attacks led a hospital that serves 700,000 people to suspend all services, while thousands of people were forced to flee the area, according to Associated Press. A subsequent lack of maintenance has led to irrigation canals without water for several weeks, according to AlterPresse.
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The disruption of food production in this key region marks the latest blow Haiti's gangs have inflicted on the country's beleaguered economy. It arrives at a perilous time.
Gangs have blockaded highways and ports and taken control of key infrastructure since the start of Haiti’s political and security crisis in 2021. In October 2022, the 5 Seconds gang battled for two days with police over the country’s largest flour mill, Moulins d’Haiti. The country’s major criminal federation, G9 and Family (G9 an fanmi – G9), headed by former police officer Jimmy Chérizier, alias "Barbecue," has repeatedly blockaded Terminal Varreux, a major fuel depot, causing difficulty distributing food and medicines. In rural areas, gangs routinely extort and steal from travelers on highways.
Now, some 4.7 million Haitians -- or around 40% of the population -- are facing an acute hunger crisis, according to an October United Nations report.
Artibonite suffered a disastrous year for rice cultivation in 2022, agronomist Chavannes Jean Baptiste and founder of the country’s largest farmers' association, told Haiti Libre. As the region's rice fields have become more vulnerable to drought, the importance of irrigation systems in agricultural production has increased. But poor maintenance of irrigation systems over the last decade, partly caused by gang activity, has hampered farmers' efforts.
Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) told InSight Crime that other reasons could be at play. "There’s got to be some [lack of maintenance] just because people don’t want to be out if they’re afraid of getting killed. But also I expect that a lot of it is just government incompetency and corruption,” he said.
In September last year, Haiti's dire food situation was felt in its prisons. As InSight Crime reported, Haitian prisoners died from malnutrition while agents of the National Penitentiary Administration were forced to ask local farmers to help feed prisoners.
With no solution to the gang crisis in sight, instability perpetrated by gangs like Kokorat San Ras may continue to disrupt agricultural processes in Artibonite, worsening Haiti’s food security.