There is currently a heated debate raging in the United States and Haiti centering on the possibility of a US-backed military intervention into the country. Haiti’s own acting head of state has called for international military intervention, while civil society and advocacy groups are protesting against that option in the streets of both the United States and Haiti.
The situation in the Caribbean country has undoubtedly turned dire, as violence, insecurity, and suffering have reached exceptional levels. Schools have been closed for months, with most institutions unable to properly complete the previous academic year, further magnifying the educational losses from the pandemic. Gang violence is rampant, hospitals are being forced to reduce services, gas is a scarce luxury, the capital has been effectively closed off from the rest of the country, and cholera has flared back up again after nearly being eliminated completely, posing a tremendous humanitarian threat.
But just what is the nature of all this insecurity? Standard news media coverage is portraying Haiti as a society in anarchy, in which, following the 2021 assassination of Haiti’s former president Jovenel Moïse, street-level delinquents have suddenly sprung up to fill a power vacuum.
This narrative is not true. Unfortunately, however, the policy decisions of the United States and the international community often show a similar naïve and short-sighted understanding of the situation. Without a more sophisticated understanding, any intervention, military or otherwise, is bound to have little effect on addressing the root causes of this situation. In fact, they might just make it worse, and many previous interventions have done exactly that.
UNDERSTANDING HAITI’S POLITICAL GANGS
The truth is that the gangs of Haiti do not operate as autonomous groups but as direct extensions of the ruling class of the country. The current security situation in Haiti, therefore, is not the replacement of a collapsed government, but the natural evolution of a political system that has been evolving for over 70 years. In this system, the use of non-state armed actors has always been key to holding power. Those who were in power before the assassination of Moïse are still very much the same ones in power, and they are in fact likely benefitting from the situation. The “gangs” themselves, then, are more properly characterized as paramilitary forces — mercenaries who provide militaristic and violent services for the political and business elite who profit massively from the relationship.
The US and the international community do have some tools at their disposal, which can tamper violence and promote stability in Haiti outside of direct military intervention.
Policy responses that do not understand this reality are doomed to have little effect. As a main case in point, on Oct. 21, 2022, the UN adopted sanctions targeted at those facilitating violence, but only one individual was named — Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier. Barbecue, the leader of the powerful “G9” alliance, is probably Haiti’s most famous “bandit.” He has a colorful personality and promotes himself as a revolutionary force in Haiti, even as his gangsters rape and extort many of the country’s poorest and most oppressed. But despite his moniker as “chief” of the G9 alliance, many Haitians will argue that he has powerful bosses — “chèf” in Kreyol — behind him. And simply targeting street-level gang leaders like Barbecue without eliminating the impunity of the true power-holders behind these groups will not improve security.
Barbecue is a prime example of a gangster with a history of receiving direct orders from political groups. His group aligned themselves with former President Moïse, who came under intense scrutiny for the 2018 PetroCaribe scandal when it became clear that two former presidential administrations had embezzled at least $2 billion that was intended for social programs and economic development. Haitians took to the streets to protest, demanding answers. One neighborhood, La Saline, was known as a haven for the opposition movement. On Nov. 13, 2018, a group led by Barbecue and composed of gangsters and police officers entered La Saline and committed a brutal massacre, including indiscriminately shooting with gunfire (even at schools), burning people alive, and committing sexual violence against women. Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan, a high-level official of Moïse’s administration, was implicated by both the UN and the United States as coordinating with Barbecue in this massacre, including planning the attack and providing them with weapons. Barbecue himself, therefore, is a prime example of how deeply interconnected the gangs of Haiti are to the political class as well as the hierarchical nature of this relationship.
The use of non-state armed actors in Haitian politics began under the Duvalier regime in the 1960s when the dictator organized his volunteer “Tonton Macoute” forces to terrorize political opposition and control the military. “Gangs” became the key pieces in political games under the second Aristide regime in the 2000s, when Aristide formed his “Chimeras” to provide a counterbalance against the forces of his rivals, who were composed of Haiti’s wealthy and traditionally powerful families. Today, the major gangs are essential assets for competing political parties as well as Haiti’s wealthy elite. These elite families exist on a rung even above the traditional “bourgeoisie,” with net worths reaching over $500 million, or higher. They control much of the private sector, such as supermarkets, banks, car dealerships, and more. For example, Clifford Brandt, heir to the elite Brandt family, led a multi-million dollar kidnapping ring consisting of current and former police officers. His family is often connected to former President Michel Martelly. Haitian business magnate Reginald Boulos has been alleged to be the main funder of the G-Pèp gang, the main rival to Barbecue’s G9 gang. There are clear connections, then, between Haiti’s public, private, and gang sectors.
What role do these gangs, or paramilitary groups, play within Haiti’s economic and political structure? They provide essential violent services for the political and business elite, such as campaigning and fundraising for political campaigns (often through mass kidnappings for profit); intimidating voters and opposition groups; committing acts of political terror like assassinations and mass killings; and extorting businesses and intimidating potential competitors in the private sphere.
What incentives are at play in continuing the current status quo of chaos? There are huge amounts of money to be made in the current environment. For example, smuggling arms currently into Haiti is highly profitable. A $400 or $500 firearm purchased in the United States currently can sell for over $3000 on the Haitian black market. A police officer making $200-$300 a month (and often workers for the Haitian state go months without any salary at all), can make $20,000 by participating in one gang-related mission, such as allowing a shipment of arms to go through a port unencumbered. For example, many were shocked when, in July of this year, a shipping container in the name of the Episcopalian church supposedly full of humanitarian goods was found brimming with firearms and military equipment. With gangs controlling the gas ports (although the largest gas terminal has recently been temporarily liberated), gas is hard to find, and is mostly bought and sold in the informal market, where prices can reach up to $15 per gallon. Drug smuggling and kidnappings for extortion remain a key source of revenue as well for those perpetuating the violence.
WHAT TO DO?
It is no secret that past US and UN interventions in Haiti have often been either ineffective or even destructive (such as UN peacekeeping forces introducing cholera to the country by negligence in 2010). However, the United States and the international community do have some tools at their disposal, which can tamper violence and promote stability in Haiti outside of direct military intervention. These tools include seriously enforcing US laws on illegal arms trafficking and money laundering, or even sanctions targeted toward the true power-holders behind the gangsters. In order for these tools to be effective, they must go beyond simply targeting low-level players like Barbecue. These are, ultimately, low-level players.
In a surprising escalation, just last week, Canada announced sanctions against a variety of high-profile players — including former president Martelly, former prime ministers Laurent Lamothe and John-Henry Céant, and senator Rony Célestin for participating in Haiti’s drug trade and financing the gang violence. These actions represent cause for hope that the international community may finally be coming to terms with who is truly behind the violence in Haiti.
The international community, however, can and should continue to do more. They should build off of this momentum by targeting not only those in the political arena but also the true power brokers in the private sector, who wield tremendous amounts of power and wealth and who use gang violence to perpetuate their power. It is only by properly understanding the true nature of Haiti’s gangs and the impunity of those behind them that the international community can contribute to improving security and creating the space needed for the Haitian people to take back control of their country.
Andrew Scruggs is a PhD student at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and an assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, where his research focuses on Haiti’s economy and political systems, as well as sustainable development throughout the Americas. He also works as a consultant for the University of Fondwa, Haiti’s only rural university. He has a masters in international development from the Paris School of International Affairs and a bachelor’s in International Economics from the University of Notre Dame. He has deep personal ties to the country, including family in Port-au-Prince. Prior to coming to RAND, he worked in Haiti for three years as part of the University of Fondwa’s leadership team and as a researcher.