Haiti’s gang problem explained briefly

Over the last few months, headlines filled with catastrophes from Haiti’s surge in gang violence have dominated global media. At present, the gangs dominate around 80% of Port-Au-Prince, interfering with daily life for many of those in the capital. According to UNICEF, three million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, and although the exact death toll is unknown, it at least sits above 1500 this year. But who exactly are these gangs, and how did the situation become so dire?

The gang crisis came into focus when, in February, Prime Minister Ariel Henry visited Kenya in an attempt to have a multinational security force be deployed to Haiti. Tensions rose, and there then occurred a series of gang led attacks on police stations. On March 5th, these gangs attempted to secure control of the national airport and exchanged gunfire with police and soldiers present. This prevented Ariel Henry returning to his country, leading to his resignation on March 11th. He agreed to step aside properly when a transitional counsel was created, but the swearing in of this counsel has been largely delayed by internal conflicts. None of the nine members have yet been sworn in, and so chaos continues to reign the streets of Port Au Prince.

There are believed to be around 200 gangs operating in Haiti, with two rival gang coalitions being formed in the capital. The Revolutionary Forces of the G9 family and allies is led by Cherizier, a controversial former police officer who had strong ties with the assassinated former president Jovenel Moise. This is the larger alliance, controlling over 80% of Port-Au-Prince. This March, they led a mass prison break in which over 4,000 inmates escaped, an event which led to a 72-hour curfew being imposed on Haiti and was another major factor in Henry’s resignation.  The second gang, GPep, is led by Gabrielle Jean-Pierre (aka Ti Gabriel) is based in the impoverished suburb Cite Soleil, where many of the recent shootouts have occurred. This gang is typically associated with Haitian opposition parties. Despite the long-term rivalry, Cherizier stated that in September 2023, the two gangs reached a pact known as viv ansanm (live together) to cooperate in the ousting of Ariel Henry. 

The crisis can be traced back to a number of events, the most obvious being President Moïse’s assassination three years ago. A group of foreign mercenaries, primarily made up of Colombians, were responsible for the killing, but many people in power were involved. The president’s widow allegedly even conspired with a former president to kill Moïse and replace him with herself. Unsurprisingly, this event has since triggered political turmoil, which has perhaps made these gangs feel they must step up to fill the power vacuum. Others blame the 2010 earthquake, which caused economic catastrophe for the country. The disaster destroyed much of the capital and plunged many into poverty, as well as causing resentment among citizens of the government’s poor handling of the crisis. This mix of hopelessness and anger is likely to have played a central role in many turning to gangs as a seeming solution.

Others look even further back to the source of this anger pointing to Haiti’s troubled history of suffering from exploitative international interventions (such as that of the US from 1915-34) to having had to pay reparations to France which ‘severely hampered economic growth and the development of robust public services.’ Haiti has certainly been in trouble for a long time, and so this crisis was not unexpected. We must hope that the power vacuum is soon filled by a more stable group for these tensions to simmer down.

Image: Nicolas Raymond on Flickr

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