In late September, Haiti’s most powerful gang leader, former police officer Jimmy Chérizier, also nicknamed “Barbecue”, threatened an insurrection against the country’s Prime Minister. Since the assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, the country’s situation has not stabilized. Armed gangs have outnumbered and outgunned the underpaid and demoralized authorities in Port-au-Prince. The country is facing a crisis as law and order seem to lose their meaning and authority. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that nearly 2,800 intentional killings and close to 1,500 cases of kidnapping were recorded between October 2022 and June 2023. He also mentioned that 80% of the criminal acts in the Carribean country were committed in the Port-au-Prince area alone and are expanding to the surrounding regions. Mr. Guterres added that there is also a significant increase in the number of rape cases and other forms of sexual violence.

The Emergence of Criminal Gangs

Gang rivalries are centered around two gang federations, G9 and G-PEP. The former is affiliated with the ruling Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) and the latter is backed by PHTK’s oppositions. These groups hold responsibility for terrorizing Haitian civilians with death threats, extortion, murder, rape, and abduction. Gangs in Haiti are “inherently political” and date back to the 1950s, when the country’s dictator, President François Duvalier, formed and used a paramilitary organization called “Tontons Macoutes” as the government’s prominent domestic security force. They were responsible for notable operations involving mass killings and assassinations. 

These two gang alliances originated between 2001 and 2004 as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took power. Just like his predecessors, Aristide created his own armed group called “Chimères” and disbanded the Haitian Armed Forces for his political interest. In 2004, a coalition of gangs and former soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army, the National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation and Reconstruction of Haiti, carried out a successful coup d’état against Aristide’s rule. The loss of government backing for Chimères structured today’s political situation where former army members and gangs blend and warlords control Port-au-Prince, especially in the capital’s slum Cité Soleil, offering their services to corrupt politicians and businessmen.

The International community’s struggle between intervention and solidarity

Following numerous reports regarding the increasing violence and instability, talks of international intervention have circulated since October last year. The United States hoped for Canada to take leadership in the intervention but Trudeau has been reluctant to take on the role considering the complexity of the situation on the ground. Kenya’s president, William Ruto, announced last month that his country would spearhead a UN-backed security mission in Haiti. However, domestic opposition in the Kenyan parliament calls for a vote before sending troops to Haiti, especially with the presence of the al-Shabaab terrorist group that Kenya’s security force needs to defend against.

Indeed, each time Haiti is in crisis, there is always a call for intervention from the international community. In 2010, the country experienced a devastating earthquake that invited billions of dollars that did not help but instead made Haiti an “aid state,” disregarding the Haitian leadership capacity and furthering corruption and foreign exploitation. Not long after the deadly natural disaster, thousands of Haitians were killed by cholera outbreaks. The epidemic “traced to infected United Nations peacekeepers” that were imported from Nepal. It was not until last year that Haiti was declared cholera-free. Haiti is not the only failed state where foreign aid and military intervention had a contentious impact. A roster of examples in numerous countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia shows that international aid and intervention in failed states do not always help but instead often worsen their already vulnerable political and socioeconomic situation.

In addition, centuries of international meddling have brought colonialism, slavery, and debt to Haiti. Many members of local civil society argue that foreign intervention will not solve the crisis especially when Haiti is currently left with no elected officials and when G9 leader Barbecue promises to fight potential foreign forces to death. Civilians are fighting back collectively against violent gangs through a vigilante grassroots movement called “Bwa Kale”. It is a difficult situation but as a Haitian told the Guardian, “Haiti’s problems can only be solved by Haitians”. Echoing the voice of D. Alissa Trotz of the University of Toronto after the devastating 2010 earthquake, “It is support and solidarity, not help that is needed now more than ever. Our hearts are full for Haiti. Let it really mean something this time.”

Edited by Margaux Zani

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Joshua Miller.