“They Don’t Carry Haiti in their Hearts”: Lessons from the Past for the Future of Haiti and the upcoming Kenyan-led MSS mission

  Focus - Allegati
  13 June 2024
  22 minutes, 51 seconds

Abstract

The quotation above comes from a Sky News interview with Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, one of Haiti's most notorious gang leaders (Sky News, March 2024). On May 29th, the transitional council in Haiti, established after the resignation of former Prime Minister Ariel Henry, named Garry Conille as the new Prime Minister of the country. Conille, who served as prime minister between 2011 and 2012, had been working as a regional director for UNICEF prior to his appointment (Coto, 2024; DW, May 2024). The decision came in the midst of what has been a turbulent period in Haitian history. A Kenya-led security mission is expected to start operations in Haiti soon, as a delegation of the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission has recently arrived to better assess the situation before full deployment (Phillips and Gambino, 2024; Cotrino, 2024). The task at hand, however, is not a simple one. It is estimated that 80% of Port-au-Prince is currently under the control of criminal organizations which have escalated the crisis after Henry failed to hold elections by the stipulated deadline of February 7th of this year (Minard, 2024). With this in mind, it is important to note that the crisis that Haiti has experienced in recent years is, alas, not an exception if we are to consider its history.

Author

João Victor Silva Rodrigues - Junior Researcher, Mondo Internazionale G.E.O. - Politica

The Revolution and the Independence Debt

The history of Haiti as an independent country originates from a paradigmatic revolution that started in 1791. It was perhaps the only instance of a slave insurrection initiated by black individuals that resulted in the formation of a state led by them (Phillips, 2009). Commanded by Generals Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the struggle that ensued was a bloody one, the efforts of which culminated in the Act of Independence of Haiti on January 1st, 1804 (ibid., 1992; Heinl et al., 1996; Dubois, 2009), although this was still not the case de jure. The clash with the colonial powers resulted in a population decline of about 50% for the incipient country, based on the numbers from the first census held in 1824 (Richardson, 1992; Heinl et al., 1996).

The decades that succeeded the independence were tumultuous both domestically and internationally. In terms of the former, a succession struggle started after the assassination of Dessalines in 1806, who had declared himself emperor by the name of Jacques I with the promulgation of the 1805 Constitution. The country was divided into two parts: a northern Kingdom, with a large population of former slaves and led by General Henri Christophe, later named King Henry I; and a southern Republic, largely commanded by a mulâtre elite, with Alexandre Pétion as president. Only after both had passed was Haiti unified by Jean-Pierre Boyer, under the banner of the Republic of Haiti (Heinl et al., 1996). Internationally, independence brought about drastic consequences. France required indemnity for the loss of the colony and slaves, which amounted to a sum of 150 million francs, to be paid within 5 years, the payment of which was forced upon Haiti by Charles X under the threat of a military operation. Even after Charles X decreed the independence of Haiti in 1825, Haiti was only able to fully repay France in 1947, after a period in which the United States had occupied the Caribbean country (Heinl et al., 1996; Phillips, 2009). The burden imposed on Haiti by its former colonizer is still highly controversial. Some have requested France to repay the indemnity which could amount to upwards of US$ 200 billion when adjusted for interest (Reuters, April 2024).

Violence takes over Haiti

Rising insecurity has been the case in Haiti for quite some time, but the recent wave of criminal activity may be traced to the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in 2021, which might also have been connected to criminal organizations as some reports suggest (Abi-Habib, 2021). Since then, Haiti has failed to elect a successor. Ariel Henry acted as both the prime minister and the interim president of Haiti, with the promise to hold elections by the deadline of February 7th – a promise that he ultimately would not keep. In fact, Moïse had been facing backlash for failing to organize elections before his death, which meant that the parliament was left with only 10 acting officials in total until January 2023, when their terms ended. Since then, Haiti has not had any elected officials. Henry, who ruled by decree for the entirety of his term as interim president, had previously committed to hosting general elections in 2022. After not fulfilling his promise, he established the Haut Conseil de la Transition (High Transition Council, in English), which would be responsible for creating the blueprint for the next elections and promoting reforms tied to the legal system. He, once again, pledged to allow citizens to vote, this time in late 2023, with the elected officials taking office on February 7th. The political instability and ever-increasing violent encounters with crime gangs meant he was not willing to make good on his word, agreeing on a mid-2025 date during a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) meeting in Guyana (Haiti Libre, December 2022; Cotrino and Sawyer, 2023; Morland, 2024; Al Jazeera, March 2024; Ehl, 2024).

This time, however, the animosity that had been brewing towards his government reached a boiling point. During Henry’s official trip to Kenya, where he aimed to gather support for a policing mission to curb criminal activity in Haiti, gangs orchestrated attacks on both Haiti’s main international airport in Port-au-Prince and two prisons, resulting in the escape of around 4,500 inmates (Ehl, 2024; DW, April 2024). Since then, tensions have only risen, with cities being completely taken over by organized crime groups, who demand a seat at the table of negotiations.

Haiti’s criminal landscape

The criminal landscape in Haiti is currently divided into two major rival alliances: the G9 and the G-Pèp. The former was created by Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier and is an alliance composed of nine gangs with alleged links to the Tèt Kale Party, infamous for their connection to the underworld (Rousseau, 2021). Thus, Ti Gabriel, originally a member of the Nan Brooklyn Gang, decided to found the G-Pèp, to counteract the expansion of the G9. The formation of these alliances generated immediate consequences for the territorialization of gangs, resulting in their de facto authority over the country, intense conflicts to expand or protect their turf, and an overall state of lawlessness (Cotrino and Sawyer, 2023; Le Cour Grandmaison et al., 2024).

Beyond the alliances, public dissatisfaction with the increased influence of criminal gangs culminated in the creation of a movement called Bwa Kale (peeled wood). Rather than a group, it might be understood as “a renewed set of old practices of community surveillance and patrolling that intersect with neighborhood ‘brigades’ and ‘baz’ (bases)” (Le Cour Grandmaison et al., 2024). Those rules are called upon whenever gang activity needs to be suppressed, or when there are any perceived injustices to be settled. Nonetheless, it might be argued that the Bwa Kale has also contributed to the sense of insecurity. There have been reports of lynching, assassinations, and indiscriminate violence being carried out by the self-defense group, often with the omission, acquiescence, or participation of the police forces (Phillips, April 2023; BINUH, 2023; Silva Rodrigues, 2023).

In effect, these vigilante arrangements are believed to support the efforts of the faltering national security forces. The low contingent of officers for the Haitian National Police and the Coast Guard, who count with 10,000 and 200 active-duty officers, respectively (Muggah, 2023; BINUH, 2023), in addition to the constant clashes with gangs, has left the police institutions depleted. Besides being overburdened, they also suffer from corruption, as reports have shown that there are connections between armed groups and officers: Chérizier is a former police officer, with the G9 alliance allegedly including other serving and former police officers in their ranks (Sawyer and Cotrino, 2023; Le Cour Grandmaison et al., 2024).

After some uncertainty, Garry Conille was appointed as the prime minister who will oversee the transitional process in Haiti. As a consequence of the political instability and the power void with the absence of Henry prior to his resignation, gangs have become active players in politics, demanding larger influence over political matters in the future government. Part of this change is evidenced by the formation of the Viv Ansanm (in English, “Live Together”), a loose coalition of gangs spearheaded by Chérizier and other notorious gang leaders. They request having their political demands met, threatening the continuation of violence if they are not heard (The Guardian, April 2024; Minard, 2024). During an interview with Sky News, Chérizier stated that they “believe in dialogue”, but that the current political class is not willing to start talks because they “don’t carry Haiti in their hearts the same way [his group does]”, possibly as a result of the corruption and extreme inequality that afflict Haiti. He reckons that if the gangs are heard, the violence may subside, though the internal inconsistencies of the Viv Ansanm might point to a different picture. As Chérizier claims, he is trying to contain the more violent gangs, otherwise their political aims will not come to fruition, in spite of his belief that they have become more conscious of their deeds over time (Sky News, March 2024). It remains to be seen whether the new government is willing to acknowledge the Viv Ansanm movement, although it might become a relevant question in light of the impending start of the MSS mission led by Kenya.

The MINUSTAH

The issues with a security support mission in the Caribbean country also evoke problems of yesteryear. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti was launched in 2004 after then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been deposed in February of the same year. At the time, he was seen as an authoritarian leader who was willing to use violence to confront his opposition. Despite resistance from the CARICOM due to the ousting of a democratically elected president, the mission continued as planned. From the outset, many participants were unsure about their objectives. The MINUSTAH was organized to promote the stabilization of the country after the coup suffered by Aristide, but their activity went beyond the main task soon thereafter.

Their attention turned to the threat posed by gangs in the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, leading to several violent clashes that targeted groups that were thought to support the ostracized president. Operation Iron Fist, conducted by the peacekeepers on July 6th, 2005, used grenades and rifles to raid the establishment of suspected gang members, resulting in the death of twenty civilians and several injuries in the process (Pingeot, 2023). Contrary to what was expected, some reports show that violence might have increased compared to the period before the intervention. A 2005 Report published by Amnesty International claimed that “[p]olitically motivated arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions, deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, rape, death threats, and intimidation” were common occurrences that were met with impunity, with the abuses happening “against a background of increased insecurity and endemic criminal violence” (Amnesty International, 2005).

The situation worsened in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, with an outbreak of cholera following only months after the natural disaster. The epidemic is thought to have caused almost 10,000 fatalities over nine years, in addition to the approximately 222,000 casualties as a result of the earthquake (BBC, February 2010; Piarroux, 2022). Some specialists believe that the cholera epidemic, a disease that was not endemic to Haiti, could be traced to septic tanks used by UN military camps near the city of Mirebalais. They concluded that the strain of cholera found was the same as the one that was circulating in Nepal at the time, which is particularly concerning considering the arrival of a Nepalese garrison to the outpost near Mirebalais not long before the outbreak (Domonoske, 2016; Piarroux, 2022).

Moreover, another relevant concern about the mission was the participation of Western countries in the decision-making process. The MINUSTAH was thought to be a mission led by Latin American countries, which would corroborate the legitimacy of the solution. On the contrary, there was a stark contrast between the wishes of Brazil, which was at the forefront of the mission, and a group composed of Western countries such as Canada, France, and the United States. The former initially made a claim to the mandate of Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter, only for the latter group to push for the application of Chapter VII. Eventually, Brazil conceded. Some have called attention to the fact that the presence of Latin American troops on the ground did not translate into a more significant participation in decision-making for the countries in question. Important positions in the ranks of the MINUSTAH continued in the hands of Western participants, which raises questions about the divide with the Global South and issues of postcolonialism (Fernandez Moreno et al., 2012; Pingeout, 2023). This experience is something that the new MSS mission should bear in mind if they are to reach their objectives in Haiti.

The concept of Organized Crime and the Haitian case

It is difficult to categorize the role of criminal organizations in the future of Haiti. The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime of 2000 (also called the Palermo Convention of 2000) defines organized criminal groups as “a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit” (UNTOC, 2000). Academic interpretations of the concept also highlight the impact their activities have on a social level. Besides their economic motivation, organized crime operates within the fragilities of the social fabric, often co-opting the young, the vulnerable, and the segregated in order to expand their conglomerates. When society finds itself under great instability, organized crime may be seen as an “alternative to the suffering, an opportunity for self-affirmation and material gain that is not afforded by living a law-abiding life” (Silva Rodrigues, 2023). This does not impede the ties criminal groups have with the elites and the state, which might be perceived as crucial to their development. As Marco Cepik and Pedro Borba have noted “there is as much society and state within organized crime as there is organized crime within society and the state” (Cepik and Borba, 2011).

Despite the close ties with state and society, de jure sovereignty is not a key goal for organized criminal groups, even if de facto sovereignty is not only attainable but very much the case in states in which the institutional weakness does not allow for the appropriate measures against these factions. Haiti’s case initially seems to contradict this point, as there was genuine fear of the country falling under the control of gang leaders after the events of the beginning of this year. It has been argued that this is an instance in which a criminal group vests itself with a mantle of revolutionary action to achieve its particular goals; or, perhaps, that it entails a revolutionary group that commits crimes (Finazzi apud León, 2023). These assumptions still leave a cloudy understanding of the situation. A movement such as the Viv Ansanm seemingly contradicts this position, as they demand to have a larger political role in the future government, but might find the idea of starting a revolution far-fetched, especially if taken into consideration that there are several disagreements amongst leaders of the movement over how they strive to achieve their political goals. Moreover, it seems improbable that the international community would vouch for the recognition of a gang-led state, let alone allow it to happen without any repercussions.

What does the future hold for Haiti?

The issues with gang violence are far from the only concern for the MSS mission and civil society. Concerns over the lack of sufficient funds and coordination between the different stakeholders could lead to meager results. Moreover, the previous experience with the MINUSTAH was marred with controversy, something that the new effort should seek to avoid (Pingeot, 2023; Cotrino, 2024). Although there is no single plan to solve the myriad of problems that Haiti faces, the prospects for the MSS mission might not generate optimism. For Ana Rosa Quintana-Lovett from the Geopolitical Intelligence Services (GIS), the failure of the mission and an exodus from Haiti are likely outcomes (Quintana-Lovett, 2024). According to recent findings, about 362,000 individuals are internally displaced in Haiti, 96% of them as a consequence of gang violence (Relief Web, May 2024), while immigration to neighboring countries such as the Dominican Republic and the United States has rocketed, leading to a considerable amount of deportations as of recently (Cotrino and Sawyer, 2023; d'Aubuisson, 2024; Alcántara and Janetsky, 2024).

A more optimistic view emphasizes the participation of the United States in aiding the MSS mission. It considers that, rather than deploying troops, the US could contribute with its expertise by training the Kenyan troops or providing planning support, or perhaps by mobilizing the US Coast Guard in order to provide direct or indirect support by sea (Bartos et al., 2024). Funding is another way in which the United States may provide aid, although one must have caution when considering this and the previous points. While these are valid proposals, intense American participation might prove to be unfeasible given the current political climate in the country, the upcoming elections, and their involvement in other ongoing conflicts. In addition, the 2004 mission also counted with the contribution of American expertise but was widely criticized for its shortcomings (Domonoske, 2016; Danticat, 2017; Pingeot, 2023). The historical background of international interventionism and the fragility of institutions in Haiti are still relevant if one wants to provide a comprehensive solution to the conundrum. One researcher was quoted as saying that the previous mission started from “a false premise that the state was once strong, that it had a monopoly on legitimate violence, and that it was then captured by private interests”, when, in reality, there was serious miscomprehension as to the foundations of the Haitian state, one that remained “a colonial state that was imported” and where “[t]he police are colonial to begin with” (Pingeot, 2023).

The success of the Kenyan-led MSS mission is contingent on several factors. First, an adequate response should emphasize the combat against corruption in the future government, so as to contain the influence of criminal groups in political decisions. Contrary to what Viv Ansanm may preach, it is highly troublesome to count on them as the voice of citizens who have been a victim of gang-related violence and massive inequality for years. Regardless, the participation of civil society remains a crucial element for the promotion of meaningful change and reassurance of a well-conducted mission. Second, any hopes of success rely on careful attention to the respect of human rights during and after the mission, especially if they expect to avoid the difficulties of past efforts. Third, coordination between the Security Support mission, experts, and the current sanctions regime is essential. The latter should target actors in such a way that allows for operations to have a better chance of achieving its goals. This can be done by targeting specific leaders and logistical enablers such as weapons traffickers, politicians, and businesspersons. In this fashion, the measures are not limited to the combat against individual gangs. It is, rather, extended to the criminal ecosystems in question (Le Cour Grandmaison et al., 2024; Human Rights Watch, 2024). Although these are some of the main points of emphasis for the new mission, this is by no means not an exhaustive list; unfortunately, an in-depth discussion on the matter cannot be pursued here. Thousands have suffered in Haiti, both with natural and man-made disasters. The MSS mission in Haiti has a tough challenge ahead, one that provides another opportunity for improvement of the deep-rooted state of affairs. This can only be achieved, however, if the finer nuances of the formation of the Haitian state and its historical development are taken seriously.

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