By Sam Bojarski and Onz Chery
On a bright Sunday during the Easter season that dawned thoughts of renewal, rebirth and resurrection, worshippers gathered at Saint Jacques Catholic Church in Croix-des-Bouquets for services. But the April 11 service was interrupted when gang members stormed into the sanctuary and kidnapped 10 people, including seven clergy members.
The brazen act struck deep concern into the hearts of not only the faithful in Haiti, but among observers worldwide.
For many people in Haiti, like Marie, 24, of Croix-des-Bouquets, the church kidnapping signaled a new level in the gang violence Haiti has seen in the last year.
“Nobody is at peace,” said Marie. “Not even in your own home. You never know when someone will decide to bust open your door.”
The Haitian Times is withholding Marie’s full name so she does not become a target of retribution. Summarizing a sentiment running rampant throughout Haiti, Marie said, “I’m scared of going out, [I] feel like my life is being threatened, and I worry so much for my safety.”
For Haiti-based media blogger Jean Junior Joseph, the recent spate of kidnapping incidents at churches reflects the increasing boldness of Haiti’s gangs. A press secretary to former Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, Joseph said Haiti’s current state of insecurity is similar to the two-year period surrounding the second ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“It’s escalating,” Joseph said. “It has nothing to do with churches. In fact [gangs] have kidnapped doctors, professors, anybody. So they have no limits.”
Armed gangs in Haiti are not a novelty. However, their crimes in the past year have taken on a more desperate tone than ever before. Gangs have targeted children, doctors, professors, business owners and celebrities alike. They have harmed the poor and well-off, Haitians with family abroad — and in any location at any time.
Kidnappings increased by 200% in the first half of 2020 compared to the prior year, the United Nations reported, with 161 cases reported through October. Gangs have also been implicated in murders, over 70% of which occurred in marginalized Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, from March to August of last year, the UN also reported.
The apparent impunity and lack of a sufficient government response have triggered mass protest demonstrations in the streets and cries for help like #freehaiti on social media.
In addition, everyday Haitians, political observers and academics are having discussions about the level of impunity, how Haiti can solve its current crisis and whether anyone can restore security and good governance.
A fragile state
“The degree of sheer violence has become extreme,” said Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.
“We’ve had moments like that, but I think we have a more intense moment of state incapacity to do anything about it,” Fatton said.
Nearly 180 territorial gangs are active in Haiti, and they are growing ever more powerful, according to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). In a March research paper, the nonprofit said the 177 it identified are a likely underestimate. Just one year prior, Haiti’s national disarmament commission identified 76 armed gangs in May 2019, Le Nouvelliste has reported.
In its latest Fragile States Index report, The Fund for Peace, a nonprofit, ranked Haiti 13th out of 178 countries on its list, which ranked countries on a scale from least, to most stable. Among the worst indicators for Haiti, according to the index, were high degrees of economic inequality, minimal public services and factionalization among the country’s ruling elite.
Georges Fauriol, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Americas program, explored the question of Haiti’s lurch toward the infamous failed state status in a 2019 article. The nationwide lockdown of that year and President Jovenel Moïse’s rule by decree that started in January 2020 have worsened Haiti’s stability. But he said Haiti remains a “failing state,” that still exhibits some characteristics of a thriving democracy.
“There’s still an active civil society, there’s reaction from the [local] media in Haiti, there are bits and pieces of an active private sector,” Fauriol said. “The basic elements of a reasonably organized society are still there, even though, arguably, it is increasingly under duress.”
Gang violence has historically assumed a political character, said Fauriol, who expressed concern that insecurity could increase if the government goes through with its scheduled constitutional referendum in June.
Yet for Haiti’s government, constitutional reform is key to ensuring stability. Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said reform is needed to ensure future presidents govern with oversight from parliament rather than by decree, the model Moïse currently follows. But Joseph also said training is needed to help police address gang activity.
“We need the police to be able to detect bullets and weapons coming through the airports and customs,” Joseph said. “Wherever those gangs are, we will fight them and put them behind bars.”
Police force faces gangs within and outside
In March, the Haitian National Police (PNH), beset by criticism for its lack of control of the skyrocketing crimes, attempted to respond by raiding Village de Dieu, a “5 Segond”
(5 Seconds) gang stronghold. PNH went into the area with SWAT-like gear and three military-grade tanks to capture the gang’s members.
The operation did not go as planned. The gang found them out and a gun battle ensued.
In the end, five officers were left dead. Their bodies, literally, were left behind in the neighborhood in southern Port-au-Prince when the surviving officers fled. Police also reportedly paid the gang to recover the tank. Léon Charles, the head of the police force, denied that rumor.
The botched raid reflects the government’s inability to quell gangs or to bring criminals to justice, according to observers.
Gangs are better outfitted with weapons than the police, who work for a beleaguered agency with a gang of violent detractors, Fantom 509, within its own ranks. Domond Saincy, a police spokesperson, said in a radio interview last month that some police officers buy their own bullets and bulletproof vests.
At one point, Fatton said, the government will likely have to negotiate with gangs to put down their arms. However, he pointed out, the government lacks the authority and means to use appropriate force in the process.
In the past year, human rights groups have accused the Haitian government of collaborating with gangs for political reasons. Protesters in the diaspora and in Haiti have voiced their displeasure with the climate of insecurity and the government’s perceived role. For its part, the Moïse administration says it has arrested gang members and created a task force to dismantle gangs.
But human rights experts like Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network say the government has helped create a climate of impunity for gangs to operate.
“That’s why the gangs are very arrogant, and they are involved with a lot of human rights violations like massacres and also kidnappings,” Esperance said.
Desperate cries reach ears abroad
Outside of Haiti, families and human rights advocates began to voice concerns regularly about the resurgence of violence in the summer of 2020, even as the world tried to manage through the pandemic. By the end of 2020, attacks by criminal gangs had escalated, leading many Haitians to opt out of traveling there for the holidays.
As 2021 arrived, the calls for attention intensified as mass demonstrations became frequent, leading to the #freehaiti viral moment. World leaders chastised Moïse about the state of Haiti at U.N. meetings and even Russia offered to assist.
In the U.S., elected officials, diplomatic groups and Haitian-American organizations began to frequently voice concern, partly encouraged by the incoming Biden administration and because the crimes continued to mount.
In an April 26 letter, Rep. Gregory Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the State Department to reassess America’s Haiti policy. Meeks suggested that the U.S. expand sanctions on Haitians who have been credibly implicated in human rights abuses and the appointment of a trusted special representative to Haiti, among eight other recommendations. The letter’s 69 signatories also called on U.S. law enforcement to investigate any networks that facilitate weapons smuggling to Haiti.
In various Haitian-American enclaves, activists like Brooklynite Kenny Altidor have pushed the U.S. to pay closer attention to Haiti’s situation. Altidor hosted two April press conferences at the offices of federal lawmakers.
Altidor said the U.S. can do more to track weapons shipments and to support justice and democracy in Haiti.
“The more they see Haitians coming out, talking about it, the more attention we’re going to get,” Altidor said. “The Biden administration’s going to know that we’re not playing.”
Government as a necessary ingredient
Altidor also said that many in the Haitian community are against foreign intervention. Haitian-American viewers made that sentiment obvious in their comments during a May 3 forum, “Haiti at a Crossroads,” where human rights experts suggested some form of international intervention.
Since the fall of Duvalier in 1986, Haiti has struggled to overcome issues like state corruption and poverty. Haiti has also endured two foreign military interventions and a 2010 earthquake that further weakened state capacity and social conditions. Despite more than $7 billion in international aid that flowed into Haiti, just $280 million went directly to the government, The Haitian Times reported in 2020.
And, since the fall of Duvalier, gangs have proliferated in poor neighborhoods underserved by the state. Following a survival logic, armed gangs “ensure the distribution of food rations to poor families and organize sports and sociocultural activities,” Djems Olivier wrote in the March 2021 NACLA paper.
Gang members also maintain patronage relationships with political and economic actors in the country, the NACLA paper also noted.
To quell unrest during this year’s scheduled elections, the UN already announced it will send security experts to Haiti. Amid recent human rights violations, the international community can also help establish accountability by sending legal experts to help the Haitian government bring perpetrators to justice, said William O’Neill, a human rights lawyer and former UN human rights adviser.
“I think we have shown that there are serious reasons to consider that Haiti now is suffering from crimes against humanity,” said O’Neill during the May 3 forum. “There is now an obligation on all UN member states to invoke the responsibility to protect people in Haiti.”
While economic development can offer an alternative to gang life in the long-run, a stable and legitimate government is a necessary first ingredient, Fatton said.
With President Moise’s own political party and the UN expressing reservations about this year’s election process, Fatton said a transitional government looks increasingly likely. Regardless, leaders need to pursue new development models that foster local economic production and reduce Haiti’s reliance on imports, he said.
“We are no longer independent in terms of rice production, sugar production, let alone industrial production,” Fatton said. “We don’t have a state that is capable of planning, and that is in part a result of the model, a model that was imposed on Haiti and actually accepted by the Haitian political class.”