Screenshot of Lanmò San Jou, leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, and other members of the gang behind him.

In January 2021, I went to Haiti with Vania Andre to work on a series about the decline of the environment and how some Haitian entrepreneurs were addressing the issue, particularly plastics recycling. The Solutions Journalism Network, an organization that helps small publications like us cover issues we otherwise couldn’t afford to, funded the assignment.

As we headed to the recycling plant in Croix-des-Bouquets, I noticed a smoldering landfill with a dystopian look, ashes and all. Later, when I asked the driver to stop so we could fly our drone and capture the astounding image of the trash heap, he politely told me that’s not possible because the area is too dangerous. I looked around and saw no one, but deferred to his judgment since he lives in Haiti, and I don’t. 

A few months later, I realized where I had been: The heart of the area controlled by the notorious gang, 400 Mawozo, the thugs responsible for a rash of kidnappings for ransom, including the American missionaries and their driver and a Canadian official last year. 

On Friday, the insecurity hit my family. My niece sent me a voice message on WhatsApp and even though I don’t usually watch video and audio messages on that platform, for whatever reason this time, I did. 

The 1-minute-46-second audio clip opened with the crackling sound of heavy gunfire. Then, I heard my niece’s creaking, hoarse voice as she described what’s been happening outside her neighborhood while she and her two boys crouched on the floor for safety.

Since this morning I’ve been inside with the kids. The area is dangerous. No one can go out. It’s a lot. It’s a lot. I can’t. I’m tired. Haiti is no good. Don’t set foot in Haiti. Not at all. 

All morning we couldn’t go out. We’ve all been lying flat on the floor. They’re shooting wildly. People are dying. They’ve burned people alive. It’s upside down. Many people have died. The news is not reporting some of these things. 

Bandits have invaded us. The police are chasing after them and they’re shooting at the police. Whenever they find a civilian on the street, they kill them. You’re the only one I have if I have a problem I can call….

I’m trying to find a way to go to the Dominican Republic with the kids. I can’t anymore. 

What can I do? What can anyone do?

I had been helping my niece since my brother passed away in 2006. About a decade ago, I told her that she could no longer depend on me to send her money regularly, but that I was open to helping her start a business, which I did. I sent her gifts at Christmas and other celebrations, but she was out of my dole. 

I’ve written about how diaspora can create jobs for their families instead of creating perpetual dependence. But as the country plunges deeper into the abyss, what can I do? 

The Biden administration sincerely believes the problem is a security issue. That boat sailed a long time ago. Now we’re on the cusp of a full-blown civil war in Haiti. If you don’t believe me or think it’s hyperbole, then you haven’t been paying attention.  

I have the utmost respect for the folks in the administration tasked with the Haiti situation. But they are making the same mistakes their predecessors have made: Supporting the wrong camp when they need to remain neutral. U.S. diplomats in Haiti tend to gravitate toward the American-educated Haitian elites who speak impeccable English, having studied at the best universities in the U.S.

They can speak about Manhattan, D.C., Miami and even the midwest with the insight of a native-born American. In short, they are relatable to the diplomats, and that’s when the scam begins. The political and business elites get their way, and the status quo remains.

Since the State Department and other agencies don’t keep personnel in Haiti for any more than three years, the Haitians get new recruits to run their hustle. Rinse and repeat. 

But now, the jig is up. The revolution is raw, in your face and being live streamed on Facebook and WhatsApp. This is a crisis two decades in the making, if not longer. What can be done? The first step is for the State Department and United Nations to do a deep dive into their past missions and policy, and act upon the lessons learned. 

Brian A. Nichols, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, truly believes that arming and training the police is the solution to resolving the gang issue. It’s barely a start. If Nichols were to analyze what happened to the police when they launched their operations in the Village de Dieu neighborhood, he would realize that’s not the problem. 

The police have long been politicized. Many in their ranks sympathize with the gangs or are working directly for them, providing gang leaders with intelligence about upcoming operations. Furthermore, the police are paid irregularly by the government, making them vulnerable to the lure of corruption and to engage in criminality directly. 

When chaos breeds corruption, crime

Some of the same people diplomats meet during their fact-finding tours in Haiti are the architects of this mess. Chaos Theory illustrates that many people make money in chaotic, complex systems. I urge the American diplomats to broaden their contact lists to include students, union organizers, peasant groups and so on. Why doesn’t the State Department revoke the visas of these stale contacts, as they do with some Haitians who criticize their policy? If Haitians act like 3-year olds, then treat them in kind. 

I know that the intellectual and academic rigors it takes to enter the diplomatic corps, so why are American diplomats so inept in Haiti? Part of it is us Haitians, but part of the problem is frankly they don’t care about getting Haiti right. Haiti is a waystation for ambitious young careerists and a final swansong for those on the other side of their service. Haiti is difficult, complicated and can break a career more than it can make one. 

The nightmare that my niece and millions of Haitians are enduring is unconscionable. They did nothing to deserve this recurring trauma.  At some point, the U.S. – whether this one or successive administrations – will have to intervene. 

Haiti is no longer in the U.S.’s backyard. It’s standing on the porch, pounding on the door, ready to barge into the vestibule of America. 

In the words of Sweet Micky, “Bagay la gaté, li gaté, ale lavé dèyè-w.”  

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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