This story is part of a special investigation into Haiti’s gang crisis and potential solutions. To view the full series visit our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look.
CAP-HAITIEN — In a cafe in Pétion-Ville in 2008, a man was turning an unloaded Glock 47 around to inspect it among a group of friends.
“This is pretty nice, man,” the man said. “[How] about I give you a thousand dollars for it?”
The gun belonged to a Haitian-American U.S. Navy veteran who traveled to Haiti. Taken aback, the veteran refused. The man raised the price to $US 1,500 then to $US 2,500 when the veteran bought the gun for $US 425, the veteran said.
“I said ‘No, you’re not going to buy it,'” the veteran, a criminal justice professor who preferred to remain anonymous, recalled. “‘If you want to buy a gun go to the U.S., fill your own paperwork to get your own gun.'”
While the veteran refused the lucrative offer, several others have made it a business to purchase guns in the U.S. and resell them for a higher price to people in Haiti. Many times, they hide the guns in containers getting shipped to Haiti. The amount of those illegal transactions increased, said Anthony Salisbury, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Miami in an August press conference.
For instance, in mid-July, authorities with the Counter Narcotics Trafficking Unit (BLTS) and the Central Directorate Judicial Police (DCPJ) at Port-au-Prince Customs intercepted and seized 60 weapons, 20,000 munitions, 14,600 bullets and 260 magazines in containers bound for the Episcopal Church of Haiti.
“It’s incredibly disturbing,” Salisbury said. “In the wrong hands, these weapons are capable of causing a vast amount of destruction.”
Salisbury did not specify by how much arms trafficking increased in Haiti. But it is estimated that Haiti has the 65th most amount of arms trafficking in the world, according to the Global Organized Crime Index.
Gang members often pose for pictures or take videos of them holding rifles such as AR-15s, 50-caliber sniper rifles and more. Oftentimes, those gangs engaged in daylong shootouts, hinting that they do not lack ammunition. Indeed, a picture of gang leader “Ti Lapli” laying on thousands of bullets went viral in June. Gangs are better equipped than the police, many have said.
Salisbury said HSI has been ramping up its efforts to stem the flow of illicit weapons into Haiti and the Caribbean but did not provide details. More efforts are needed other than HSI’s, said John Lindsay-Poland, an arms trafficking analyst who focuses on trafficking to Latin America.
“They [HSI] know the problem is serious and requires more attention,” Lindsay-Poland said. “The legislative changes to control the US gun market, however, require political will beyond agencies such as ATF, prosecutors, or other law enforcement, in Congress and state houses.”
On its end, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to ban the sale of small arms, light weapons and ammunition to “non-state actors” in Haiti in July. The UN had already imposed a trade embargo on Haiti that included “arms and related materiel including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, police equipment and spare parts” in June 1993.
For the Haitian government, it has yet to comment on how it plans to decrease arms trafficking.
Who sends guns to Haiti. Why and how?
At times, Haitians in the diaspora or foreigners, send weapons to Haiti because they believe that it will be used to protect people. But while gang members do protect their territories they also kidnap residents, steal and kill.
In the summer of 1999, five gang members from Cité Soleil asked Jason “Zeke” Petrie, an American who lived in Haiti from 1991 to 2012, to bring them guns from the U.S. Petrie said he thought of buying the guns so they could protect themselves and their families. Petrie even went to gun shops in Ohio and was linked to someone in Miami who was going to ship the weapons. But he changed his mind.
“I put a stop to it,” Petrie, 49, said. “I didn’t want anyone’s blood in my hands.”
Other times, politicians purchase guns for the gang members for the gang to help them reach their political ambitions, many have said.
“These armed groups are financed with weapons and ammunition and money by these politicians even when they have been able to develop a certain autonomy because they have become so powerful,” said Jean Renel Sistannis, general coordinator of Haitian Observatory of Human Rights (OHDH).
When politicians do not give gang members weapons they purchase them themselves with the connections they have in the U.S., said Jonas Gustave, a Youtuber who blogs about gang activities.
“Guns, here’s how they buy it, my friend,” Gustave said. “It’s all about networking. This person tells the other. The diaspora is a little guilty in selling guns. They buy them in gun shows.”
After buying the guns and ammunition, the U.S. accomplice hides them in containers, speakers, bags of rice or other large items, Gustave said.
“And then people with connections make sure that those containers don’t get verified,” Gustave said.
When the containers get to Haiti the people involved make sure they do not get verified there also.
“The idea that somebody just fills a container with different things including weapons and sends it to Haiti is the responsibility of the Haitian government,” the veteran said. “They need to find ways to prevent that from happening.”
Meanwhile, other experts added that the U.S. needs to make it harder to purchase weapons.
“Controlling the U.S. domestic market for firearms and munitions is an important piece of reducing the flows of illicit weapons to Haiti and other countries,” Lindsay-Poland said. “The U.S. gun market is unique — it is enormous, permissive, and militarized, and groups using violence take advantage of those aspects to easily acquire military-grade weapons.”
Lindsay-Poland added that authorities need to do universal background checks on the purchase of weapons in the U.S. to make it harder for people with criminal or violent histories to get weapons, and ban the commercial sale and purchase of assault rifles, which are desired by violent organizations.
Consequences of arms trafficking
With the help of their weapons that are more powerful than the police’s, gang members have taken full control of their territories, held massacres, prevented gas distribution in November 2021 and they have been blocking entry from Port-au-Prince to the southern region since June 2021.
Many times, residents wake up with several bullets in their front yard or sometimes the bullets pierced through their homes and kill them. Other times, gang members fired gunshots at point blank to residents escaping, survivors said.
During a gang war that lasted several weeks in Cité Soleil, a slum in Port-au-Prince, hundreds of children took refuge in schools, churches and other locations in July 2022. About 768 of them lost a parent or both, according to The Kisito Family, a religious group.
“In Cité Soleil, we can’t live, too many people were killed, including my dad who was shot in the head,” said a 15-year-old who took refuge at Saint-Elisabeth. “My mom can’t take care of her three children because she’s not doing anything.”
Haiti is also going through a kidnapping crisis as a result of arms trafficking. Many times, bandits kill the people who resist getting kidnapped. On Sept. 13, gang members killed Marie Lydie Duvivier, Digicel’s account manager, for resisting getting kidnapped in Tabarre, Port-au-Prince, according to Rezo Nodwès.
While the U.S. said it is working on diminishing arms trafficking to Haiti, for the guns who already made their ways to the Caribbean country residents can only hope that the police will become strong enough to annihilate gangs — or that gang members will turn from their wicked ways.
“Put the guns down,” Gustave said. “The guns they’re holding is what’s causing their misery and that’s what will cause them to die. But the people giving them the guns are at ease.”
Read more about about Haiti’s gangs in our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look
As the gun laws in the United States, where I live, become weaker and weaker, we see the amount of gun violence increase in my country, and those around. Mexican cartels get most of their weapons from the United States.
The United States had blood on their hands by letting the permissive gums law infiltrate other countries and cause instability and in the case of Haiti, a humanitarian crisis.
I wish you and you colleagues safety during these precarious times, and it’s greatly appreciated the important journalism you are reporting.
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