As the violence on Haiti’s streets attributable to “gangs” reaches unprecedented levels, The Haitian Times digs into four answers to the question so many Haitians ask — “How do we get rid of these gangs?” This installment provides a view of why and how redefining Haiti’s formal status as a state might unlock more support, including new investments, to wrest the country from gangs.
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.
Dictionary definitions of “gang” say it’s “a group of people acting together to do something illegal.” But as “gangs” are blamed for the rampant violence, turf wars and armies of young men toting automatic rifles around Haiti, some observers have suggested that these groups should be categorized under more serious terms. Doing so, they said, could be the starting point to address — in more realistic ways — the devastation those groups have wrought in Haiti.
Georges A. Fauriol, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), suggests that Haiti may soon be better referred to as a “criminalized state,” a concept described by strategic researchers Douglas Farah and Marianne Richardson in a May, 2022 paper titled “Gangs No More.”
Writing for the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Farah and Richardson label El Salvador a criminalized state in which groups, no longer gangs but community-embedded transnational armed groups (CETAGs), are becoming more deeply entangled in the global drug trade and armed conflicts in the hemisphere as well as the surrounding state.
“It is graduating to that point,” Fauriol said, referring to Haiti’s current state. “In some ways, that might potentially change, at least, the assessment of international actors. ‘Criminalized state’ suddenly becomes a bit more international in scope.”
The simplistic image of “gangs” implies small, violent and isolated actors rather than the hybrid transnational organized crime groups rooted in their communities that these groups really are, according to Farah and Richardson. Their research indicates El Salvador gangs are likely to expand across the Western Hemisphere and are driving multiple types of corruption, which President Joe Biden vowed to fight as a core U.S. strategic interest.
Since emerging in their current form two decades ago, gangs in Haiti, too, have evolved into more powerful entities. Their activities are largely to blame for nearly 1,000 killings across the country. They’ve caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, forcing families to separate or sleep in public parks or schools for shelter. Most significantly, Fauriol notes, these gangs now compete effectively with government authority.
Still, policymakers and diplomats continue to operate from the simplistic image of gangs when they should be addressing a more complicated organization, he said.
When such an appraisal of Haiti might occur remains unclear, especially if the upper echelons of policy-making, State Department, White House, Capitol Hill, are distracted by other matters, such as Ukraine, midterm elections and inflation, said Fauriol. As of Sept. 16, he noted, Haiti was “unraveling further” as most embassies shut down due to chaos in the streets.
“There’s concern that the country is on the edge of a humanitarian crisis,” Fauriol said. “That usually generates chaotic refugee flows. And that’s usually when American policymakers wake up.”
Go straight to the source
Gang leaders like G9’s Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier bear the brunt of the blame for Haiti’s chaos. While experts say that policymakers, diplomats and members of the public fail to acknowledge gangsters are leaders of their communities, Chérizier, a former police officer, portrayed himself as a protector and took on roles reserved for officials, like laying a wreath at a Jean-Jacques Dessalines monument.
Recognizing the gangs’ leadership is one starting point toward a different approach to solving the crisis, said Athena Kolbe, a researcher of Haitian gangs since 1994 who recently joined Barry University from UNC, Wilmington. Policymakers must ask such leaders what will make them disarm and “follow a noncriminal path again.”
“They need to talk to people who are in the gangs about why they’re in the gangs, what the gangs are doing for them and what they would need in order to stop operating as a gang or for the gang to stop operating in a way that’s violent and criminal,” Kolbe said.
“The fact that [there are] all these interventions happening and all this money being invested, and they haven’t even talked to leaders of armed groups is just incredible.”
Funds for the fragile
Also puzzling is the diplomatic community’s continued funding to the Haitian government. As killings mounted over the summer, the U.N. in mid-August allocated $5 million to respond to humanitarian needs triggered by gang violence. In mid-July, the U.S. announced it would give Haiti $48 million to develop its law and order infrastructure and, notably, combat rampant gang violence. The amount is on top of $312 million between 2010 and 2020 provided to strengthen law enforcement and the capacity of the Haitian National Police to maintain peace and stability.
Such funding support may be tied to U.S. efforts to prevent crises in designated “fragile” states over the next decade.
The State Department did not grant interviews for this series. However, various reports and recent conferences may shed some light.
In late July, the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) brought together organizations from both Haiti and the diaspora for a peace and democracy-building conference. There, participants discussed the word “fragility,” a World Bank term used to objectify a nation’s strength or weakness. Haiti is considered a fragile state, ranking 11th out of 179 countries on the Fragile States Index, assembled by The Fund for Peace.
“Fragility” is a word used often in context with Haiti — much like the phrase, “poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” It may be advantageous if it provides funding, as in the newly activated U.S. Global Fragility Act, but it can also be detrimental.
“A lot of fragile countries are becoming the battlefield for the rivalry between the big powers, particularly between the US and China,” Dr. Joseph Sany of the U.S. Institute of Peace said at the NED conference.
The U.S. needs to be able to use nearshoring, the practice of transferring a business operation to a nearby country, to bring back a lot of the Chinese manufacturing to this region, Sany said. Haiti could benefit from such a move, if it happens.
“That gives you an idea why we could be, we can be, something important,” said Sany.
Meeting participants referenced recent actions triggered by the Global Fragility Act, a U.S. bipartisan legislation passed in 2019 that allows policymakers to prioritize peace-building and conflict prevention in developing U.S. policy during the next decade. In April of this year, lawmakers chose one region and four countries, including Haiti, to receive $200 million annually towards such goals and for all aspects of foreign aid to be integrated into one coherent strategy. All to circumvent a crisis.
In August, as debates began on funding, Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) objected to pilot programs in Libya and Haiti. They questioned whether those two states’ governments were too fragile to participate in the work required.
“We’ve got to start finding a way to get ahead of these conflicts,” said Liz Hume, executive director of Alliance for Peacebuilding, in an article for Foreign Policy. “Otherwise, we’re always going to be scrambling and reacting, from crisis to crisis to crisis.”
She said she was confident the Global Fragility Act would move forward. It still has bipartisan support, and Washington can’t afford not to rethink how to do foreign aid and conflict prevention.
“Can we expect a change of substance regarding the foreign policy of the US?” asked Sany. “It seems to be of importance today that while you recognize fragility, you have to wonder, and we should ask ourselves, is it because we are fragile that we prefer to be dealing with Taiwan — or do we have the freedom to deal with China?”
Whisperings of uprisings as frustration mounts
“The only possible solution to the country’s problems, including insecurity, is a popular uprising where the people take their destiny into their own hands against their enemies,” a resident of Delmas, Junior Salnave, said.
In late August, Haitians in numerous cities resumed protests in earnest, with demonstrators marching to Henry’s home and demanding his resignation. Protesters voiced frustration with the rising cost of living, skyrocketing crime and fuel shortage crisis. Earlier in the year, activists protesting in Cap Haitien said they were skeptical of the international community’s calls for political accord.
“If Haitians can find a political accord with Haitians, they [the international community] will never let Haitians lead the country,” said Pilate Voltaire, member of Nou Konsyan, a political activism group. “They will want us to make decisions that will be good for them.”
Read more about about Haiti’s gangs in our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look.