Numerous questions linger as the impact of gangs continues to be felt more intensely in the midst of peyilok. Among the top questions: Will they spread further into the provinces? What will become of the people they've displaced?
CAP-HAITIEN — Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier’s G9 gang may be based in Port-au-Prince, but its impact reaches far beyond the capital region. By blocking access to the country’s main oil storage facility, G9 is at least partially responsible for Haiti’s fuel shortage, disrupting the daily activities so reliant on such products.
In our Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look series, we dug into many facades of the gang crisis in Haiti, including arms trafficking, dissected potential solutions, and explored how these gangs control their territories, some with political aspirations. But many aspects of the gang crisis remain a mystery.
The question of whether the gangs will expand their influence into Haiti’s provinces continues to arise, one of several that have emerged throughout our reporting. Questions that must still be addressed no matter the outcome of the current peyilòk, which has exacerbated daily struggles in a country that’s looking more and more like a failed state.
In conversations with both ordinary Haitians and experts, chief among those key questions is what will happen politically if Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigns or is forcibly removed. Will the exodus of people from the capital continue, forcing the decentralization so many have brought up in recent years? What about the residents of Port-au-Prince displaced by gangs, who can’t return home? On what services will the people use since those of the NGOs have stopped operating in dangerous areas?
Gangs and the provinces
To the question of gangs infiltrating the provinces, to some, the answer is a resounding no.
“Cap-Haitien people don’t tolerate that stuff. If they catch you, they will beat you up,” said Womario Louis, 23, a Cap-Haitien resident. “The police too, they give us good service.”
Whether Louis is right remains to be seen, though some experts share his view.
“If it was going to spill into the provinces, it would’ve already,” said Camille Chalmers, a sociology of organizations professor at the University of the State of Haiti.
Gangs are not spreading in the provinces because they have fewer residents than Port-au-Prince and the police in the provinces are also less corrupt. In the provincial cities, he said, the strong sense of community is also a deterrent.
“A lot of the families know each other,” Chalmers said. “So there’s a mechanism of social control that prevents the youths from entering this phenomenon [gangs].”
An estimated 2,915,000 people live in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area that is 158.50 km2. In contrast, Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city, has 170,994 residents spread out in 53.5 km², according to Population Hub.
The gangs’ ties to politics is also not as strong as it is to Port-au-Prince, the seat of government.
Migration from or around the capital
In recent years, many residents have left Port-au-Prince in favor of safer cities, particularly Cap-Haitien, Jacmel and Ouanaminthe. Their decision mirrors the movement of event organizers who host activities outside of Port-au-Prince due to gang violence. Miss Haiti was held for the first time in Cap-Haitien this year, and the PaP Jazz Festival, named after the capital, will also be held for the first time in Cap-Haitien.
“When people say Haiti, they think of Port-au-Prince,” said Cap-Haitien’s Deputy Mayor Patrick Almonor during the 20-year celebration of Cap-Haitien and Fort-Lauderdale’s sister cities relationship in November. “But Cap-Haitien is a city where you can walk in the streets at two, three in the morning unlike in Port-au-Prince.”
As some activities move away from the capital, decentralizing Haiti also has come up as a topic. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the North (CCIN) held a meeting in June to discuss how the north can decentralize itself but has yet to share how its plan is going.
While some seek refuge back in their families’ provincial hometowns, thousands of Port-au-Prince residents don’t have the option. For those people, their neighborhoods now resemble war zones.
Long gone are services such as healthcare offered by neighborhood clinics, functioning schools or businesses to buy basic necessities.
NGOs and Haiti’s crises
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose perennial presence in Haiti brought on the nickname the Republic of NGOs, could once be counted on for basic services and some services in the construction, medicine, education and humanitarian relief sectors. Many of those groups’ foreign staff have since decamped to their home countries, leaving matters in the hands of Haitian staffers.
In The Haitian Times’ reporting, some blamed the NGOs too for Haiti’s crises. Their presence undermined the government and weakened state institutions, said Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic Policy and Research. Their aid model, over time, also divided communities and weakened grassroots and local efforts.
“The current insecurity, the lack of a government response, is very much tied to foreign aid practices writ large,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t do the community building work that is actually sort of necessary for local development.”
One outcome of both COVID and the increased insecurities is that the leaders and administrators have not re-entered Haiti. They have been forced to depend on their Haitian colleagues to administer and run the organizations that employed them.
Murky political outcomes
By far, the biggest question is what happens after Henry.
Moïse Jean-Charles, leader of the Children of Dessalines political party, has been one of the leading forces of the peyilòk, particularly in Cap-Haitien. In Port-au-Prince, Chérizier took charge, leading a protest on Sept. 15 that advocated for a dechoukaj, or uprooting, then proceeded to block access to Terminal Varreux, the main gas storage facility.
While both men appear to have different motivations, they share a similar goal.
“The solution is for you to resign Ariel Henry, we didn’t vote for you. If we voted [for] you, we would’ve allowed you to finish your term,” Cherizier said in a video as he stood in front of Terminal Varreux on Sept. 22. “What mandate did we give you? We didn’t give you a mandate.”
Henry, meanwhile, continues to say initiatives will be underway to establish order for elections during an address to the nation that marked the first anniversary of the September 11 Accord, the transition plan he supports.
Henry added that he does not want to stay in power forever, only long enough to hold elections for someone to replace him legitimately. But the Montana Accord, the main transitional government proposal for Haiti to move forward, wants to be the ones to carry out that job.
“We’re working to hold elections,” said Fritz Jean, president of the Montana Accord, in a Sept. 22 address to the nation. “Real elections.”