Who are Haiti’s gangs and what do they want? All you need to know | Armed Groups News

Who are Haiti’s gangs and what do they want? All you need to know | Armed Groups News

Haitian armed groups have dominated global headlines in recent weeks, as gunmen attack police stations, prisons and other institutions in the capital of Port-au-Prince, effectively paralysing the city.

But the power of these gangs has long rocked daily life and politics in Haiti, plunging the country into a years-long crisis.

The latest example came this week, as Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced he would resign his post once a transitional presidential council is established and a successor chosen.

His announcement came amid pressure from both the international community and gang leaders, who warned that the Caribbean nation could face “civil war” if Henry, an unelected official, did not step down.

Henry’s planned departure, however, has done little to temper the grip of the gangs, which control around 80 percent of Port-au-Prince.

They have also promised to oppose any outside intervention in Haiti’s affairs. That includes an effort backed by the United Nations to send a multinational armed force, led by Kenya, to Haiti to help the national police respond to the widespread violence and unrest.

But who exactly are Haiti’s armed gangs? How do the gangs function, and what do they want? And ultimately, how can — and should — the country handle them? Here’s what you need to know.

Who are Haiti’s armed gangs?

There are believed to be about 200 armed gangs operating in Haiti, about half of which have a presence in Port-au-Prince. In the capital, there are two major gang coalitions.

The first — the G9 Family and Allies alliance, or simply G9 — is led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former Haitian police officer who is under UN and United States sanctions for his involvement in Haiti’s violence.

The second is GPep, led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre, also known as Ti Gabriel. He was the leader of a gang called Nan Brooklyn before the creation of G-Pep, which has been based in Port-au-Prince’s impoverished Cite Soleil district.

G9 and GPep have been rivals for years, battling for control of neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince. Both groups have been accused of mass killings and sexual violence in areas under their authority, as well as in districts they want to take over.

But Cherizier has said that the two groups reached a pact late last year — dubbed “viv ansanm” or “live together” in Haitian Creole — to cooperate and oust Henry, the prime minister.

“We are not sure how much this dynamic will last,” said Mariano de Alba, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group. “But they formed a joint alliance in September 2023, basically trying to respond to the possibility that a multinational security mission was going to be deployed to Haiti, and they wanted to prevent that.”

Haitian gang leader Jimmy 'Barbecue' Cherizier
Haitian gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier leads the G9 gang alliance [Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters]

Where did the gangs come from?

For decades, Haiti’s gangs have been closely associated with politicians, political parties, businessmen or other so-called “elites” in the country.

G9, for example, has been linked to the Parti Haitien Tet Kale (PHTK), the political party of former President Jovenel Moise, who was assassinated in July 2021. Moise chose Henry for the prime minister post shortly before he was killed.

For its part, GPep has been associated with Haitian opposition parties.

When did the gang violence start?

Most experts trace the phenomenon back to the era of Haiti’s former President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose combined dictatorship lasted 29 years.

The Duvaliers established and used a paramilitary group, the widely feared Tontons Macoutes, to stamp out opposition to their rule. The brigade killed and tortured thousands of people.

Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert and professor at the University of Virginia, said armed gangs are not a new phenomenon in Haiti. “They’ve been part of the history of the country for a very, very long time,” he told Al Jazeera.

But Fatton explained that the armed groups in Haiti today are different.

How so?

They have better weapons than before and have reached a new “level of sophistication” in their attacks, Fatton noted. For example, drones were reportedly used when gunmen stormed two Port-au-Prince prisons in early March, part of the latest round of violence.

Fatton also explained that the armed groups were, “until fairly recently”, beholden to politicians, political parties and businessmen. Those individuals “could control them”, Fatton said. But that is no longer the case.

“They are a force unto themselves,” Fatton said. “That means they can essentially dictate to certain politicians or to many politicians, as it were, what they ought to do or what they can do.”

How did the gangs become autonomous?

“They’ve been able to amass much more money independently of politicians and businessmen,” said Fatton. That includes through extortion, as well as kidnappings for ransom, drug trafficking and the smuggling of small weapons.

But both Fatton and de Alba stressed that Haitian armed groups are not only criminal in nature.

“They also have a political aspect,” de Alba told Al Jazeera. “They gain their income through illicit activities, and they are willing to use their arms for political purposes.”

So what do they want?

De Alba said Haiti’s major gangs have increasingly made political demands, particularly after the 2021 assassination of President Moise left a power vacuum in the country’s government.

The gangs’ most recent surge in violence, for instance, included a call for Prime Minister Henry to resign.

But their ambitions go further than that. For example, G9 chief Cherizier has warned that his forces will oppose any foreign intervention in Haiti, and he has said that he wants to help lead the country out of its current crisis.

“These are groups that increasingly think that the only way to retain not only their relevance but their existence is if they are able to at least manage some important degree of political power,” said de Alba.

Fatton summarised the gangs’ long-term goals as one of enduring influence in Haiti’s leadership. “It’s not just, ‘Let me do what I want in terms of criminal activity.’ It’s more, ‘I want a piece of power.’ Period.”

OK. Knowing all this, how does Haiti go about tackling gang violence?

That’s the million-dollar question. And while there is no clear answer, most experts agree that you cannot divorce the problem of gang violence in Haiti from the overall political and economic situation.

The country is the poorest in Latin America and among the most unequal in terms of wealth distribution. It faces a number of systemic problems, such as high unemployment and a lack of opportunities, that contribute to the power of armed groups.

“A lot of youngsters and young men have no future, no jobs, no education. They really have no hope. You can understand why some of them join the gangs. That is a structural, social, economic problem,” said Fatton.

But while addressing those issues will require a long-term vision for the country, Fatton said there is a pressing need to re-establish order right now.

Violence has displaced more than 200,000 people in Port-au-Prince, and the Haitian police lack the resources to handle the gangs. The UN’s World Food Programme also warned this week that Haiti “is on the edge of a devastating hunger crisis”.

Haitian police officers patrol a street of Port-au-Prince
Police patrol a street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 8 [Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters]

Will the Kenya-led force be deployed?

That remains unclear, too. Kenyan officials said on Tuesday that the East African country was pausing the planned security mission to Haiti, in order to wait and see how the political transition plays out.

Kenyan President William Ruto said on Wednesday that his country “will take leadership” of the Haiti mission “as soon as the Presidential Council is in place under an agreed process”.

Haitian groups are in the process of choosing representatives to sit on the transitional presidential council, as set out by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) bloc of nations, in terms established on Monday. The US, the UN and others were also party to those negotiations.

The transitional council will have seven voting members, chosen from various Haitian political factions and the private sector, and two non-voting observers. It will be tasked with choosing an interim prime minister.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that Washington expects the transitional council to be formed “in the next couple of days”.

De Alba said that while “there is a need for a mechanism to strengthen the security situation in Haiti … the gangs are so mixed in within the population that it’s going to be really tough for any multinational security mission to actually deal with them only by force”.

So what else needs to happen?

De Alba said the crisis must be addressed on dual tracks: security and politics.

“It’s a very challenging situation because, at the same time, Haiti has already had a very bad history of foreign intervention, which has led to nowhere,” he said. “It’s not a question [of] putting a lot of money on the table [and then] this will get solved.”

In de Alba’s opinion, Haitians need to take the lead in finding solutions — but they will also need help to set up functioning state institutions.

“If that doesn’t happen and if the government in place is not able to deliver for its people, then these gangs will continue to have the upper hand,” he said.

The need for stable leadership was echoed by Fatton. “It’s a very long road, but the immediate problem is the formation of the new government, the selection of a prime minister by the new government,” he said.

Then the next consideration, he added, will be addressing the gang violence.

“Can you have negotiations with the gangs? If you can’t have the negotiations with the gangs, will the Kenyans arrive on time and will they have the capacity to deal with them?”

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