How Haiti's gangs grew into 'Frankenstein' monsters

Police armed vehicles control the perimeter of the police station set on fire the previous day by armed gangs, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Picture: Clarens SIFFROY / AFP

Police armed vehicles control the perimeter of the police station set on fire the previous day by armed gangs, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Picture: Clarens SIFFROY / AFP

Published Mar 11, 2024


The latest violence in Haiti underscores the powerful sway of armed gangs, which have profited from collusion with the authorities, institutional negligence and political chaos since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021.

The gangs sowing terror in the impoverished Caribbean island have morphed into de facto overlords. Now they are demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whose successor would have been sworn in on February 7 if elections scheduled for 2023 had taken place.

Here is a look at the chokehold the gangs have on this country of 11 million inhabitants.

How did gangs grow so powerful?

Gangs have existed in Haiti for decades, and have been particularly active since the mid-1990s, when the government disbanded the army, fearing military coups.

But a tipping point came in 2018, experts say, when the government turned to the gangs to quell a vast popular uprising demanding political change and an end to corruption.

Subsequent massacres by the gangs revealed their "instrumentation by the powers that be," Frederic Thomas, a researcher at the Tricontinental Centre (CETRI) in Belgium, told AFP.

Haiti has become a "narco-state," said Jean-Marie Theodat, a geographer at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. He believes Henry has been "objectively complicit in the takeover of the country by bandits" like influential gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, a former policeman who took the lead in the latest violence.

Why can't they be controlled?

For Theodat, "'Barbecue' is a Frankenstein who has broken free from his master."

He said the gangs have become more powerful than the country's political and security institutions, becoming "autonomous" power centers.

Armed with weapons often smuggled from the United States, gangs have proliferated, thriving on drug trafficking, racketeering, kidnapping and extortion.

They now exercise control over 80 percent of capital city Port-au-Prince, and their nearly unchecked criminality led to "the collapse of public institutions, culminating in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise."

What do gangs want?

"Even if Jimmy Cherizier uses political -- even revolutionary -- rhetoric, (the gangs) don't have a political or social plan," Thomas said. "What interests them is power and territorial control."

They have no interest in "legitimate power" under an institutional framework, he said.

The gangs want Henry gone but that doesn't mean someone like "Barbecue" aspires to political office, Theodat said.

Rather, the gangs want to ensure their domination while continuing to profit from their lucrative illegal activities.

What alternatives exist?

In the long term, Haiti needs to mobilize more young people, particularly through conscription, to strengthen the police and armed forces, Theodat said.

On the political front, Henry's return would be "another step into chaos -- a total denial of the disorder caused by his usurpation" of power, he said, adding that Haitians ought to be able to choose their own leaders.

But "the government doesn't want to make any concessions," Pierre Esperance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), told AFP.

"The international community can help and facilitate a political agreement," Esperance said, while adding that it should listen more closely to civil society and end its support for a government that has led the nation into gang hands.

What is the global response?

Both the United Nations and the United States support a multinational mission led by Kenya to combat the gangs, while calling for an urgent political transition.

But Washington continues to back a "very unpopular" political class, strengthening it to fight the very gangs it relies on, which is "completely contradictory," Thomas said.

For Theodat, "any foreign mission that can help us deal with these bandits is welcome," but it must "inspire confidence."

"The Haitian people have not really chosen the hand that will come to their aid," he said, noting that Kenya has "no experience" in the Caribbean.

And, he added, "what can a thousand Kenyan policemen, even aided by a few hundred soldiers from other countries, do against thousands of gangsters armed to the teeth?