Haiti: what caused the gang violence and will it end now the PM has quit

Author: Editors Desk, Tom Phillips, Archie Bland and Oliver Holmes Source: The Guardian
March 13, 2024 at 06:45
People set tyres on fire during a demonstration demanding the resignation of the Haitian prime minister, Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince on 7 March. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images
People set tyres on fire during a demonstration demanding the resignation of the Haitian prime minister, Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince on 7 March. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images
After two weeks of violence and chaos, Ariel Henry has announced his resignation – here’s all you need to know

Haiti’s prime minister has announced his intention to resign after politically connected gangs sowed chaos in the country’s capital over the past two weeks, storming prisons, seizing control of the port, torching dozens of shops and police stations and laying siege to the international airport.

A special forces police officer turned gang kingpin called Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier had said the criminal groups’ mission was to overthrow the country’s unpopular leader, Ariel Henry, and liberate its 11.7 million citizens from anti-democratic rule.

Henry, who is also acting president, was in Kenya when the gangs’ onslaught began on 29 February and has been unable to return to Port-au-Prince. His backers in the US government are reported to have urged him to stand aside. Speaking from Puerto Rico in a video address on Monday, Henry said his government would resign and urged people to remain calm until a transitional “council” could be formed. But he gave no timeframe.


What are the origins of the crisis?

It is seven years since Haiti held an election, almost three since the president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated, and more than a year since the last elected officials left office – and the return of democracy to Port-au-Prince still appears to be distant.

Haiti’s crisis can be traced directly to Moïse’s assassination, but the roots go much deeper to the economic catastrophe caused by the 2010 earthquake, the 29-year dictatorial rule of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and even to the grotesque impact of the vast “reparations” Haiti was forced to pay to France for generations after independence in 1804, which severely hampered economic development.

“The consistent meddling of the international community over the past 220 years has made Haiti a failed state because the people have no say in their lives, they have no say in their future, because the internationals have made it a puppet state,” says Daniel Foote, the former US special envoy to Haiti.

What’s happened in the past year?

An already terrible situation has grown worse. Almost 4,000 people were killed and 3,000 kidnapped in gang-related violence in 2023, according to the UN, and sexual violence was rife, with 1,100 attacks on women by October. More than 300,000 people have been displaced, at least 15,000 of them in the last week, and half of the population do not have enough to eat. Basic services such as electricity, clean water and waste collection are unreliable. The final figures for 2023 are expected to show that the economy has contracted for five consecutive years.

Recent events have caused deeper uncertainty and pessimism. The UN’s humanitarian office said last week that Haiti’s health service was nearing collapse, with hospitals swamped by bullet-wound victims and lacking staff and supplies.

“What I’m hearing [from my Haitian colleagues] is that we are lost … You can see in their faces and in the way they behave that they are really fearing what may happen next,” said Jean-Marc Biquet, the head of Médecins sans Frontières in Haiti.

Romain Le Cour, a security expert who was in Haiti when the rebellion began, said: “The humanitarian situation right now is devastating.”


How much power do the gangs have?

The vacuum of democratically accountable political authority has created space for the gangs to expand their influence in the capital, and two rival coalitions – G9, led by Chérizier, and Gpèp, which lacks a single clear leader – have fought for control of the city. Before the uprising, gangs were believed to control more than 80% of Port-au-Prince.

The police force is severely underpowered, with about 10,000 active officers across the country. UN estimates suggest it needs about 26,000. About 1,600 officers stepped down last year.

Experts say the UN security council’s vote in October to send a multinational security force to Haiti to help combat the gangs appeared to worsen the violence, with both sides seeking to secure more territory before its arrival. The two gang coalitions revived a non-aggression pact in their effort to topple Henry’s government and strengthen their position.

What happens now?

Henry submitted his resignation to the Caribbean Community regional bloc (Caricom), after it held an emergency meeting on Haiti’s future. The president of Guyana and current Caricom chair, Irfaan Ali, said a presidential council with seven voting members would appoint Henry’s interim successor. The council’s representatives would come from the private sector and civil society and would include one religious leader, Ali said.

A senior US official said Henry remained in Puerto Rico, and that he had expressed a desire to return to Haiti in the future. That prospect could be slim because rival political factions will be manoeuvring behind the scenes in the hope of filling the vacuum.

It is unclear, even after Henry’s resignation, whether the gangs will be willing to stand down.

Could an international security force make a difference?

The UN’s announcement of its support for an international force led by Kenya prompted some optimism that it could challenge the gangs. The plan is not a formal UN peacekeeping force, in part because of the disastrous impact of the previous 2004-2017 UN mission, which was tarnished by appalling sexual misconduct allegations and the fact that sewage from a UN camp was implicated in a cholera outbreak that killed nearly 10,000 people.

The force’s mission will not be to eliminate the gangs but to restore control of key routes into the capital, protect state infrastructure and stabilise the security situation. Even so, any incoming force would need considerable training to take on the gangs in a labyrinthine urban environment where gang members typically wear normal clothes and are hard to distinguish from civilians.


Why isn’t the force in place yet?

Five months after the force was given a UN mandate, there is still no presence on the ground – and it has been given an initial authorisation for only a year.

One significant obstacle has been within Kenya, where the government promised 1,000 police officers to lead a proposed force of up to 5,000 personnel – but then faced a court ruling that the plan was unconstitutional. Henry went to Nairobi this month to try to salvage the plan by signing a new agreement with Kenya’s president, William Ruto. However, after Henry’s resignation statement, the Kenyan foreign ministry announced on Tuesday that the deployment was on hold until a new government was in place.

A further 2,000 personnel have been offered by Benin and the governments of Chad, Bangladesh, Barbados and the Bahamas have also offered to contribute officers.

Given the explosion of violence, many experts are sceptical that a relatively small Kenya-led force, whose officers speak English not Haitian Creole or French, would help reduce the bloodshed.

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