How a lack of leadership allowed gangs to take over Haiti

Author: Editors Desk Source: France 24
March 12, 2024 at 06:31
Armed gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier and his men are seen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 5, 2024. © Clarens Siffroy, AFP
Armed gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier and his men are seen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 5, 2024. © Clarens Siffroy, AFP
Haiti has descended into a state of chaos and despair in recent years, with gangs seizing control of large swaths of the nation and imposing their rule through fear, violence and extortion. FRANCE 24 spoke to expert Rosa Freedman on what paved the way for gangs to take hold of the Caribbean nation.

Haiti is teetering on the brink of a full-blown civil conflict as organised gangs, wielding control over large swaths of the country, are mounting an offensive.

With a power vacuum left behind after democratically elected president Jovenel Mosie was assassinated in 2021, and with a beleaguered police force of only 10,000 officers to protect the country’s more than 11 million inhabitants, gangs are becoming ever more powerful.

Gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as “Barbecue”, launched a coordinated assault against acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry last week, threatening “civil war that will lead to genocide” if he does not step down. Cherizier last week claimed that his G9 and other rival gangs had revived a non-aggression pact called Viv Ansanm (“Living together” in Haitian Creole) to topple the interim government.

Gangs have targeted infrastructure in the country, including its main international airport, a police academy and an attack on two key prisons in its capital Port-au-Prince that allowed thousands of inmates to escape over the weekend and led the government to declare a state of emergency.

The UN Security Council has called the situation “critical” and fears of widespread violence are mounting. Despite plans for a Kenyan-led police mission to bring stability to the Caribbean nation being initially blocked by a Nairobi court, the two countries finally signed a 'reciprocal agreement' last week. But Kenyan trooper boots have yet to touch Haitian soil.

Almost 4,000 people were killed and 3,000 kidnapped in gang-related violence in 2023, according to the UN.


Turmoil and gang-related violence in Haiti has deep roots, with economic and political instability intensified by the Moise’s assassination. His killing sent the country into a downward spiral to near failed-state status.

The majority of supreme court judges have left office and the last remaining 10 senators in Haiti’s parliament left the country in January 2023. Haiti has not held legislative elections since October 2019 and – with all local authorities’ mandates now expired – the question of whether the interim government will finally hold elections hangs over acting PM Henry’s political legitimacy.

But Haiti’s fragility is also a legacy of past hardships. Crippling “reparations” the country was forced to pay France after it gained independence in 1804 left the country’s economy in tatters, as did the enduring impact of the Duvalier dictatorship that lasted several decades. The devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed tens of thousands of Haitians also set the country back years in terms of economic development.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Professor Rosa Freedman, a professor of law and conflict at the University of Reading and a Haiti specialist, to understand how and why gangs are taking control.

Who are behind Haitian gangs and how did they come into power?

Rosa Freedman: There is a triangle in Haiti that is interconnected. The triangle is between the government, the elites and the gangs. Sometimes they work with one another and sometimes they appear to be working against one another.

The leader of the G9 gang who is known as “Barbecue” was a former police officer. There are questions as to whether or not he left the police force or was pushed out of it by the government. He is not only the leader of his own gang but of a coalition of gangs who advocate that they are trying to protect the people living in abject poverty, particularly in the slums but also in rural communities, from the elites and from the corrupt government. He is calling for Ariel Henry to resign.

At the same time, there are many other voices on the ground, particularly in civil society, who are also calling for Henry to resign. But they aren’t supporting this gang leader – who himself has committed grave atrocities – or members of his gang or allied gangs.

There is [speculation] as to whether or not the government, or international actors – or both – are arming some of these gangs to try and cause civil unrest to [help] depose Henry.

It is complex. You have to understand every bit of what is going on in Haiti to understand the role the gangs play. And within that, you have to understand the history of Haiti and the history of interference, particularly from the US but also from other countries.

Haiti was the first Black sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere. But because of the reparations it was forced to pay to France, Haiti was never allowed to really govern itself because it’s always been reliant on international intervention or on aid or other kind of charity.

The taking away of Haiti’s military –  the demobilisation of its armed forces –  also played a huge role. Haiti only [reestablished] a military in 2017. Before that there was a vacuum in which gangs could gain power very quickly. 

And when populist left-wing leaders like [former president] Jean-Bertrand Aristide were deposed by international actors […] it left a vacuum within the populist movement and it left a vacuum for the gangs to take power.

When Colombian mercenaries assassinated president Jovenel Moise [in 2021], Haiti went back to a situation where the corrupt elite have all the money and gangs are talking about populism while also fighting for power and money.

What is their end goal?

Freedman: Some of these gang members are doing it because they want revolution: They want to protect people from starvation, from corruption. They want to have free and fair elections. Others are doing it because they want power and they want money.

It is very difficult to be able to unpack and differentiate between the different reasons within each gang, let alone within each coalition.

For example, gangs broke into prisons to allow prisoners to escape. Many of those prisoners will be members of the gang. But at the same time, many prisoners were actually there in pre-trial detention, against their fundamental human rights, languishing in the most terrible conditions that go against all sorts of international standards for many years – without even a chance of having access to a fair trial.

The different motivations from different actors sometimes compete and sometimes are actually complementary.

There may be common goals: of having Henry resign and having a new government. But what that government looks like will look different to different gangs. Some may want to have gang leaders in power in some form of dictatorship, others may be wanting free and fair elections.

There is no way to know what each individual gang leader – or coalitions of gangs – truly want.

 What could challenge the power of these gangs? 

Freedman: The Kenyan-led intervention is not going to solve the problem of gangs. These are not people that speak the local languages. They don’t understand the Haitian context. They don’t understand the climate in which these gangs are operating or even the roads they’re walking down.

The best-case scenario that I see is that countries who are part of the Group of Friends of Haiti – so Canada, Uruguay, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba … countries that know Haiti, that understand the context, the culture, the climate, that are allied with Haiti and that are regional neighbours – they go in and support the police, the military, the Haitian infrastructure, to bring this violence to an end.

The world has turned Haiti into a failed state by intervening constantly and preventing Haitians [from] coming up with Haitian solutions for Haitian problems, preventing Haitians from choosing who will rule over them.

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