Haiti’s Crisis: Gang Violence, Political Turmoil, and Colonial Legacy

Haiti’s Crisis: Gang Violence, Political Turmoil, and Colonial Legacy

Photo by Evan Brockett, via Unsplash.

Haiti is currently at a stalemate, stuck between warring gangs, uncertain leadership and a vicious bloody colonial history. The citizens are stranded on the island, cut away from any medical and food aid, slowly wasting away, with IPC reports that 4.5 million people are facing acute food insecurity. The crisis has come to a head in the last couple of weeks as Haitiʼs prime minister was made to resign and then barred from returning by armed gangs. This has created a power vacuum where gangs, politicians and international leaders struggle for bureaucratic control, often at the expense and well-being of the Haitian people.

The most pressing concern in Haiti at the moment is the constant violence being inflicted upon the populace. This comes in the form of murders, kidnappings, and the destruction of private property from police stations to ordinary homes. Criminals advance across Haiti, claiming entire neighbourhoods as gang territory and evicting their owners. Even peaceful communities are at risk, and some choose to flee their homes to makeshift camps before they can be attacked and forcibly removed.

For women and girls, the situation is even more terrifying, with gendered violence becoming horrifyingly rife throughout the country, especially in the capital city, Port-au-Prince: where they face home invasions or being apprehended on the street and makeshift camps. Gangs are using systematic rape to “instil fear, punish, subjugate and inflict pain on local populations.” This involves the deliberate use of sexual violence as a tool of control and coercion, targeting individuals to assert power and influence broader social oppression and control. The SISNU reported an increase of 49% in reported rape cases in 2023 from 2022. The cases of physical assault against women were even more severe with 3,447 being reported in 2023, and an estimateion that 1,171,183 people will need assistance in 2024, 97 per cent being women and girls. However, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many women have suffered such harm as reporting to the police is a difficult process, resulting in abuse being severely underreported. Fear of retaliation by their abusers also plays a part in women’s silence. Nevertheless, there is some resistance from the people: communities attempt to protect themselves by erecting barricades and arming themselves against the invading gangs.

The question of who is accountable for the ongoing turmoil and violence in Haiti is an important one: with gangs, corrupt politicians and imperialist intervention all contributing to the nation’s plight.

The gangs in Haiti are the most overt example of the country’s decline into pandemonium. Although they claim to be the revolutionaries, they are responsible for 4,451 deaths in 2023, and the latest report from 22 March 2024 reports 1,554 deaths from recent attacks. Most deaths occurred in densely populated metropolitan areas where civilians were caught in the crossfire between police and gang fights. However, the UN report notes that many civilians were murdered in their homes, allegedly for supporting the police or rival gangs. Gang violence has been a concern for many years in Haiti, however the attacks have escalated, with criminals becoming bolder: perhaps due to their access to sophisticated weaponry, dismissal of the politicians and businessmen they were once beholden to and confidence in their growing number as they form their own alliances.

Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, is a former police officer who leads the largest gang in Haiti. He says that he stands with the poor against the corrupt government, appointing himself as a champion of social justice akin to figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and even Robin Hood. However, he is regarded extremely unfavourably by the law and the people. The UN, US and other countries have all passed sanctions on him, imposing an assets freeze and travel ban, citing his acts of serious human rights violations. Haitians too have spoken about him and other gangs with fear and distaste. Emmanuela Douyan is one such advocate, indicating his criminal past, and his agenda using the people of Haiti and the current chaos to further his selfish motives, to style himself as the ‘Saviour of Haitian people’.

The gangs claim to be revolutionaries. They have made political demands: calling for the removal of the prime minister; as well as asserting that they will oppose any foreign interference. This includes a threat directed at the UN, after their proposal to send “multinational security support” troops to Haiti.

They have also demonstrated their aggression by releasing thousands of prisoners, setting fire to government facilities, raiding neighbourhoods and taking control of ports and airports. These have all had severe consequences: Haiti has now declared a state of emergency as the thousands of inmates that were released are wreaking havoc across the country. In addition to the offences that led to their imprisonment, the released prisoners are reportedly involved in further acts of violence, some joining the gangs and exacerbating the country’s instability. Furthermore, with the gangs controlling the country’s ports and airports, there are severe implications for the people who are already suffering from starvation and lack of medical aid.

Gang violence is not the only problem in Haiti, with unstable leadership playing a big part in its escalation, such as the last elected president Jovenel Moise and this assassination. Moise was incredibly unpopular: he controversially extended his own term in office and faced many protests denouncing his leadership. Some of the allegations levied against him included corruption and economic mismanagement, especially distasteful with the widespread poverty that Haiti faces. Cherizier claimed that the politicians were damaging the country just as much as the people with guns and claimed that he wanted “to overthrow the whole system … 5 per cent of people who control 95 per cent of the country’s wealth.” His promises to redistribute wealth would be extremely appealing to the people of Haiti, given the severe wealth gap, especially in the capital Port-au-Prince. Just a few km away from the capital is a private beach on the northern coast where rich tourists would visit and holiday. While the elite pocket the money from tourism, most people in Haiti suffer from homelessness, starvation and no medical aid.

Before Moise was assassinated, he chose Ariel Henry to replace him, however, this was yet another unpopular decision, as the people of Haiti wanted a transitional presidential council, not another unelected leader. Henry’s delay in holding new presidential elections, as well as implementing his own security reforms such as calling for foreign military aid, made him even less popular. Over 100 civil groups in Haiti opposed his call for military reinforcements and instead urged the US to withdraw their support for Moise, “as that unconditional support has removed any incentive for him to negotiate with opponents in good faith.” Henry’s opponents also doubted his plans to be for the safety of the people. They suspected that he would use foreign law enforcement for his own personal protection and to bolster his authority.

The people of Haiti’s suspicion of foreign, and especially Western interference, is not an unfounded concern, as since Haiti’s inception in 1804, it has faced opposition from Western powers, either wanting to use the country’s resources or threatened by its strength. After 300 years of colonial rule under France, the slaves working on plantations in Haiti revolted against their masters and formed the first ever free Black republic. However, the powers at the time being the US, France, England, and Spain, ostracised them, not willing to hold diplomatic or trade relations for fear of their own slaves also rebelling. France, in fact, demanded compensation for the loss of their lucrative business in the plantations, and placed Haiti under siege, demanding 150 million francs, with the full knowledge that Haiti’s economy would not be able to support such an excessive demand. Haiti would have to take out a loan from a French bank and thus accrued such a high level of interest that they remain indebted to their slavers for decades.

France is not the only Western power to have colonised Haiti: in 1915 the US occupied the country, citing that its political instability was a cause for concern for European interests. They seized control, disbanding Haitian military forces and placed the country under foreign martial law. Numerous breaches of human rights transpired over 19 years including the arbitrary executions and torture of several thousand Haitians. Furthermore, in 2010 after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, the UN’s failure to ensure the hygiene of their peacekeeping forces resulted in the introduction of cholera to Haiti. This outbreak resulted in tens of thousands of deaths across the country. This disturbing imperialist past builds upon the complexity of the crisis, explaining Haiti’s suspicion of foreign interference, and unwillingness to defer to a Western power such as the UN.

In conclusion, Haiti is caught in a complex and harrowing situation: the war between gangs, an unstable government and a disturbing colonial history, all of which obscure the urgent needs of its people. The escalating levels of gang violence, indiscriminately harming civilians, and especially women, highlight the need for accountability. Addressing these challenges requires the collaborative efforts of the domestic and international community, prioritising the welfare and dignity of the Haitian people.