Rebels, Not Gangsters? Haiti’s Political Crisis

Haiti, a Caribbean country, has recently garnered media attention due to massive ‘gang-led’ jailbreaks in its capital, Port-Au-Prince, and in Croix des Bouquets. Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned in response to demands made by the ‘gangs’ that now dominate the country. In order to understand the scale and nature of the conflict, there are two interlinked aspects of this crisis that need dissecting. One is that these ‘gangs’ are political: they, even if their actions are criminal, are not ordinary criminals. Secondly, and relatedly, the history of ‘gang’ violence in Haiti is long and complex. This article aims not to trivialise recent actions or glorify them as heroic but rather to place them in the context they emerge from.

The current violence is, at the fundamental level, a three-way conflict between the G-9 alliance led by Jimmy Cherizier, state forces, and the G-Pep Alliance. In conflict with dominant media discourse, Jimmy Cherizier, also known as ‘Barbecue’, clearly sees this as more than a traditional gang war. Ahead of the jailbreaks, he stated ‘The battle we are waging will not only topple the Ariel Henry government. It is a battle that will change the whole system.’ This is the language of revolution, not gang war. Traditional gang wars usually centre around illicit activities such as extortion and drugs and almost never argue for systemic change. For example, in Ecuador, the conflict between the drug cartels, Los Choneros and Les Tiguerones, involved a government crackdown but was primarily centred around criminal activity. In comparison, the 'gangs’' aims in Haiti are almost wholly political, as shown by their revolutionary talk. A traditional gang invests in criminal activity for profit, whereas Haitian 'gangs' have far wider aims.

They have always had a political angle. The non-state armed groups emerged in the 1950s when, following a failed coup, President Duvalier created an armed militia called the Tonton Macoutes to bypass the military. This group was eventually disbanded in 1986 following the end of the Duvalier family’s leadership. Pivotally, they were disbanded but not disarmed. This essentially created an armed group that had the training and firepower to continue pursuing its far-right agenda. 

The situation did not get better as time went on. In 1994, President Aristide outlawed the Duvalier armed groups, but perhaps more surprisingly, also the military. Consequently, more soldiers who were not disarmed, adequately retrained or provided with pensions became armed 'gang' members. This resulted in conflict (1994-2004) between the former soldiers and a new pro-Aristide faction of armed self-defence groups. Following the 2010 earthquake, these defence groups eventually started fighting each other, leading to the ‘gang’ conflicts we see today. 

Whether we’re looking at history or the current crisis, the situation in Haiti is intrinsically political and rather than ‘gangs’, the term ‘paramilitary’ would be a better descriptor. They have always had ideologies; pro-Duvalier, anti-Aristide or anti-Henry and have never considered their remit to be purely for-profit crime. Instead they see themselves as rebels and potential leaders of Haiti. If the ‘gangs’ were not a serious political threat to Haiti, then why would former Prime Minister Ariel Henry be hiding in Puerto Rico, and why would the United Nations send peacekeepers led by Kenya?

This begs a final question: why is the media calling them ‘gangs’ instead of rebels? This is hard to answer but can probably be explained by Haiti’s unique context. 

Firstly, the political situation has been highly complex and multi-sided for decades. There are now 200 paramilitary groups, half of which are in Port-au-Prince. As I have already discussed, the current conflict is described as being between the main alliances, but it is harder for the human mind to envisage such a fragmented civil war as is now going on in Haiti. Groups, alliances and the government are all having a go at claiming Haiti or at least their turf of it. 

A second reason could be legitimacy. If one calls the paramilitary groups ‘gangs’ it immediately deprives them of the ability to be seen as a legal government, though this lack of legitimacy may be for the better. The 'gangs' have caused great instability over the decades, and it is unlikely the current crisis will resolve with them being in charge. 

Finally, calling them ‘gangs’ maybe just a simple way of talking about the situation without much need to go into history regarding the context and politics. It would be hard to fit the entire recent history of Haiti into an article (I equally do not claim to have done this). The situation is unique and we have a tendency to simplify when something is hard to understand. 

The conflict will develop rapidly, but it is important to remember its political dimensions. Some ‘gangs’ have far more ambitious goals, and so, when making our judgements about them, we should not underestimate their ability to influence or control Haiti.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.