Image: Haitian gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier (2nd from left) with gang members.

Written by Frances Boylston and Henry Milner. The authors, longtime observers of developments in Haiti, report from the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

On April 25, Haiti’s transition council – its composition negotiated at a Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) meeting in Jamaica – took power amid tight security at the prime minister’s Villa d’Accueil office. The council is composed of seven voting members representing seven sectors of Haitian society, as well as two nonvoting members from civil society and the interfaith community. Acceptance of the Kenyan-led Multinational Security Support (MSS) Mission – approved by the UN Security Council in October – was a precondition for participation in the council.

The council took over a country that had fallen ever more deeply into chaos. Hundreds of armed gangs with a combined membership of more than 7,000 now effectively had a free run over about 80 per cent of the Port-au-Prince capital region, where close to half the population lives. Early in 2024, gangs led a mass prison break and shut down the international airport, killing and injuring police and prison staff and allowing some 3,500 inmates to escape. The attack finally drew world attention to the situation in which highly coordinated regular gang attacks on law enforcement and state institutions have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, adding to the more than 300,000 already displaced by gang violence and leaving some 5.5 million Haitians – about half the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, with up to a million children out of school.

How did Haiti get to this point? And how can it begin to establish some stability? To begin, we touch on some relevant events in the country’s recent history, starting with the election of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier as President of Haiti in 1957.

Haiti’s miserable recent past

Papa Doc held onto office until his death in 1971, stealing millions of dollars in public money and international aid while ruling through violence and fear. He was succeeded by his only son, Jean-Claude, who leaned heavily on his father’s shadowy Tonton Macoutes to terrorize the people into silence. In 1986 Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country to exile on the French Riviera with millions in cash and was replaced by Henri Namphy, a wealthy lieutenant general who had been close to Papa Doc. Namphy kept his promise to hand over power to an elected president when Leslie Manigat won the 1988 election, but retook power months later after a coup forced Manigat out.

Following another short-lived coup, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest from the slums, was elected president in 1990 with about two thirds of the vote. There was hope that the charismatic Aristide could provide calm and prosperity for the country, but in less than a year he was pushed out by a coup. Then, after three years of military rule, Aristide was restored to power with help from the United States.

Elections were held at the end of 1995, and René Préval assumed the presidency in what was seen as the first peaceful transfer of power in Haiti’s history. However, coup attempts set off another power struggle. Aristide was reelected in 2000, but this time he came to rely on gangs known as the Chimères to snuff out dissent.

In 2004, Aristide yet again faced an uprising seeking to oust him, this time led by Guy Philippe, who would go on to serve a prison sentence in the United States on a money-laundering conviction before returning to Haiti late last year. The United States helped – indeed encouraged – Aristide to flee the country. After Haiti appealed for international help to quell the unrest, a UN mission known by the French acronym MINUSTAH entered the country and remained there from 2004 until 2017. The mission, facing accusations of sexual misconduct, ultimately failed to stabilize Haiti.

As if things weren’t bad enough, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people and reducing much of Port-au-Prince to ruins. International relief efforts sought to help Haiti recover, but two years later half a million people were still living in tents. Moreover, UN troops from Nepal brought cholera to the country, setting off an outbreak that killed more than 10,000 people.

In 2010 popular musician Michel Martelly was elected with hopes for change. But five years later “Sweet Mickey” left amid charges of repression, incompetence and corruption, retiring to an estate in Quebec.

Next, Jovenel Moïse was elected President in 2016 for a five-year term, but did not take office until the following year because of disputes over the election. He claimed that the delay entitled him to stay in office beyond the scheduled end of his term and that efforts to replace him amounted to a coup attempt. In July 2021, armed men stormed Moïse’s home and fatally shot him.

Two days before he was assassinated, Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as the next Prime Minister, but Henry had not been sworn in before Moïse was killed. His lack of legitimacy played into the hands of the gangs, which were now stronger than ever. In an effort to quell the chaos, Henry appealed to the international community to help restore order in Haiti. Canada promised funding but declined to take an active role. However, Kenya responded positively, agreeing to lead a UN-backed multinational police force to be deployed to Haiti.

Waiting for the Multinational Security Support Mission

Within a few days of taking office, the transition council named Fritz Bélizaire, a little-known former sports minister, as the country’s Prime Minister, a controversial choice with the support of only four of seven council members with voting powers. These included the representatives of the groups that had been led by former presidents Martelly and Moïse as well as Ariel Henry. Behind the scenes, according to the three opponents, was Jean-Charles Moïse, a former senator and presidential candidate. Still, the situation improved notably when, on May 29, with no dissenting voices, the Council withdrew Bélizaire’s nomination and named Garry Conille, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, as Haiti’s new Prime Minister.

With some two decades of experience working inside the UN system as a development specialist, Conille had also briefly served as Haiti’s Prime Minister from October 2011 to May 2012. He had resigned after clashing with President Michel Martelly over corruption in post-quake government contracts. Conille had studied medicine and public health and went on to develop programs for improving health care in impoverished Haitian communities. He later worked for former U.S. President Bill Clinton in coordinating reconstruction efforts after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

In mid-June, Conille named his slate of cabinet ministers, to general approval. One indication of the new tone occurred when it was announced that he suffered from respiratory issues. People overwhelmingly wished him well on the internet and radio stations. In a stark contrast to how things were conducted in the previous government, he promised transparency and made his health condition public.

Haiti’s new leadership has vowed to take on the criminal gangs that control much of the country. The loose coalition of gangs known as Viv Ansanm continues to control most of Port-au-Prince. The gangs had demanded political influence and amnesties and threatened violence if their demands were not met; the coalition’s leader, Jimmy Chérizier (known as Barbecue), had warned of consequences if the gangs were ignored. As he put it in a message posted to social media, “It’s either we are all at the table, or the table gets destroyed.”

The gangs were indeed left out of the process, and after the transitional council announced its new Prime Minister, they carried out their threat. Early on May 2, in an area controlled by Chérizier’s G9 gang federation, armed gangs burned homes and exchanged gunfire with police for hours as hundreds fled the violence. London’s Daily Mail website described the scene of destruction:

Shortly after sunrise, the neighborhoods ravaged by the violence fell quiet as armored police trucks patrolled the streets, rolling past charred vehicles and cinderblock walls. Graffiti reading Viv Barbecue”… could be seen scrawled on walls. Many who had lost their homes were seen walking through the streets clutching fans, stoves, mattresses, and plastic bags filled with clothes.

In mid-June, the gang led by Chérizier killed multiple police officers. Many kidnappings are taking place and the gangs are continuing their attacks on the civilian population.

Given that the Kenyan-led mission combined with the local police cannot match the gangs’ numbers, it is unclear to what extent MSS will be successful. As UN independent human rights expert Bill O’Neill noted, the gangs are not like the Maoists in Nepal or Colombia’s FARC. Thery have no ideology that would impel them to take over the state. Rather, they want to keep the state weak, ineffective and largely absent, so that they can continue to carry out their activities.

In late May, U.S. National Public Radio’s Eyder Peralta reported on a meeting with gang leaders. He cited a gang leader, known as Passe, who asserted that “to avoid bloodshed, the gangs must be given a seat at the table.” But the gangs won’t give up their weapons because “those who gave us the weapons have now created new gangs.”

Peralta met Leslie Voltaire, a member of the transitional government, in Petion-Ville, one of the only Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods still fully under government control. The only way forward, he said, is to pacify the country with the help of an international force. Aware that Kenya’s security forces have a checkered human rights record, he noted that Haiti’s police is corrupt: “The Kenyan forces are our only choice.” An unidentified police officer told him that if the Kenyans just set out to destroy the gangs, the powerful in Haiti will only make more.

Political analyst Camille Chalmers disagreed, noting that the gangs, which used to be enforcers for politicians, have now become well-armed militias fighting for power of their own. Against them, foreign forces will deploy without much input from any Haitians, and are thus doomed. He described the police in Haiti as “adrift”:

They drive around Port-au-Prince in smashed armored vehicles with bad weapons and little ammunition … The majority of police stations have been ransacked and looted, attacked by the gangs. The gangs were created by the powerful to protect their business interests. Now that the powerful have lost control of the gangs, they are using the police as their new armed wing.

Clearly the challenge is a daunting one. At the end of March, Canada sent a contingent to Jamaica to train forces from Belize, the Bahamas and Jamaica, which have all agreed to contribute to the mission. The U.S. State Department has apparently vetted the Kenyan police units to be sent to Haiti to make sure they have not been involved in human rights violations, and have promised logistical and financial support. The Pentagon has pledged to build a base and medical facility, which would make a large-scale deployment feasible. However, the initiative still lacks the proper funding. Republicans in Congress have been slow to release the first $40 million, accusing the administration of not providing clear details about the force.

U.S. officials had previously indicated that the officers would be in Port-au-Prince to coincide with Kenyan President William Ruto’s highly touted state visit to the White House in late May. Because of court intervention in Kenya, the deployment has been delayed; speaking at a joint news conference with U.S. President Joe Biden, Ruto reassured his American partners that the delay would be a short one.

There is goodwill toward the mission both from Kenya and from the new administration in Haiti, but administrative, judicial and logistical issues kept getting in the way. After further delays, the first contingent of the international force, 400 police officers from Kenya, finally arrived on June 25. Many questions remain about the mission, which continues to lack financial and logistical support from the international community. And – more worrying – the nature of the intervention still has not been clarified. There is confusion about whether the foreign cops being deployed to Haiti will be involved in combatting gangs or tasked solely with protecting key government infrastructure such as the airport, seaport, presidential palace and main roads.

The Kenya-led mission is clearly a second-best alternative. For one thing, none of the countries involved are francophone. The best option would be direct intervention by the three countries with a history of involvement and important Haitian communities: the United States, France and Canada. Indeed, Canada, with the cleanest historical record, is the country best suited to lead such an intervention, but there is zero support for Canadian boots on Haitian ground. Prime Minister Trudeau refused such a request from Biden when the President visited Canada in March 2023.

Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic

It is probably unrealistic to expect the planned intervention to sufficiently weaken the gangs to pave the way for an elected government to take power by February 2026 as promised, or to significantly reduce the sway of the gangs in the capital region. A more realizable accomplishment would be to remove the gangs from the northeast and then southwest regions outside Port-au-Prince, where they are weak and where thousands who have fled the capital have gone.

The capital of the scenic northeast region, the part of Haiti closest to the Dominican Republic, is Cap-Haïtien, once known as the Paris of the Antilles. Local authorities demolished more than 1,500 homes in the city’s southern outskirts that gangs had infiltrated. Businesses have been relocating to Cap-Haïtien; 400,000 people walk about freely, not having to sidestep bodies or avoid stray bullets.

As we could not help noticing when we visited in 2016, Cap-Haïtien shares Port-au-Prince’s poverty and mountains of garbage. Plainly, it doesn’t have enough resources to welcome all those now fleeing the violence. Reports indicate that many are forced to sleep in front of churches and stores, and schools are overwhelmed, especially since many children arriving from the capital are far behind their nominal grade.

Yet the potential for real progress is there. In our view, the transitional presidential council should make Cap-Haïtien its unofficial capital. It would govern the eastern part of the country, from where international police and existing private security guards and community groups could reach out to support the police in the capital region. Sunrise Airways now offers air connection between Cap-Haïtien’s international airport in the northeast and the domestic airport in the southwestern city of Les Cayes. Ideally, a connection by ship could also be established to bypass the gang-controlled highways.

A major goal would be restoring freedom of movement into and out of airports and harbours and major road intersections in Port au Prince to allow for humanitarian assistance. Accompanying this action, there would need to be a concentrated effort to stop arms trafficking from the United States to the gangs.

An uncertain element in effecting such a plan will be the level of cooperation by the Dominican Republic, which borders on the northeastern region. The DR, according to the International Organization for Migration, deported more than 7,000 Haitians in February and March 2024. The DR exports about $1.4 billion in food and other goods to Haiti, much of which is bought by Haitians in the DR and remitted to their families in Haiti. Haitians accounted for some of the $10 billion in remittances the Dominican Republic received last year.

The DR has so far effectively excluded itself from direct cooperation with any such mission. While, given its past experience, it legitimately refuses to open its borders to allow Haitians affected by the invasion to cross into its territory, the country could do a great deal to facilitate the efforts of the Kenyan-led force by making its territory and facilities available for training and deployment and providing assistance when called on. An earlier proposed Canadian initiative to open a “Haiti Office” in Santo Domingo was widely condemned by political leaders.

President Luis Abinader was easily returned to power in the DR’s May 19 election. During the campaign, he rallied the nation around the idea that instability in Haiti posed a “threat” to the Dominican Republic and promised to defend Dominican sovereignty from foreign pressure. This recipe proved an electoral success, as Abinder received almost 60 per cent of the vote and his supporters won 29 of 32 Senate seats. Since his reelection Abinader has not changed his tone, and as of this writing we have not detected any softening of the Dominican position. We will see what transpires when the mission is on the ground. We are not holding our breath.