Armed gangs controlling nearly half of the capital, Port-au-Prince, also block the country’s largest fuel terminal, leading to a nationwide fuel shortage.
Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been witnessing one of its darkest days after the country’s President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July by highly-skilled foreign mercenaries who purportedly had enigmatic connections to the US and Colombia.
Much of the country’s capital Port-au-Prince has been run by brutal gangs, whose strength has recently grown as they appear to outnumber Haiti’s security forces in both membership and armament.
Interestingly, one of the biggest gangs has been led by a former policeman, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, whose group has blocked the country’s biggest fuel terminal to distribute gasoline, creating large shortages across Haiti.
Cherizier demands the country’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign and hand over 50 million dollars to him in order to restore fuel distribution across Haiti. Even Cherizier claims that his gang is more a political community than an organised crime group.
“Ours is a political fight. We are an armed political group,” the gang leader said last week. In the past, he posed in front of pictures of Che Guevara, an Argentinian socialist revolutionary leader.
While the country’s security situation worsened after Moise’s assassination, many point out that gangs had gotten more powerful under the term of the late president. Moise appeared to ally with some of Haiti’s big gangs to suppress dissent according to the US Treasury department.
Although many countries have mafia groups due to corruption and political instabilities, the gangs of Haiti appear to be running the country at a level that is unmatchable across the world.
Here are some reasons why gangs are so powerful in Haiti:
No real army
While unchecked armies might oust governments in democratically weak states like Haiti, they are also an important state instrument against possible external and internal threats like violent gangs.
But Haiti, whose population is around 11 million people, does not have any real army after the country dismantled its army in 1995 following a military coup. Haiti has had a history of bloody coups and political instability since its revolution and independence in 1804 from France.
In 2017, Moise reestablished the army, but its size is around 500 troops, which is clearly unmatched with the growing membership of gangs, whose number are estimated to be about 20,000 to 30,000.
“The army is our mother. When your mother is sick and wears dirty clothes, you do not kill her. You take her to the hospital. So let us join forces to provide needed care to our mother,” Moise said during a 2017 parade celebrating the army’s return in Haiti.
While Haiti needs a strong security force to go after gangs and other violent groups, due to the past of violent dozens of coups, the country’s political structure could not agree on the merits of having a military.
“I don’t believe the Moise regime really wants to reinstate the army, but instead set up a political militia to persecute political opponents,” said Andre Michel, an opposition coalition spokesman, in 2017 after the former president’s announcement of reinstating the army.
Weak police force
Haiti’s police force, which is numbered around 15,000, is also inadequate to respond to growing gang power. According to different sources including Haiti’s own police forces, gangs are much better armed than police forces.
Even top Haiti cops hesitate to patrol in areas in Port-au-Prince under control of gangs like G9, a federation of local gangs in the capital joined under the leadership of the 44-year-old Cherizier, a former policeman. He also appears to have strong connections with top government officials including allegedly with the late Moise and some police chiefs.
“It is only when you are through that area that you can make the sign of the cross,” said Synci Domond, an officer and spokesman for Haiti's police union during an interview in July.
Domond also cited that the Haiti police force, who appear to use the same rifles US Marines used when they landed the country in 1915, do not have enough armament to challenge the gang rule in the capital.
“Gang leaders seem to have no limits. The police are not sufficiently equipped to counter the threats of these well-organized and well-equipped gangs,” said Thomas Lalime, an academic at the Institute of Sciences, Technologies and Advanced Studies of Haiti.
Another serious problem the police force is currently facing is shortage of fuel, which prevents them from operating properly across the country, as gangs have appeared to control some crucial fuel terminals, being better equipped to run their vehicles.
Corrupt state structure
Haiti’s finances have long been bankrupted for various reasons, ranging from high corruption to weak tax revenues and political instability. Due to corruption and an unproductive economy, the country’s tax revenue stands at only 5.6% of its GDP. France, the former colonial power in Haiti, has the second biggest tax-to-GDP ratio with 45.4 percent in the world in 2020.
Nearly 70 percent of the country’s GDP has been financed by not people, who actually live in the country, but Haitian migrants, who live in countries like the US, Canada and France, and foreign aid coming from the US, UN and other international groups.
“The gang in this country is not those men with guns you can see here. The real gangs are the men in suits. The real gangs are the officials in the national palace, the real gangs are the members of the opposition,” said Cherizier, the son of a street vendor.
While Cherizier claims to be the champion of Haiti’s poor, he allegedly masterminded a brutal attack in La Saline, one of the capital's poorest neighbourhoods, killing at least 71 people in 2018. The attack was allegedly conducted to silence members of the political opposition, who might have had ties with other gangs.
He denies all of those crimes committed there.