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Haiti: Simply Gang Violence or an Organised Insurgency?


Haitian armed gangs have dominated news headlines over the last number of weeks. The stories of Haitian gangs wreaking havoc in the capital, taking over large swathes of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and breaking into prisons to release prisoners have caused concern globally. However, the headlines we have seen often labelling them simply as “gangs'' do not tell the full story. Though the term “gangs” is accurate, it evokes thoughts and feelings of groups that simply engage in organised crime, drug dealing, and smuggling, among other activities. Often, it's not a word we would use to describe political insurgencies or militants.


On further examination of the situation in Haiti, you'll see that these gangs causing terror across the nation can also be viewed as political insurgents with coherent end goals and even a degree of public support.

How We Got To This Point

The problems that exist in Haiti today have a clear through-line to the establishment of the country. In 1804, Haiti won its independence from France through a successful slave rebellion. However, for France to accept and recognize the nation's independence, Haiti was forced to pay France reparations amounting to 150 Million Francs ($21 Billion in today's money). The first payment of 30 Million Francs was already more than six times higher than Haiti’s yearly revenue. This meant that Haiti had to take out huge loans from countries such as the USA and even France to pay their debts. Throughout the 19th Century, the country sunk further into debt and poverty when much of the western world, and some of Haiti's neighbours, began to flourish. This can be perceived as a tactic from the French to ensure Haitian society and government collapsed in the wake of their successful rebellion.


In 1915, the situation worsened when Haiti was occupied by the USA due to its failure to pay its debts to many American banks. The Haitian parliament was dissolved, and the USA took control of all the country's institutions and redesigned them in a way that benefited the USA – not Haitians. The occupation ended in 1934, and Haiti enjoyed a small stint of democracy that lasted until 1957 when Francois Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc, took over as dictator. Originally backed by the USA, they eventually distanced themselves from his regime due to the many atrocities he committed but ultimately tolerated him as he was not a communist. Papa Doc ruled the country with an iron fist; his paramilitary police force used extreme means to keep him in control, including the use of rape as a political tool. This is where Haiti's gang culture first began to emerge.


Small and relatively weak local militias began forming in Haitian cities and villages to protect the population from the government police. Though these militias were not well-armed or well-trained, they were the start of a culture in Haiti that can be directly linked to today's gangs, where local militants are often looked to by civilians in place of a state that has never seemed to have the population's interests at heart. Many gangs were also engaged in carrying out the regime's bidding and committing killings and kidnappings on behalf of the state.


Papa Doc's son eventually succeeded him as dictator and was eventually forced to flee the country in 1986 after an armed rebellion. From then until the present day, Haiti has had a fragile democracy that has been rife with corruption while the population has remained extremely impoverished.


As a result of this, gangs have grown across the country. They have been involved in kidnapping for ransom, gun smuggling, and extortion. (1) Many of the gangs have worked with and been used by politicians to take out rivals or to push their political agendas. Additionally, the gangs control their territories where they are responsible for helping poor people, providing food, fixing infrastructure, and even running the water and electricity supply. (17) They have effectively become a state within a state in Haiti. While the power of gangs in Haiti, on the whole, has always been significant, no individual gang could say that it wielded significant political or overall societal influence as the gangs were always fighting amongst each other while the state remained ultimately in control. (22)


There are believed to be around 200 armed gangs in Haiti, the vast majority of which are operating in the country’s capital Port-au-Prince. Over the years, the gangs have formed coalitions or alliances with each other to the point where by the start of 2023 there were two major gang coalitions. The first is G-Pep led by Ti Gabriel. They have been accused of mass killings and have been closely linked with Haitian politician Claude Josephe who has been indicted for the assassination of former Haitian President Jovenel Moise, something he firmly denies. (22)


The other is G-9 Family led by Jimmy Cherizier who is more commonly referred to by his nickname - Barbecue. He claims he got this nickname due to his mother working in a fried chicken shop when he was younger but many claim the nickname comes from his reputation for burning his victims. Barbecue was a former police officer who was expelled in 2018 after alleged involvement in many crimes which included a massacre in which 71 people were killed, many women were raped and hundreds of homes were burned down. He was sanctioned by the UN in 2022 for “acts that threaten the peace, security and stability of Haiti and has planned, directed or committed acts that constitute serious human rights abuses” according to the UN Security Council. (20)


For the last number of years, G9 and G-Pep fought a brutal gang war in Port-au-Prince as they vied for control and to capture each other's territory. The two gangs combined controlled around 60% of the territory in Haiti’s capital. In 2023 Haiti's homicide rate doubled from that of 2022. Then something unexpected happened when both gangs decided to join together and fight as one against the Haitian state in response to Haiti's president Ariel Henry's efforts to try and get a multinational security mission to be deployed in Haiti. (21)


Ariel Henry had been president of Haiti since 2021 when his predecessor Jovenel Moise was assassinated. The assassination of Jovenel Moise in 2021 remains a deeply unsettling and unresolved matter in Haiti's recent history. Moise was assassinated in his home in Port-au-Prince by a group of Colombian mercenaries. The investigations are still ongoing. Several suspects, including former politicians and members of the Haitian National Police, have been arrested and charged in connection with the assassination. Among them is the group of Colombian mercenaries, some of whom were killed in the aftermath of the attack, while others have been arrested and extradited to Haiti to stand trial. There have been allegations of involvement by local politicians and powerful figures within Haiti's political landscape. (24)


There have been many names thrown around who are possibly thought to be ultimately responsible for the assassination including Ariel Henry. Among them is opposition leader, Andre Michel who was accused by Moise of fomenting unrest and seeking to undermine his presidency. Michel has faced scrutiny in the aftermath of the assassination due to his contentious relationship with Moise and his potential motives for taking out Moise. Though the case remains ultimately still unsolved. (26)


Following the assassination, Ariel Henry took over as an interim president backed by the USA with the idea that elections were to be held in Haiti as soon as possible. Henry constantly postponed these elections stating various reasons such as earthquakes and gang violence and he was very disliked by many in Haiti, especially the gangs. This means there have not been elections held in Haiti since 2016. (3)


In February 2024, he went to Kenya to try and organise a deployment of Kenyan armed police to Haiti to help curb gang violence. This proposal did not go down well with the people of Haiti who in their country's history have never seen anything good come from foreign interventions.


Haitian scholar Jemima Pierre, a professor at the University of British Columbia explained to NBC News:


“A force like Kenya, they don’t speak Kreyòl, they don’t speak French… The Kenyan police are known for human rights abuses. So what does it tell us as Haitians that the only thing that you see that we deserve are not schools, not reparations for the cholera the U.N. brought, but more military with the mandate to use all kinds of force on our population? That is unacceptable.”


The Gangs felt the same way and in an unprecedented move, G9 and G-Pep joined together under the banner of The Living Together Coalition and on the 29th of February 2024, they began attacking the capital, targeting strategic and government institutions as well as breaking into and releasing every prisoner in Haiti's two biggest prisons, amounting to 4,000 people. The gangs quickly took control of the city's main port and many police stations. Barbecue explained in an interview,


"The Haitian people are tired and have had enough from Ariel Henry who supposedly had a mission to provide security and to organise the elections, during more than the three years' time he has spent as the head of state, Ariel Henry has not honoured any of the political agreements he has signed." (15)


Barbecue has been the public face of this violence. He is a figure who loves the limelight and has been happy to give interviews to major news outlets, always donning his iconic bulletproof vest and often holding some form of firearm. He is someone who seems to see himself as a Che Guevara-type figure and sees what he does as trying to help the country's poor.


“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight,” he told the Associated Press last year. “The first step is to overthrow Ariel Henry and then we will start the real fight against the current system, the system of corrupt oligarchs and corrupt traditional politicians."


Despite his rhetoric, the violence has had disastrous consequences for Haiti's poor. Over 33,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Port-au-Prince amid the gang violence. Almost half of the country's population is struggling to feed themselves as gang violence spreads, and several areas are close to famine. Haiti is currently at its worst level of food insecurity on record. The violence has also caused the healthcare system to be on the brink of collapse with numerous hospitals that were already suffering from staff and supply shortages being unable to provide treatment for patients. Much of the country's water treatment plants have been forced to close which will increase the risk of waterborne illness in a country that already has 60,000 suspected cases of Cholera. The violence has been so bad that many who were already displaced in camps have been forced now to flee those camps yet it is almost impossible to travel around the country without getting stopped at one of the gang-controlled checkpoints. Haiti's neighbouring Dominican Republic has said that it will not accept any Haitian refugees. (10)


Many of Port-au-Prince's wealthier neighbourhoods were pillaged and ransacked by the gangs. Schools have closed and those lucky enough to have jobs do not go to work for fear of being killed on the way. (3)


Ariel Henry resigned on the 12th of March and despite the gangs' claims that violence will end when he steps down, it has continued. Barbecue threatened “civil war” if Henry stayed in power and his decision to step down came after heavy pressure from the international community. (6)


There has remained talk of a Kenyan security force being deployed into Haiti which the gangs have vowed to attack. In their minds, this would be akin to a foreign invasion.


The tactics used by the Living Together Coalition have been quite advanced. They are using high-quality American guns smuggled in from places like Florida and have strategically taken over key infrastructure around the country. The gangs far outgun the police which is a major issue for the Haitian state as their armed forces are extremely ill-equipped and many police officers have to use their own money to buy things such as body armour which cannot be provided by the government. They have even utilised drones when attacking institutions and they were a vital part of the prison attacks. (9)

What Will Happen Now?

The Living Together coalition was formed out of a common goal of not wanting a Kenyan-led multinational security operation coming into their country to crush them. However, these gangs have been fighting each other for years. It is impossible to say but it is perhaps unlikely that the gangs' truce which is not even 6 weeks old will last.


There is also speculation that gang leader Barbecue perhaps wants to take power for himself. In an interview, he said, "I am not the one to decide if I want to be president or not, It is the Haitian people that will decide who should be their president, who should lead the country. Personally, I consider myself a servant of the country." (16)


For the Haitian people, it is very much a rock and a hard place. Haiti is a deeply unequal society run by an oligarchical class. It is the most unequal country in Latin America with the poorest 20% of the population only owning 1% of the wealth. Haiti's poor are stuck between supporting the elite establishment who have done nothing for them in the past or the brutal armed gangs who claim to be fighting on their behalf and improving society for Haiti's poorest. (2)


As of now, Haiti is attempting to establish an interim government council to run the country consisting of business leaders, opposition politicians, and members of civil society groups. (27) Ariel Henry is currently still stranded in Puerto Rico unable to return to Haiti.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

  1. 2024. Rivers, Matt “Haiti's most notorious gang leader plots its future amid rebellion” ABC News.


  3. 2024. Grandmaison, Romain Le-Cour “Violence in Haiti” Global Initiative.

  4. 2024. Isaac, Harold and Morland, Sarah “Haiti gang wars push hunger to worst levels on record” Reuters.

  5. 2024. “Crisis in Haiti: Gang violence’s vice grip amidst political turmoil”

  6. 2024. “Haiti: Gang violence and social unrest likely to continue through at least late March” Crisis24

  7. 2024. Mohor, Daniela “Haiti in-depth: A transition beset by challenges and uncertainty” The New Humanitarian.

  8. 2024. Laughland, Oliver “Guns and weapons trafficked from US fueling Haiti gang violence” The Guardian.

  9. 2024. Dickerson, Claire Gilbody “What is happening in Haiti?” Sky News.

  10. 2024. “What is happening in Haiti? Here's what to know.” CBS News.

  11. 2024. Kestler-D’Amours, Jillian “'A criminal economy' - How US arms fuel deadly gang violence in Haiti” Al Jazeera.

  12. 2024. Smith, Patrick and Adams, Char. “What to know about the crisis of violence, politics and hunger engulfing Haiti” NBC News.

  13. 2024. Philips, Tom. Bland, Archie. Holmes, Oliver. “Haiti: what caused the gang violence and will it end now the PM has quit?” The Guardian.

  14. 2024. Causwell, Alexander. “Haiti Is Facing an Insurgency, Not a Gang Problem”'s%20most%20prominent%20and,insurgents%20carrying%20out%20urban%20warfare.

  15. 2024. “Haiti’s Gangs: Can a Foreign Mission Break Their Stranglehold?”

  16. 2023. Mars, Louis-Henri “To Curb Gang Violence in Haiti, Break with Politics as Usual”

  17. 2024. Bayoumi, Imran. “Haiti’s Chaos Shows How Far U.S. Stability Efforts Have to Go”

  18. 2024. Wilkinson, Bert and Sanon, Evens. “Politicians seek new alliances to lead Haiti as gangs take over and premier tries to return home” AP News.

  19. 2023. “G9 and Family”

  20. 2024. Folk, Zachary “Who Are The G9 Family? Armed Gang Alliance Led By Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Chérizier Terrorizes Haiti After Jailbreak” Forbes.

  21. 2024. Buschschlutter, Vanessa. “The men fighting gang leader Barbecue for power in Haiti” BBC News.

  22. 2023. Motlagh, Jason “Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Gang War” Rolling Stone.

  23. “A brief history of Haiti and the simple reasons for its poverty”

  24. 2024. “Haiti President Moise’s widow, ex-PM among 50 charged in his assassination” Al Jazeera.

  25. 2024. Kestler-D’Amours, Jillian. “Who are Haiti’s gangs and what do they want? All you need to know” Al Jazeera

  26. 2024. “Assassinated Haitian president’s widow among dozens indicted over his death” The Guardian.

  27. 2024. “Haiti works on establishing interim government as gang leader promises to fight on” France24.

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