In December of last year, close to 60% of Haiti’s capital was reportedly dominated by gangs, a situation that caused nearly 20,000 people to flee their homes. Since then, the growing gang violence had devastated the Caribbean country, causing major disruptions to humanitarian aid by blockading their traffic and oil depots. At least 25 public and private schools were reportedly occupied by families expelled from their homes by gang violence in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince.
How did gang leaders gain so much control of the nation’s capital? Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network wrote an argument in Foreign Policy magazine titled, ‘More Police Won’t Solve Haiti’s Crisis’ stating, ‘In Haiti, gang members are not independent warlords operating apart from the state. They are part of the way the state functions—and how political leaders assert power.’ The political sponsorship of gangs can be dated back to the country’s first democratically elected president, Aristide. After he was ousted by a 1991 military coup, Aristide was re-elected for a second term and returned to the presidency so mistrustful of the police and military that he fostered neighborhood gangs to safeguard his power. The culture of domestic insecurity and practice of public-private terror can be traced back even further to the 1720s, during the French’s colonization of Saint-Domingue. At the time, French administrators assembled a fugitive slave militia, which were essentially the publicly financed private gangs, to capture and punish people who escaped from slavery. Fast forward 300 years later, although the country has transitioned to a democracy, what has not changed is the way Haitian politicians and business magnates gain power and money by harnessing the ability to terrorize the population and control access to key infrastructure sites.
As the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of an international security mission in early October to help Haiti’s national police quell surging gang violence and restore security, some are hopeful that it could be the beginning of breaking the link between political power and gang violence and establish education and job programs to offer poor young men a viable alternative. Although it is the Haitian government and police that are responsible for protecting its people, when they fail, the international community—which has contributed to so many of the conditions of that failure—must support the Haitians seeking to build a solution.
By Shu-Ping Jennifer Chen