Why Everything Changed in Haiti: The Gangs United

By Maria Abi-Habib, Natalie Kitroeff & Frances Robles, The New York Times, March 14, 2024

Even as gangs terrorized Haiti, kidnapped civilians en masse and killed at will, the country’s embattled prime minister held on to power for years.

Then, in a matter of days, everything changed.

In the midst of political upheaval not seen since the country’s president was assassinated in 2021, Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, agreed to step down. Now, neighboring countries are scrambling to create a transitional council to run the country and plot a course for elections, which once seemed a distant possibility.

What made this moment different, experts say: The gangs united, forcing the country’s leader to relinquish power.

“Prime Minister Ariel resigned not because of politics, not because of the massive street demonstrations against him over the years, but because of the violence gangs have carried out,” said Judes Jonathas, a Haitian consultant who has worked for years in aid delivery. “The situation totally changed now, because the gangs are now working together.”

It is unclear how strong the alliance is or whether it will last. What is apparent is that the gangs are trying to capitalize on their control of Port-au-Prince, the capital, to become a legitimate political force in the negotiations being brokered by foreign governments including the United States, France and Caribbean nations.

In early March, Mr. Henry traveled to Nairobi to finalize a deal for a Kenyan-led security force to deploy to Haiti. Criminal groups seized on the absence of Mr. Henry, who is highly unpopular. Within days, the gangs shut down the airport, looted seaports, attacked about a dozen police stations and released about 4,600 prisoners from jail.

They demanded that Mr. Henry resign, threatening to worsen the violence if he refused. Since he agreed to step down, the gangs seem to be largely focused on securing immunity from criminal prosecution and staying out of jail, analysts said.

“Their biggest objective is amnesty,” Mr. Jonathas said.

The criminals’ most prominent political ally is Guy Philippe, a former police commander and coup leader who served six years in U.S. federal prison for laundering drug money before being deported back to Haiti late last year. He has led the push for Mr. Henry to resign.

Now Mr. Philippe is openly calling for the gangs to receive amnesty.

“We have to tell them, ‘You will put down the weapons or you will face big consequences,’” Mr. Philippe told The New York Times in an interview in January, referring to the gangs. “If you put down the weapons,” he said, “you will have a second chance. You will have some kind of amnesty.”

Mr. Philippe does not have a seat on the transitional council appointed to lead Haiti. But he is using his connections to the Pitit Desalin political party to bring those demands to the negotiating table in Jamaica, where Caribbean and international officials are meeting to forge a solution to the crisis in Haiti, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

Gang leaders’ decision to unite was most likely motivated by a desire to consolidate power after Mr. Henry signed the agreement with Kenya to bring 1,000 police officers to Port-au-Prince, said William O’Neill, the United Nations expert on human rights in Haiti.

Many gang members in Haiti are teenagers, he said, who are looking to be paid but who probably have little interest in going to war with a well-armed police force.

The gangs respect “fear and force,” Mr. O’Neill said. “They fear a force stronger than they are.”

While many doubt that the Kenyan force will bring lasting stability, its arrival would represent the biggest challenge to the gang’s territorial control in years.

“The gangs have been hearing about this Kenyan-led force,” for years, said Louis-Henri Mars, the executive director of Lakou Lapè, a peacekeeping organization that works with Haitian gangs. “Then they saw that it was finally coming, so they launched a pre-emptive strike.”

The violence unleashed by the gangs shut down much of the capital and prevented Mr. Henry from being able to return to his country.

This was the tipping point: The United States and Caribbean leaders viewed Haiti’s situation as “untenable.” U.S. officials concluded Mr. Henry was no longer a viable partner and sharpened their calls for him to move quickly toward a transition of power, officials involved in the political negotiations said.

Since then, gang leaders have been speaking to journalists, holding news conferences, promising peace and demanding a seat at the table.

Jimmy Chérizier, a powerful gang leader also known as Barbecue, has become one of the best-known faces of the new gang alliance, known as Living Together.

The G-9, the gang of Mr. Chérizier, a former police officer known for his ruthlessness, controls downtown Port-au-Prince and has been accused of attacking neighborhoods allied with opposition political parties, looting houses, raping women and killing people at random.

Yet in his news conferences, Mr. Chérizier has apologized for the violence and blamed Haiti’s economic and political systems for country’s destitution and inequality. Mr. Philippe has echoed that thinking.

“Those young girls, those young boys, they have no other opportunity — to die starving or to take weapons,” Mr. Philippe told The Times. “They chose to take weapons.”

 

 

Andre Paultre contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince.

Maria Abi-Habib is a Times investigative reporter based in Mexico City, covering Latin America. She previously reported from Afghanistan, across the Middle East and in India, where she covered South Asia. More about Maria Abi-Habib

Natalie Kitroeff is The Times’s bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. More about Natalie Kitroeff

Frances Robles is a Times investigative reporter covering the United States and Latin America. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years. More about Frances Robles

 

Posted March 20, 2024