AMERICA/HAITI - The emergence of criminal gangs in Haiti

Saturday, 10 February 2024 criminality   violence  

Port-au-Prince (Agenzia Fides) - Around 300 gangs control 80% of the capital of Haiti, as the UN special envoy for the Caribbean country, Maria Isabel Salvador, reported to the UN Security Council (see Fides, 22/1/2024). However, according to the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince, the gangs effectively control the entire city. But how did this situation come about? The original model for today's criminal gangs wreaking havoc in Haiti are the militias of the "Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale" (VSN), known by the nickname "Tonton Makout" and founded in 1959 by the then President (and De- facto-dictator) François Duvalier, as a paramilitary force to suppress dissent. Some of the most prominent members of the “Tonton Macoutes” were voodoo leaders. This belief system, practiced by approximately half of the Haitian population, gave the "Macoutes" a sense of supernatural authority in the eyes of the public, allowing them to commit cruel acts without any kind of reaction within Haitian society, so much so that they nicknamed "bandis legals" in Creole. According to some estimates, the "Tonton Macoutes" killed around 60,000 people in the 28 years of their rule. With the fall of the Duvalier dynasty and the fall of François' son Jean-Claude in 1986, the "Tonton Macoutes" were disbanded. Likewise, the regular army of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first regularly elected president in 1990, was disbanded after a transition period. Aristide was deposed in a military coup but later returned to power thanks to a UN-backed military intervention. After Aristide was deposed, the former Tonton Macoutes formed gangs that became known as attachés and served other criminal groups or unscrupulous politicians. After being reinstated as president in 1994, Aristide decided to disband the army and reform the civilian police. However, several former soldiers joined the criminal gangs that had formed in the meantime. Aristide himself was later accused of setting up his own militia (the "Chimères") in the early 2000s to support his political side. In fact, the various political actors founded their own armed militias. The creation of criminal gangs was associated with the cocaine trade from Colombia and Venezuela to the United States, which ended on the island of Hispaniola (which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic). As a result, most of the cocaine trade via the Caribbean route was carried out overland across the Mexico-US border. The ties created by the illegal trade with the United States and the Haitian diaspora in the United States subsequently contributed to a significant flow of firearms from North America to the Caribbean country, which benefited the numerous armed groups that were forming. Aristide was deposed again in 2004 when paramilitary gangs made up of local gangs and former military and police exiles in Santo Domingo stormed Port-au-Prince. At the head of the paramilitaries was the former leader of the Front Révolutionnaire Armé pour le Progrès d'Haiti (FRAPH), the main paramilitary group active between 1990 and 1994. Aristide was "escorted" out of the country by U.S. and Canadian soldiers, an operation he described as a "new coup." Despite the deployment of a UN force, the security situation has only worsened. The terrible earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 has made the population's living conditions even more precarious and increased the recruitment pool of the gangs, which continue to spread. The gangs compete for control of the streets of the capital and the main ports through which legal and illegal goods (especially weapons) are transported, dividing the population, victims of a real "kidnapping industry". The victims also include priests and religious, such as the six sisters of the Congrégation des Sœurs de Sainte-Anne, who were kidnapped on January 19 (see Fides 22/1/2024) and later released (see Fides 26/1/2024). The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, 2021 by a commando of Colombian and U.S. mercenaries of Haitian descent further exacerbated insecurity and strengthened the power of gangs. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 10/2/2024)