What are the gangs that have invaded the capital of Haiti and what do they want?


The Caribbean country has descended into disorder and violence, with gangs controlling access to the main airport and taking control of many areas of Port-au-Prince.

Haiti, a Caribbean nation with a long history of turbulence, is going through one of its worst periods of chaos.

The gangs closed the airport, looted seaports, public buildings and stores, and have attacked almost a dozen police stations. Roads are blocked, cutting off food supplies, and 4,600 inmates were released following the attack on the prisons.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry is stranded in Puerto Rico as gang members wreak havoc, demanding his resignation and raiding dozens of trucks full of World Food Program supplies.

The state of emergency around Port-au-Prince, the capital, was extended for another month.

With the government on the brink of collapse, the United States and Caribbean countries are working to reach a resolution — including a plan for a transitional government — that will restore some semblance of order to the troubled nation and allow Henry to return to the country.

What are the gangs and what do they want?

Experts estimate that up to 200 gangs operate in Haiti, about 20 of them in Port-au-Prince. They range from small groups of a few dozen young people who share pistols to gangs of about 1,500 men with weekly salaries and automatic weapons who belong to hierarchical organizations with bosses.

Two main gang organizations, the G-Pèp and the G-9 Family, control many of the capital's poorest neighborhoods. Criminal groups and their allies sometimes work collaboratively, but more often they clash.

The groups have historically been linked to political parties: the G-9 is affiliated with the ruling Haitian Tèt Kale party, while the G-Pèp tends to support opposition parties.

The G-9 and its allies have largely taken over the ports and roads surrounding the country's main airport. It has been nearly impossible to drive from Port-au-Prince to northern cities because gangs have taken over the north-south highway.

Henry left the country last week for Kenya, where he signed an agreement that paves the way for a multinational force led by that East African nation to travel to Haiti and confront the gangs.

Instead, in Henry's absence, the gang leaders announced an informal alliance called "Vivre Ensemble" or "Living Together" in Spanish. They launched coordinated attacks against state institutions with the aim of overthrowing the current government and preventing the deployment of international force.

"They want to gobble up neighborhoods one by one," said Nicole Phillips, a human rights lawyer specializing in Haiti. "Any government that allows them to do it, that's what they want."

The gangs also hope to establish a governing council to run the country, and want to help elect its members so they can exert control, said Robert Muggah, who researches Haiti for several U.N. agencies

Who runs the gangs?

The gangs have several bosses in different neighborhoods, but in recent days a boss named Jimmy Chérizier, who is known as Barbacoa, has become the public face of the Live Together alliance.

A former police officer known for his cruelty has been accused of directing massacres. His gang alliance, the G-9, runs downtown Port-au-Prince and has been accused of attacking neighborhoods allied with opposition political parties, looting homes, raping women and killing people at random.

He called it "armed revolution."

This week he tried to take a more conciliatory tone, apologizing to people whose homes had been ransacked by gangs, including his own alliance, during the recent unrest.

"Our first step in the battle is to overthrow the government of Ariel Henry, as we have always said, and then we will ensure that the country has a strong State with a strong judicial system to fight against the corrupt," he said during a press conference. . "We're going to make sure we have a strong security system that allows everyone to move around whenever they want and come back whenever they want."

"Our goal is to see another Haiti."

Although it was unclear whether the gang leader's more measured approach was sincere or calculated, Muggah said it was still a new stance for Chérizier.

"We have seen how Chérizier and the G-9 have evolved in recent weeks towards more political rhetoric," Muggah said. "In addition to calling for rebellion and threatening civil war if their demands are not met, they are trying to propose solutions in which they would maintain their power if, at a minimum, they were acquitted and given amnesty for all the crimes they have committed." task."

Why is Kenya planning to send police officers to Haiti?

Kenya was one of the few countries to respond to Haiti's international plea for help.

Haiti has not held elections for eight years. Its president was assassinated almost three years ago. Henry, prime minister-designate, is widely considered an illegitimate ruler.

The state has lost credibility and power, and gangs have stepped in to fill the void.

Last year, nearly 5,000 people were killed and another 2,500 kidnapped, according to the UN, a level of violence that doubled that of the previous year. January was the most violent month in two years, with more than 800 people killed, according to the UN.

In late 2022, Henry called on the international community to intervene. Some nations, including the United States, expressed little interest, given the dismal record of previous international interventions in Haiti.

The United States agreed to fund most of the deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers, plus others from other nations, but it has been delayed by Kenyan court rulings.

As Haitian gangs have grown in size and weaponry, they have gained more territory and important infrastructure. They charge fees for passing through certain roads and for recovering hijacked trucks, and demand ransoms to free kidnapping victims.

In recent years, violent groups have begun to spread to rural areas such as Artibonite, about 100 km north of Port-au-Prince and one of Haiti's main agricultural regions. Gangs invade farms and make it difficult—if not impossible—for farmers to travel and sell their produce.

Who make up these gangs?

It's a complicated question to answer.

"Now we use the word 'gang' because it is practical, everyone uses it and knows it, but it does not capture what is happening," said Romain Le Cour, who researches Haiti for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, with headquarters in Geneva.

Most gang members are men in their 20s who come from impoverished urban neighborhoods where opportunities are scarce. They are often aligned with elite businessmen and politicians who pay them for everything from securing cargo to rallying protesters. Political parties have used gang members in elections to attract votes or suppress them.

"In Haiti there is a long tradition of elites trying to create and feed paramilitary groups that, in recent decades, have helped them serve their interests and use violence to maintain a monopoly on some basic product or for some political interests," said Diego Da Rin, Haiti researcher at the International Crisis Group.

In Haiti, the concept of irregular armed groups dates back decades and various types of violent actors have existed in the country.

During the Haitian dictatorship of François Duvalier, paramilitary groups known as Tonton Macoutes were famous for their violence and repression. In 1995, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide outlawed paramilitary groups and dissolved the Haitian armed forces.

Former soldiers originally part of Aristide's movement later created local self-defense groups known as "baz," which often followed charismatic leaders and came to govern parts of Port-au-Prince.

Other paramilitary groups from the past include the far-right Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti and the Chimères, who were affiliated with Aristide.

Now, the line between a baz and a gang is often blurry.

People fed up with gang violence have joined a movement known as "bwa kale," which encourages vigilante justice. They have committed extrajudicial killings and generally pursue criminals, often with the support of the local community.

Additionally, many members of a government-sanctioned environmental brigade, known as B-SAP, have turned against the state, joining another group of armed people

Can the police stop them?

The Haitian National Police has been impacted by the departure of about 3,000 of its 15,000 employees over the past two years. Although the United States has invested almost US$200 million in the department, it is currently short of weapons and understaffed. The department has 47 armored vehicles, but on a recent visit by U.N. investigators, fewer than half were operational.

Andre Paultre contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti

.Por Frances Robles