Haiti's gang crisis: How it came to be and what's happening now

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Haitian musician Jean Jean-Pierre says most people he knows in the capital, Port-au-Prince, avoid leaving home unless it's for food or other essential supplies.

The reason? Violence. Murder. Gangs.

"When you do go out you are so aware of everything – a car behind you, a motorcycle behind you. You never know if a vehicle just wants to pass you, or pass you and force you to stop for a kidnapping because it happens so often," said Jean-Pierre, 69.

"They catch you and demand $200,000. Where do I get $200,000 from?"

The Caribbean nation has long been in turmoil.

In recent weeks, the situation has become ubearable.

First, a mass prison break led to chaos. Gun battles erupted in front of the Central Bank, the airport, and a soccer stadium. Police stations were torched. The city's main port, blocked by gangs, has left nearly 1.5 million people on the brink of starvation, according to the World Food Program.

The reason for the current chaos: Gang leaders, among them the powerful Jimmy 'Barbeque' Cherizier, demanded that Prime Minister Ariel Henry step down, threatening "civil war" if he didn't.

After a visit to Kenya where he was helping to organize a U.S. funded Kenyan peacekeeping force to be sent to the Caribbean nation, Henry finally announced he would resign on March 12. But he stipulated that he would only step down after a transitional council and an interim prime minister are appointed − with the approval of Henry and his cabinet. The Kenyan peacekeeping force has still not deployed.

Henry took on the role after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, but he has been repeatedly criticized by Haitians at home and abroad for repeatedly delaying elections. There hasn't been an election since 2016, and currently there is no parliament or president.

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country and armed gangs have filled a power void that followed Moïse's 2021 assassination. His killing was orchestrated by a group of foreign mercenaries, mostly Colombians and a few Haitian Americans, according to charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Henri, at least for a time, was also a prime suspect.

The recent chaos could complicate U.S. foreign policy on drug trafficking and immigration and a United Nations report released recently concludes that increasingly sophisticated weapons being smuggled into Haiti from the U.S. – and more specifically, from Florida – are adding to the chaos.

But Haiti's current situation has a complicated and long history that started long before its current gang crisis. Here's a brief explainer on Haiti's political and gang crisis.

Why is Haiti a failed state?

Gangs now control much of the capital following President Jovenel Moïse's 2021 assassination.

The gangs use commercial terrorism, sexual violence, massacres, extortion and kidnappings to accumulate power and fund their operations. Henry, a former neurosurgeon, appealed for armed foreign intervention to help stabilize the country.

An estimated 200 gangs now hold sway in Haiti, around 100 in Port-au-Prince alone, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Switzerland-based group. The U.N. says 60% of the territory in the capital is controlled by gangs.

The U.S. repatriated more than 21,000 Haitian migrants in 2022, according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency. They are being returned to a country where thousands have been displaced and murder is common.

The U.N. says kidnappings recorded by Haiti's police in 2022 soared by 105%, to 1,359 victims, compared to the year earlier. Homicides were up 35%, to 2,183. Accounts of gangs using sexual violence to humiliate and consolidate power are proliferating. There are about 9,700 active-duty police officers in Haiti, but the U.N. says a "significant number of them" may in fact be members of gangs.

"Haiti is a failed state," said Daniel Foote, a former U.S. envoy to Haiti who resigned from the role in September 2021. His resignation was driven, in part by frustration over what he said was a "deeply flawed" U.S. policy toward the country, including an "inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees."

The U.S. detained 7,175 Haitian migrants in 2022, a nearly 700% rise since 2019, according to data from the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime.

Foote said that successive U.S. administrations have mostly looked at Haiti through a national security prism that focuses on immigration – in terms of how many Haitians are trying to get to U.S. soil, the so-called boat people. "What they don't realize is that with the gangs in control – without a credible counterforce – a trafficking hub has been created right in the Caribbean. Drugs, arms, people – these are going through Haiti to the U.S. whether it's via Haitian gangs or Mexican and Venezuelan ones."

The Gangs of Haiti: Who's in control?

Haiti: a timeline

Haiti's history and development have been blighted by colonization, by foreign interventions, catastrophic natural disasters and disease epidemics, nonfunctioning political systems, organized crime and corruption.

  • 1492: Explorer Christopher Columbus lands, names the island Hispaniola, or "Little Spain."

  • 1496: Spain establishes a settlement at Santo Domingo, now the capital of the Dominican Republic.

  • 1697: Spain gives the western part of Hispaniola to France. This becomes Haiti.

  • 1791-1803: Gen. Toussaint Louverture, a former slave, leads a rebellion to conquer Haiti. Louverture abolishes slavery and proclaims himself governor-general of all of Hispaniola.

  • 1804: Haiti becomes independent. Jean-Jacques Dessalines declares himself emperor.

  • 1806: Dessalines is assassinated. Haiti is divided into a Black-controlled north and mixed-race-ruled south.

  • 1818-43: Pierre Boyer, a white France-born military commander, unifies Haiti. Black people are excluded from power.

  • 1915: Amid civil unrest, the U.S. invades Haiti over concerns about its investments in the country.

  • 1934: U.S. withdraws troops from Haiti, but maintains fiscal control.

  • 1956: Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a French Martiniquan, seizes power in a coup. He is elected president a year later.

  • 1971: Duvalier dies. He is succeeded by his son "Baby Doc," who declares himself president for life.

  • 1986-1988: "Baby Doc" flees Haiti amid popular discontent with his rule. Leslie Manigat becomes president. He is then ousted in a coup led by Prosper Avril, a senior military commander. Avril installs a civilian government.

  • 1990: Jean-Bertrand Aristide is elected president. It is effectively Haiti's first entirely free and peaceful vote.

  • 1991: Aristide is ousted in a coup led by military commander Raoul Cedras. The U.S. imposes economic sanctions.

  • 1994: Aristide returns to Haiti. U.S. forces oversee a transition to a civilian government.

  • 1995: United Nations peacekeepers replace U.S. troops.

  • 2000: Aristide was elected president for a second time.

  • 2001-2004: Aristide's government survives two attempted military coups. He is then forced back into exile.

  • 2004: More than 5,000 people across Haiti and the Dominican Republic die in flash flooding and a tropical storm. Meanwhile, armed gangs are blamed for rising levels of violence in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

  • 2008: Food riots take place as Haiti's Parliament dismisses Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.

  • 2009: The World Bank and International Monetary Fund cancel $1.2 billion of Haiti's debt – 80% of the total.

  • 2010: As many as 300,000 people are killed in a magnitude-7.0 earthquake, the worst in 200 years. The U.S. takes control of Haiti's main airport to ensure an orderly arrival of humanitarian aid flights. International donors pledge billions in aid. That same year, a cholera outbreak kills an estimated 6,000 people, triggering violent protests.

  • 2011: Michel Martelly, a former pop star with strong military ties, wins the presidential election.

  • 2012: As cost of living protests accelerate, Hurricane Sandy decimates crops and leaves 20,000 people homeless.

  • 2016-2019: Jovenel Moïse, a businessman, is elected president. He is plagued by corruption allegations. Category 4 Hurricane Matthew strikes Haiti and kills hundreds of people.

  • 2021: After surviving a coup plot, Moïse is assassinated in his home. Ariel Henry becomes acting president.

  • 2023: Gang violence spreads across the country, worsens in Port-au-Prince.

  • 2024: Ariel Henry announces he'll resign.

SOURCES Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; Haiti's U.S. Embassy; BBC; Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haiti's gang crisis: What to know about violence gripping the country