Chronic instability in Haiti is contributing to rising food prices, surging hunger, dangerous cholera outbreaks, deepening poverty and the potential for a major migration exodus
Meanwhile, lawlessness is worsening across Haiti
From the brief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
Today, violent gangs have effectively seized control of large swathes of the country, contributing to a deepening humanitarian crisis. A recent assessment estimates that close to 100,000 Haitians have been physically displaced by insecurity in Port-au-Prince alone. Chronic instability is contributing to rising food prices, surging hunger, dangerous cholera outbreaks, deepening poverty and the potential for a major migration exodus.
Confronted with escalating insecurity, Haiti’s Council of Ministers authorized the Prime Minister in late 2022 to take the unusual step of requesting the deployment of a “specialized armed force” by the international community. For its part, the UN Security Council issued a sanctions regime freezing assets, establishing travel bans and embargoing arms flows targeting actors deemed responsible for, complicit in, or having engaged directly or indirectly in actions that threaten the peace, security or stability of Haiti.
Some Member States and prominent non-governmental organizations have called for more muscular intervention, including the deployment of a multinational police force. The US, for example, has worked with partner Member States on a draft Security Council resolution to deploy a rapid action force, or a “non-UN international security assistance mission”.
And while Haitians have previously bristled at foreign intervention, a recent survey claimed that as much as 70 percent of the population currently supports external security assistance, particularly people residing in gang-controlled areas. Meanwhile, lawlessness is worsening across Haiti.
It is also growing increasingly violent. US law enforcement and intelligence authorities detected a sharp uptick in the quantity and calibre of firearms and ammunition destined for Haiti in 2022. Haiti’s National Police (HNP), along with the international and domestic human rights groups, have also documented rising levels of killings, sexual violence, protest and kidnapping between 2020 and 2023.
Likewise, the US Coast Guard registered a fourfold increase in intercepted Haitian migrants between 2021 and 2022. And 43,900 Haitians, including as many as 1,800 children, were reportedly deported on the border with the Dominican Republic between July and October 2022 alone.
Observers are especially concerned with the evolution, expansion, and intensification of gang activity across Haiti. Many of the country’s estimated 150-200 gangs are deeply enmeshed in complex patronage networks aligned with a constellation of political and economic elites.
Opensource research and interviews with specialists in Haiti indicate that a small number of gang federations in and around the capital are expanding their territorial influence over urban neighbourhoods. They are also targeting critical infrastructure, including access to sea ports, fuel terminals, airports and key roads in and out of major cities.
Gangs have blocked access to fuel reserves, triggering a “humanitarian catastrophe” according to the World Food Programme (WFP). In the absence of an international security mission or equivalent, the practical focus of international support is on delivering humanitarian aid and bolstering the HNP’s capacities to deter and suppress armed gangs, including the trafficking of firearms. There is also growing attention to border security, albeit not at a scale that can meaningfully deter and reduce the flow of weapons, drugs, and other contraband.
Throughout 2022 and early 2023, emboldened Haitian gangs steadily expanded their control over key access points to cities, including the capital Port-au-Prince. Some have also focused on controlling key supply lines connected to public and private ports and international border crossings with the Dominican Republic.
Several gangs and gang coalitions, notably the G9, G-Pep, 400 Mawozo, Baz Galil, Vilaj de Dye, Vitelhomme, and Ti Mkak have targeted public and private institutions. Many are also engaged in predatory behaviour in communities under their control contributing to rising levels of extortion, sexual violence, kidnapping and fatal violence.
Some UN Members States are determined to ramp-up pressure on the gangs and their backers, including in the wake of egregious acts of violence involving their citizens. The US and Canada have also delivered “vital security equipment” including tactical and armoured vehicles to the HNP on at least two occasions, in October 2022 and January 2023.
The Security Council sanctions, which target individuals and entities engaging in or supporting criminal activities and violence involving armed groups and criminal networks, among other actions, have so far designated one person under the regime, namely Jimmy Cherizier, who the text identifies as one of Haiti’s most influential gang leaders and who leads an alliance of gangs known as the “G9 Family and Allies”.
The EU has further transposed the UN sanctions into legislation. Unilateral sanctions, meanwhile, implicate at least eight former Haitian presidents, prime ministers, senators and businesspeople suspected of involvement in illegal activities such firearms and drug trafficking, among other crimes.
Haiti’s political system has been described by the World Bank as “driven by capture, rent-seeking and clientelism”, leading to widespread abuses of powers and corruption. Elected and appointed officials at all levels of government and across multiple sectors have been implicated in illicit activities ranging from corruption, fraud and money laundering to supporting gangs to bolster their political power and capacity to influence elections.
As detailed in the unilateral sanctions announcements, several members of Haiti’s economic elite are suspected of involvement in criminal rackets, including influential Haitian families and members of the diaspora in the US and the Dominican Republic. The announcements highlight the concentration of political and economic power in the country.
A handful of Haitian family dynasties account for the vast majority of the country’s overall wealth. Some of them are involved in the agricultural, manufacturing, shipping and logistics sectors, while others oversee import-export operations.
Several prominent Haitian businesspeople have also acquired honorific diplomatic titles conferring a level of immunity and reductions in import and export tax. Individuals involved in industrial parks warehousing imports and private ports have typically encountered limited oversight from government authorities.
Due to mounting concerns with crime and insecurity, private security companies have expanded across Haiti in recent decades. Many provide close protection services for the country’s political and economic elite as well as protection for public facilities, critical infrastructure and small and medium businesses.
Significant numbers of such companies also recruit directly from the HNP, with officers either moonlighting or leaving law enforcement altogether to work in the more lucrative private sector. Some of these entities have been implicated in firearms trafficking.
The growth of private security in Haiti coincides with similar patterns of private security expansion across Latin America and the Caribbean, alongside a deepening security crisis following the 2010 earthquake and particularly since the departure of UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in 2017.
PRIVATE SECURITY COMPANIES IN HAITI
The suspects in the assassination of Haiti’s President Moïse inside his home in the early hours of 7 July, 2021 include a team of mercenaries connected to a small US firms, which reportedly offered close protection support, training in firearms, and access to military-style equipment. This is not the first time US-owned private security companies have been implicated in murky ventures in Haiti.
In February 2019, for example, several US contractors were reportedly arrested in Port-au-Prince with a cache of weapons and military equipment. They claimed to be providing security to both the government and private security details for local business elites.
According to accounts given to media, they were released by Haiti’s Justice Ministry following US intervention, repatriated and freed without charge.
Private security firms officially emerged in Haiti following the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in the late 1980s. Haiti’s 1987 Constitution did not originally include provisions for such enterprises.
In fact, Article 263 specified that the armed forces and police were the only armed groups permitted to operate in the country. However, a 1988 decree and 1989 amendment legalized private security companies.
In 1994, oversight passed from the disbanded armed forces to the HNP via a Presidential decree. Today, private security companies are permitted to acquire and hold firearms in Haiti.
The 1988 and 1989 legislation permit firearm licences for up to half of the registered personnel of a private security firm. Only certain categories of weapons – handguns and shotguns – are permitted.
All licence applications must be made to the Minister of the Interior and Territorial Collectives (MICT) and the HNP is responsible for delivery and oversight of firearms through a registry managed by the Central Department for Administrative Police (DCPA). Although analysts believe that local private security companies oversee a far larger arsenal than what is legally permitted, information on the scope and scale of their arsenals is unavailable.
In 2012, the most recent year for which public records are available, the MICT reported just 40 separate private security companies licenced to operate in the country. Firms reportedly varied in size from 50 to 2,000 personnel, with a total of 12,000 individuals in total.
Roughly half of their clients at the time were foreign embassies and non-governmental organizations and the remainder consisted of banks, businesses and schools. While not possible to independently verify, specialists speculate that there could be 75,000 to 90,000 individuals working with roughly 100 private security companies across the country, at least five times the number of registered police officers.
US-based private security companies contracted by foreign governments such as Haiti to provide specialized services are subject to a range of domestic oversight mechanisms. For example, when they are recruited to provide essential defence services, including military or law enforcement training, such companies must obtain arms exports licences from the US Department of State and undergo a review that also involves the US Department of Defense. Although the State Department forbids combat services under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), some private security companies have reportedly pursued unauthorized services.
The formation of the HNP in 1994 coincided with the disbanding of the country’s armed forces. Police reform experts believe that the absence of a coherent framework for policing and the rushed formation, recruitment and training of new officers hobbled the force from the start.
Despite successive UN missions in Haiti and repeated efforts to exact security system reform, HNP performance has been hampered by mandate, leadership, capacity and budgetary constraints. One persistent deficiency relates to the management and accountability over existing firearms holdings of law enforcement officers and stores of seized weapons.
Another long-standing impediment relates to the weak government coordination across agencies – including entities charged with addressing weapons and drug trafficking, customs, migration and anti-corruption efforts. Arguably the most significant challenge facing the HNP is its limited force strength and modest resourcing.
As of late 2022, there were an estimated 14,161 HNP personnel, though BINUH assessed that its operational strength was closer to 13,000 and fewer than 9,000 are on active duty. Specialized police units face chronic staffing shortages. For example, the HNP’s border patrol (POLIFRONT) has just 294 officers, an order of magnitude fewer than the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, the Haitian Coast Guard (HCG) has just 181 officers and a single operational vessel (since others are either undergoing repairs in the US or simply non-functioning). Likewise, the country’s anti-narcotics brigade (BLTS) has just 317 personnel and is severely under-resourced and over-stretched. These capacity shortfalls are contributing to weak chain of custody over seized contraband, including drugs and firearms.
Another factor hampering the effectiveness of the HNP is its uneven operational presence across the country. A sizeable share of officers within the HNP and its specialized units are stationed in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with the remainder sparsely distributed across Haiti’s cities, towns and border areas.
One reason for this is that many HNP officers are often placed on duties unrelated to their core responsibilities, including the provision of close protection for senior government officials. The misallocation of police further degrades their effectiveness.
With the exception of a handful of staff stationed at Haiti’s two international airports and selected border crossings, there are virtually none policing key air, land and maritime entry and exit points. The HNP also struggles to manage, share and analyse data within the organization, much less across government agencies.
Notwithstanding the controversial legacy of Haiti’s armed forces during the dictatorship era, there is a persistent chorus for it to be reconstituted. Pressure to rebuild Haiti’s military has been applied since it was disbanded by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994.
For example, former President Rene Preval (1996-2001) established a commission to review the necessity of the armed forces, though faced with foreign and domestic opposition, opted to reinforce the HNP instead. A decade later, former President Michel Martelly (2011-2016) advocated for the return of the armed forces, but ultimately also demurred.
The late President Moïse (2017-2021) took the decision early in his administration to reconstitute the armed forces, announcing the allocation of $8.5 million of defence spending in 2018 and appointment of a high command under the Ministry of Defence. At the time, there was reportedly a plan to recruit 5,000 soldiers to expand national security and civil protection capacities. Today, there are an estimated 500 members of the armed forces, several of whom have received training in Ecuador and Mexico.