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After the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, Haitians found themselves bereft of both a functioning state and all good fortune. A devastating earthquake and tropical storm struck just a month after the killing. In November, fuel, transport, and basic supplies dried up in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as gangs shut down the ports. Half of Haiti’s 11 million people need food assistance. Only one percent of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19.
Yet it was Moïse’s violent, early-morning murder that embodied and exacerbated the two challenges that most stubbornly torment Haiti: a broken political system and the deep connections between politicians and criminals. The late president’s tenure was marred by massive corruption, authoritarian leanings, and alliances with unsavory criminal forces, and Moise’s time in office had already spurred huge street protests and deep questioning of the political system. His death upended constitutional lines of succession and left Haiti divided on the question of how to form a new government.
In addition to highlighting the country’s political dysfunction, the assassination reflected the murky dealings and webs of impunity that unite Haiti’s visible world of politics and business with its underworld of heavily armed gangs, crooked police officers, and criminal syndicates. Glaringly, Moïse’s security detail did not fire back against the intruders, nor did the men hired to carry out the killing prepare any escape plans. Although 43 people remain under arrest as part of a far-reaching investigation, among them around 20 Colombian mercenaries, the investigation in Haiti has stalled, and only the FBI and some international press seem fully committed to finding the masterminds behind the assassination.
Because Haiti’s political dysfunction and criminal takeover reinforce each other, it is hard to say which problem needs to be solved before the other. But it seems unlikely that Haiti will become a safer place if it does not address its political crisis first. Today, the country is in a state of paralysis. Its prime minister, Ariel Henry, who lacks legitimacy in many Haitians’ eyes, has made little progress in organizing new elections. A wide coalition of civil society and political groups are demanding he leave office and have presented the country with an alternative transition plan. Although it has become clear that to curtail violence, the country needs a broadly backed plan to establish a functioning government, neither side has made meaningful efforts to find common ground. Haiti’s international partners should continue to insist on the urgency and primacy of forging a political agreement.
Despite the gloomy political panorama, it is everyday insecurity that most Haitians see as their top concern. Gangs control much of Port-au-Prince and have started to expand into other urban centers such as Croix-des-Bouquets and Cap Haitien. Rampant kidnappings have reshaped daily life, compelling parents to keep their children at home and hampering international relief efforts: aid workers have been forced to rethink how to get provisions from the capital to the south, where the August earthquake hit, because armed bands control the ports and the roads connecting them to the rest of the country. At the end of last year, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, the notorious leader of the gang alliance known as G9, brought the country to a standstill when he blocked the distribution of oil, which he used to demand the ousting of the prime minister. “The areas under the control of the G9 are blocked for one reason only: we demand the resignation of Ariel Henry,” he said to a local radio station, although he eventually allowed the fuel to flow again.
Haitians yearn for a more stable and secure environment, which they know is possible: soldiers with MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission that operated from 2004 until 2017, were able to deliver major blows to the gangs operating in Port-au-Prince. But relying on an international intervention is not regarded as an option this time. Civil society groups have voiced their distrust of outside military interventions, and there is little appetite among Security Council members to expand the UN’s current footprint in Haiti, which has been drastically scaled back in recent years.
It is understandable that for many Haitians and their international partners, addressing the threat to life and limb is at the top of the agenda. The most frequently proposed way of addressing that is thorough reform of the Haitian National Police. Despite millions of dollars in investment over the years—the United States alone provided $312 million between 2010 and 2020—the force remains ineffective and rife with corruption. In a February Security Council discussion of the UN Mission in Haiti, the United States emphasized the need to strengthen the police capacity to tackle gangs and improve citizen security, as well as ramp up efforts to support the rule of law and community violence reduction.
Making Haiti safe will require tempering its no-holds-barred competition for political power.
It seems unlikely, however, that Haiti will be able to protect its citizens if the connections between politics and violence, made evident by the president’s murder, are not disentangled. Today, Haiti’s police and justice systems are rife with corruption and maintain deep ties to the criminal world. Most gangs in other Latin American countries, such as the MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador and Honduras, exert significant territorial control and operate largely separately from the political system, although they do engage in frequent transactions with individual politicians. Gangs in Haiti, by contrast, have strong links to political and economic elites. Baz, as these gangs are known in Creole, have traditionally served as armed defenders of the interests of those with power or wealth. The connections between elites and the gangs are not new; most presidents since the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier and his son Baby Doc have either directly supported or at least tolerated armed groups that enlist young men from poor parts of big cities. Facing few economic opportunities and lured by the status brought by weapons, these young people are easy and cheap recruits. These gangs have also been involved in massacres in impoverished neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince–La Saline, Bel Air, and Cité Soleil–that were widely seen as retaliation against opposition to Moïse.
To make matters worse, the police are not always the gangs’ worst enemy. Although on occasion the police have acted promptly and effectively—as they did when they arrested the mercenaries accused of killing Moïse—Haiti’s law enforcement has also been accused of aiding and abetting serious crimes. In fact, Chérizier, the leader of the G9 gang alliance, is a former police officer and there are suspicions that members of his group serve concurrently in the Haitian National Police. This interconnection among gangs, elites, and the police helps explain why baz continue to terrorize the population with almost complete impunity, and why the costly efforts to overhaul the police have not yielded the desired results: reforms have focused on providing better equipment, not on creating mechanisms that would punish police misconduct or insulate officers from political interference. Although the police are able to deliver occasional blows to the gangs, powerful interests remain vested in keeping baz strong while a seemingly endless supply of young recruits is ready to join their ranks.
The impunity given to this violence and corruption, as well as Moïse’s moves to consolidate power before he was killed, have left the state in shambles. The government is operating outside most constitutional guidelines. Because of postponed elections, only ten seats (out of 30) in the Senate are filled, and the entire lower house is empty. The Supreme Court is not operating. The presidency is vacant, and Henry, who came to power weeks after Moïse’s murder and whose term technically expired on February 7, continues to hang on to office, thanks in large part to the support of Western governments and the UN.
Two rival transition plans are competing to provide a way out of this malaise. The first is spearheaded by Henry, who has stated that he will convene elections to choose a new president and will put forward a referendum to reform the constitution to address what he says is a chronically weak government. So far, Henry’s attempts to sidestep the legal processes to appoint the electoral council have been rebuffed by the courts, and there is no firm date for elections. Meanwhile, a broad coalition of civil society organizations and political parties have coalesced around the so-called Montana Accord—named after the hotel where it was signed. These groups propose a two-year transition plan that they call “a Haitian-led solution.” The country would be led by a five-member presidential council and a prime minister to “bolster security and ensure the conditions to fair and free elections,” in the words of one of its members. Henry has dismissed this idea. Meanwhile, the Montana supporters are demanding that he step down, citing the mounting allegations about his involvement in Moïse’s assassination.
The tug of war between the two plans shows no sign of abating any time soon. Although his term has expired, Henry appears to have the upper hand: he is the de facto leader of the state and the only formal interlocutor for diplomats and donors who are largely unable to leave their walled compounds. Yet the coalition behind the Montana Accord has continued to grow, and Haiti’s foreign donors, acknowledging that Henry’s government has little legitimacy, have pressured the sitting prime minister to meet with the accord’s representatives. The announcement of such a meeting in mid-February led to short-lived hopes that a compromise would be reached. Both sides, however, promptly released acrimonious accounts of the proceedings; civil society representatives accused Henry of being disrespectful and showing “obvious signs of a lack of interest in creating a climate favorable to dialogue.” Henry tweeted the meeting was “laborious,” and his allies denied accusations that the interim prime minister had no interest in engaging. In late March, the interim government announced the creation of a mediation commission formed by the president of the Haiti Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a representative of the conference of university presidents, and two religious leaders, but members of the Montana Accord dismissed this mechanism, saying the opposition had not agreed to it. Efforts by high-level U.S. representatives to push for talks between the sides have not yielded results so far.
Without a stable transitional government, it is unlikely that attempts to tackle the sources of violence and insecurity will succeed. In effect, making Haiti safe will require tempering its no-holds-barred competition for political power: as long as political factions remain reluctant to reach a consensus on how to rebuild institutions and revive the constitutional order, no amount of international police or judicial cooperation will be able to make up for the void left by the vanishing state.
In Haiti, the Gordian knot is political. While its citizens have made clear the solution to the current crisis must be Haitian-led, and most are wary of yet another failed international intervention, the country’s foreign partners will unavoidably play a sizable role in any attempt to resolve it. One way the international community could encourage political transition and security reform to serve each another, rather than compete for scarce resources and diplomatic blessing, would be through supporting the creation of a specialized joint Haitian-UN office tasked with prosecuting senior officials, police, and judges accused of serious crimes, inspired by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which successfully helped the state bring to justice high-level cases of corruption and other crimes. The aim in Haiti would be to ensure that new political leadership has no choice but to act transparently and within the law. But the abrupt end of the Guatemalan commission showed that this kind of highly intrusive judicial mechanism will thrive or die depending on the will of the host government. Donors are unlikely to cough up the resources for an ambitious enterprise like this unless they know the Haitian state will be committed to its success. Without significant pressure, it is unlikely that Henry would support this kind of hybrid outfit given some of the accusations leveled against him.
There are other ways that the current political impasse and the struggle to form a transitional government could encourage a greater show of commitment to ending impunity and stopping violence. If Henry and his allies were able to come to an agreement to create a workable government, the arrangement could include oversight clauses that would establish certain benchmarks. To start, a newly formed government should hold accountable those who stole money from the Petrocaribe scheme, a program under which Caribbean countries were able to buy subsidized Venezuelan oil at very low prices so that they could sell it for a higher profit and use the resulting money on infrastructure projects. Some $2 billion, Haiti’s High Court of Auditors estimates, was embezzled during Haiti’s participation in the program. Both this court and the Haitian Senate have carried out in-depth investigations describing how these resources disappeared into private pockets, including Moïse’s. Major advances in the local investigation into the president’s assassination could also send a powerful signal that the country’s perpetually warring elites are not untouchable. A joint UN-Haitian justice mechanism, in close cooperation with international law enforcement support, could lead the way in holding culprits accountable.
The outsized role that foreign actors have played in Haiti throughout its history does not make international engagement in the country straightforward, or even welcome, but Haitians cannot alleviate their current crisis without support and encouragement from outside. Technical expertise and resources to bolster the investigative capacities of the Haitian security forces and justice system would be a meaningful step toward restoring political competition that is fair rather than foul, as well as enhancing the legitimacy of the state. Neither political instability nor security threats can be addressed in isolation. The creation of a stable transitional government is a vital first step, but a real commitment to break the predatory politics of the past is the only way forward.