It's not just gang violence surging in Haiti. It's a rebellion: ANALYSIS

Haiti is under a state of emergency amid a surge in gang violence.

March 6, 2024, 8:57 AM

Haiti is in the midst of a crisis that has seen an explosion of gang violence in the last week.

Attacks on the international airport in Port-au-Prince generated headlines worldwide. Coordinated assaults on multiple prisons freed thousands of prisoners over the weekend. But all that could be just the beginning of what an increasing number of Haiti experts are openly referring to as a full-blown rebellion against the country's sitting government.

I was speaking to a senior diplomatic official in Haiti on Monday, a very sober and calculated person not prone to hyperbole. In discussing the situation, I used the word "gangs" and he cut me off.

"I would stop using that term if I were you," he said, arguing that gangs are what you find in American cities. In Haiti, there are multiple large criminal groups with enormous firepower, now unified with the stated goal of toppling the sitting government.

"They are armed rebel groups and this is civil war," the source said.

His point is striking. This isn't just more gang violence. This is an attempted rebellion.

We'd all be forgiven for thinking this was just more of the same. I did at first too. We've all watched gang warfare consume this capital city of several million people for years now and we've covered it on the ground extensively. The Haitian government declared a 72-hour state of emergency on Sunday amid a surge of violence.

PHOTO: Members of the police and army guard the Toussaint Louverture international airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 4, 2024.
Members of the police and army guard the Toussaint Louverture international airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 4, 2024.
Johnson Sabin/EPA via Shutterstock

Some 80% of the capital is under gang control, if not more, according to the UN. Those groups have fought each other and the government for years in an insatiable quest for money, power, political influence, and territory.

But things have fundamentally changed in the last month. We will get to the "why" in a moment, but consider the following:

-Haiti's dozens of gangs, largely grouped into two competing alliances, have seemingly set aside their differences and rather than attack each other, are working together to attack the government.

-The gangs are not hiding their goal. It is a change in government. Gang leadership, most notably a man called Jimmy Chérizier, aka Barbecue, has said the fighting won't stop until the unelected acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry is no longer in power. He's called for Henry's arrest.

-The gangs have launched a series of well-planned, massive attacks against key targets around the city. Nearly 30 police precincts have also come under fire, many completely taken over or destroyed. Government buildings have also been attacked, including one just 500 meters from the U.S. embassy. There is random, sporadic violence constantly around the city, but these attacks are strategic and targeted.

As to the why—gangs have long sought to fill a power vacuum left behind when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021. But an inflection point came last month.

Henry, in charge since just a few weeks after Moïse's death, had said he would step down by early February. But then, he changed course. The U.S.-backed Henry said the security situation needed to improve before he could leave and new elections could take place. Last week, he committed only to holding elections in August of 2025, a full 18 months away.

PHOTO: Police guard the exterior of the Carrefour Aeroport police station, which was set on fire on 04 March by gang members, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 5, 2024.
Police guard the exterior of the Carrefour Aeroport police station, which was set on fire on 04 March by gang members, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 5, 2024.
Johnson Sabin/EPA via Shutterstock

That appeared to be the final straw.

In a way, this gang-fueled violence is the armed manifestation of widespread popular anger against Henry and his government. Ordinary Haitians are furious over the ever-worsening poverty, hunger, and violence we've seen under Henry. He is a near-universally loathed public figure.

It is not hard to find people in Port-au-Prince who fully support the actions taken by the gangs, even if they are terrified that they themselves or their families could be collateral damage.

It is not that most in Haiti support the gangs or the chaos they cause. Far from it. Most despise the death and destruction they’ve wrought in the country. But for now, some feel the gangs are the only group capable of forcing Henry out.

Henry right now cannot even return to the county he nominally runs. He left last week for a trip to Kenya to secure the deployment of 1000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti in a mission authorized by the UN last year. Though an agreement was signed with Kenya, there is no date as to when those officers will show up or what the scope of their mission will be.

The ever-present question in Haiti is, what happens next? What if Henry is forced to step down? He has appointed a largely powerless electoral transition council, nearly as unpopular as him, but it is unclear who would lead the country.

Remember this staggering fact: in this democratic country, there is not one elected leader serving at any level of government anywhere in the country. No elections have been held since 2016.

Meanwhile, the violence has brought life and basic services to a halt in the city. All flights into the airport are canceled, the Dominican Republic has closed its airspace to flights bound to or from Haiti, and many hospitals have curtailed services or shut their doors altogether. Trash piles up, petty crime goes unsolved and hunger abounds.

In a world where there is no roadmap to security, no proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, there is only this depressing reality: things in Haiti will almost certainly get worse before they get better.

So the rebellion, the attempted revolution, has begun--alongside the seemingly never-ending suffering of millions of innocents.

Related Topics