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The Haiti Gangs: A history of international intervention

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A protester reacts while tires burn in the street during a demonstration following the resignation of its Prime Minister Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 12, 2024. – A political transition deal in Haiti marks a key step forward for the violence-ravaged country but far more needs to be done, with some experts warning the situation could deteriorate further. – Picture: Clarens Siffroy / AFP / Taken on March 25, 2024

By Lou Pingeot

Since the early 1990s, there have been no fewer than seven civilian, police, and peacekeeping missions led by the United Nations (UN) in Haiti. The fact that a UN-authorised police mission is once again on the table testifies to the failure of past interventions to consolidate lasting peace.

So, too, does the unwillingness of many previous interveners (such as the United States, Canada, and Brazil) to commit police officers and the UN Security Council’s choice to authorise but not lead the mission.

Recent interventions were particularly marred by the introduction of cholera by UN peacekeepers and the organisation’s subsequent failure to take responsibility for the epidemic, as well as widespread reports of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). This history is rightly mentioned as a warning in discussions on a potential future intervention.

Yet it is worth stressing that the problem with past international interventions was not only the cholera epidemic and SEA but also, and maybe primarily, these interventions’ privileging of stability over democracy and the consequent security and political approach.

In current discussions of intervention, the fact that previous missions spent considerable time and effort attempting — and failing — to reinforce the Haitian National Police (PNH) and assist them in tackling gang violence generally goes unmentioned even though these are precisely the tasks that the new mission has been mandated to carry out.

The largest and longest preceding mission (MINUSTAH, 2004–2017) was given a multidimensional mandate much more ambitious than the recently authorised Kenyan-led police intervention, which would primarily aim to improve security. Despite these important differences, the current focus on gangs eerily echoes MINUSTAH’s first years.

Since February 2024, the security and humanitarian situation in Haiti has dramatically deteriorated. The catalyst for the current crisis was the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 and the subsequent political vacuum it left in the country (particularly considering that no elections have been held since 2016).

In the face of rising violence committed by gangs, acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry called for an international police mission to assist the Haitian police in October 2022. After several countries declined to participate, Kenya promised to contribute 1,000 police officers for a multinational force authorised (but not led) by the UN Security Council and funded largely by the US.

However, in early 2024, following an official trip, Henry was unable to return to Port-au-Prince after gangs took control of several areas of the city. The future of the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission remains uncertain after the creation of a Haitian Transitional Presidential Council, which is set to nominate a new prime minister, and as the deployment to Haiti encounters roadblocks in Kenya.

Current calls for intervention against the gangs and reinforcement of the PNH should be informed by the track record of international intervention in Haiti, particularly MINUSTAH’s recent experience. MINUSTAH was deployed in 2004 following a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as armed groups (often made up of former members of the Haitian Armed Forces) had taken control of several regions and were threatening to march on the capital.

However, after its deployment, MINUSTAH focused not on these armed groups but on gangs in Port-au-Prince, some of which were understood to be supportive of Aristide. According to former MINUSTAH Police Commissioner David Beer, “Security (in Port-au-Prince particularly) became the all-consuming priority, and effort and resources were diverted from other stated objectives of the multifaceted mandate that included aid, capacity building, and human rights issues.”

MINUSTAH led joint police-military raids with the PNH starting in 2004 even though action against gangs only officially became part of the mission’s mandate in 2006.

What did intervention against the gangs look like in practice? On July 6, 2005, 1,400 heavily armed peacekeepers (military and police) entered the neighborhood of Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince to conduct an early-morning raid against suspected gang members. During the twelve-hour raid, dubbed “Operation Iron Fist”, MINUSTAH peacekeepers fired 22,700 rounds of ammunition and 78 grenades, leaving over 20 civilians dead, dozens injured, and many houses destroyed.

While the mission never investigated the aftermath of this raid, it carried out multiple similar operations, particularly between 2004 and 2007. These operations led a representative of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Cité Soleil to state that the mission “has become an armed player in the conflict, a source of violence against civilians during police operations in the slums”. No longer taken aback by ‘collateral damage’ caused by UN soldiers, one of its representatives even sees it as the price that has to be paid in order to ‘stabilise’ Port-au-Prince.”

Not only did robust action against gangs inflict considerable damage on civilians and civilian infrastructure, it was also ultimately a failure. The strategy of “neutralising” gangs without investigating how they armed and funded themselves did not allow the mission to dismantle the wider networks of which they were a part.

Writing in 2017, MINUSTAH’s former head of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) noted that the mission’s “robust actions failed to address the underlying close relations between the controlling business elites and the armed gangs”. Because the mission focused on poor neighbourhoods where gangs tend to operate without investigating their wider networks, this approach was discriminatory and contributed to the impunity of elites with gang connections.

As David Beer wrote, “Investigating the economic elites that exploited the gangs was a low priority where those same elites’ cooperation was essential to national economic recovery.”

With its narrow focus on addressing the dramatic security situation, the Kenyan-led intervention is less equipped than MINUSTAH to tackle the connection between gangs and elites. Although the connection may be addressed in further peacebuilding efforts, this risks decoupling security from politics, thus reproducing patterns of previous interventions in Haiti.

While the imposition of international sanctions against certain individuals in Haiti in 2022 reflected a recognition of elite involvement in gang networks, this connection has not always featured prominently in discussions on the Kenyan-led mission. Furthermore, the Kenyan police’s poor human rights record raises concerns about its ability to de-escalate violence.

The experience of past UN missions demonstrates the failure of a security-focused approach decoupled from a change in the economic and political status quo in Haiti. Yet recent developments do not indicate that the international community is ready to abandon practices that are well anchored in its standard repertoire of intervention.

Important decisions about Haiti continue to be taken outside of the country, and the same Haitian actors continue to be favoured — particularly the ruling party, the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), which the “Core Group” (Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the European Union, the United States, and the Organisation of American States) has politically backed since the election of Michel Martelly in 2011.

Recent developments around the Presidential Council suggest that the current PHTK government, despite its lack of legitimacy, will exert considerable influence over the council’s organisation and composition. In addition, the decree establishing the council requires members to agree to the Kenyan-led intervention negotiated by Ariel Henry.

This leaves little hope for real political change. Under these conditions, a police mission mandated with tackling the gang problem is unlikely to seriously deal with the gangs’ wider networks.

Haiti has been in and out of the news for the past few years as violence ebbs and flows, leading to periodic calls for the international community to “do something”. Yet focusing on gangs and crime masks the daily structural violence in which most Haitians live, “the kind of violence that doesn’t come from a gun or a masked person, that comes from a shattered economy, a precariously built city, a destroyed environment”, in the words of anthropologist Greg Beckett.

This structural violence has been almost completely banalised, viewed as “just how things are in Haiti”. As Louis Henry Mars of Lakou Lapé, a peacebuilding organisation in Port-au-Prince, argues, “We’re just going to have more hell to pay over the next 10 years if we don’t really attack the root causes of the violence — the structural violence that exists in this country, the sucking of the money by a few at the expense of the many.”

Twenty years ago, as preparations were under way to deploy a UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti, Secretary-General Kofi Annan penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Haiti: This Time We Must Get It Right”. Starting with the exclamation “Not again!” the text underlined that the international community was tired of intervening in Haiti following several missions in the 1990s.

Yet, according to Annan, intervention was required once again because “Haiti is clearly unable to sort itself out, and the effect of leaving it alone would be continued or worsening chaos”. Annan concluded, “No one wants to intervene, but ultimately there is no choice.”

Annan’s text captures some of the current mood around intervention in Haiti and raises the question of whether the international community will “get it right this time”. Even if the proposed intervention stops violence momentarily — and many Haitians are clamouring for any form of security — this can only be a temporary fix as long as the social contract between the Haitian state and the Haitian population remains broken.

International actors have played an important part in turning Haiti into an “aid state” that serves the interests of a few, and nothing less than a radical change in that pattern of intervention is required for the current response to be more than a repeat of the past.

Lou Pingeot is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa.

This article was first published by Peoples Dispatch