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Gangsters in Paradise

Updated: Jun 24

How Haiti Became a Failed State

The sun is shining over a beautiful white sandy beach; affluent tourists are lounging around the pool of their 5-star all-inclusive resort sipping on overpriced cocktails. This would be a standard sight in any of the Dominican Republic’s many resorts, while merely a couple of hundred kilometers away, on the same island of Hispaniola, bodies line the streets of Port-au-Prince. Violent gangs roam free with impunity, with the government nowhere to be seen. So how did this happen? How did Haiti become the only failed state in the Western Hemisphere? To understand Haiti’s turbulent present, we must go back to Haiti’s troubled past.

The Colonial Period

The island of Hispaniola was sighted by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1492, and European settlers began to arrive by the beginning of the 16th century. They brought with them diseases that caused the almost complete extinction of the native Taíno people, with an estimated 95% perishing. The Spanish soon lost interest in the island and focused their efforts on the much more lucrative colonies in South and Central America, while Spanish settlements were primarily concentrated around the capital, Santo Domingo. Thus, the western and northern parts of the island became a haven for pirates. It wasn't until 1625 that France established a colony on the western part of the island and began importing slaves from French colonies in West Africa to work in the gradually expanding sugar plantations. By the 18th century, Haiti became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” the most profitable and richest of all colonies in the French empire.

A portrait of one of the Haitian Revolution's most iconic leaders, Toussaint Louverture.
The French Revolution of 1789 inspired the colony’s substantial slave population to revolt in 1791, starting the Haitian Revolution. By 1801, they controlled much of the colony. However, the situation changed when Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in France. Determined to re-establish French authority and slavery, Napoleon sent a large expeditionary force in 1802. Despite early successes, the French were soon forced into a brutal guerrilla war and many soldiers succumbed to tropical diseases such as malaria or yellow fever. To turn the tide, the French resorted to increasingly brutal tactics, burning alive, hanging, drowning, and torturing Black prisoners. The Haitians responded in an equally brutal fashion. By 1804, the French were defeated, and an independent Haitian republic was established, marking the only successful slave revolt in history. The Haitians enacted revenge, murdering the entire white population of the island, sparing only the Polish soldiers who had defected from Napoleon’s army and fought alongside the slaves. Some of those Poles settled in Haiti, and their descendants live on the island to this day.

From Independence to the Duvaliers

Following its historic revolution in 1804, Haiti emerged as the first Black republic and the world's second independent nation in the Americas. The young nation struggled with political instability, cycling through numerous leaders, including emperors, kings, and presidents, none of whom managed to hold power for long or stabilize the country. 

The economic situation was no less challenging. France and the United Kingdom enforced a blockade on the island, which ended in 1825 when Haiti signed an agreement with France. In exchange for lifting the blockade and receiving international recognition, Haiti agreed to pay 150 million francs as indemnities to compensate former French slaveholders. Haiti was forced to take out high-interest loans from French banks to pay this debt. This compounded political instability and ensured that much of Haiti remained underdeveloped, as much of the government budget went to France instead of being invested in infrastructure and improvement of the country. Haiti managed to fully pay off this debt over a century later, in 1947.

In 1915, the U.S. Marines landed in Haiti, beginning a 19-year occupation that reshaped the nation's political landscape and economic priorities. Driven by concerns over political instability and the potential for European (especially German) influence, the U.S. aimed to stabilize and control Haiti to protect American interests, particularly with the strategic Panama Canal nearby. The U.S. intervention was marked by infrastructure improvements but also by harsh governance and economic exploitation, deeply embedding resentment among the Haitian populace. With the end of the occupation in 1934, Haiti sought to reclaim its sovereignty, but the seeds of discord had already been sown. The years that followed were characterized by a revolving door of leaders, each struggling to maintain control and implement lasting reforms amidst enduring political and social upheaval. The political climate remained volatile, with each new administration bringing hope that was often short-lived. However, these efforts were stymied by continued coups and changes in government.

Haiti's longtime, authoritarian president François "Papa Doc" Duvalier in a car with supporters.
Amidst this political instability, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier rose to power in 1957, exploiting the chaos to present himself as the populist solution Haiti needed. His regime quickly devolved into a brutal kleptocratic dictatorship marked by severe repression, human rights abuses, and corruption, which helped maintain his grip on power through terror and violence. Following Papa Doc's death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, succeeded him at just 19 years of age. Under Baby Doc, the regime continued its repressive tactics. The fall of the Duvalier dynasty came in 1986, when Baby Doc was ousted by a popular uprising after years of economic mismanagement and human rights violations.

New Attempts at Democracy

After Duvalier’s ousting, the nation attempted to return to democracy. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, resonated with the poor and championed profound social change. However, his presidency was cut short by a military coup in 1991, just months after taking office, throwing the country into further chaos. Aristide returned to power in 1994 with international support, primarily from the United States, under the condition he implemented economic reforms. In 1995, Aristide decided to disband the Haitian army and transferred the responsibility for the nation’s security to the Haitian National Police. He completed his term, and in 1996 René Préval took over, marking the first peaceful transfer of power in decades. Aristide was re-elected in 2000, but accusations of electoral fraud and growing unrest marred his second term. 

In 2004, amidst violent uprisings, Aristide was ousted in a coup once again, leading to a United Nations-led intervention and the establishment of a transitional government. The UN mission stayed in the country until 2017, assisting the government in maintaining internal security and providing aid in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake—the deadliest earthquake in modern history. The disaster compounded the misery of the Haitian people by destroying much of the already crumbling infrastructure of the country. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti faced multiple controversies, including a 2007 child sexual abuse scandal, the inadvertent introduction of cholera that led to a widespread epidemic, and criticisms of excessive force and disregard for civilian safety.

The Assassination of Moïse

In 2016, little-known Haitian businessman Jovenel Moïse ascended to the Haitian presidency. Backed by the PHTK party, Moïse won the presidency in November 2016 and assumed office in February 2017. He promised economic development, modernization of agriculture, improved infrastructure, and a crackdown on corruption. However, his administration quickly became mired in controversy. Haiti’s persistent economic problems—rampant inflation, high unemployment, and widespread poverty—continued unabated. Moïse's government faced significant accusations of corruption, particularly involving the mismanagement of PetroCaribe funds. This, combined with high energy prices, led to widespread protests. Politically, Moïse struggled to govern effectively. His inability to hold legislative elections in 2019 led to the dissolution of parliament, allowing him to rule by decree, which fueled accusations of authoritarianism. The surge in gang violence and criminal activity further destabilized the country, with kidnappings and murders becoming commonplace. 

On July 7, 2021, Moïse was attacked and killed at his residence in Port-au-Prince by armed Colombian mercenaries, while his wife was shot, but survived. Who ordered the assassination remains a mystery. However, a report published on February 20, 2024, by the Haitian judge investigating the case implicated Martine Moïse, the widow of the former president, alongside the chief of the Haitian National Police Léon Charles. The prime minister at the time, Claude Joseph, the head of the presidential security team, and a Haitian-American pastor, Christian Emmanuel Sanon, who allegedly hired the mercenaries and has since been arrested in the USA, all were supposed to have played crucial roles. Allegedly, the plan after the attack was for Léon Charles to take over as acting president and schedule new elections, at which Martine Moïse would run, while Sanon reportedly believed he was going to be the new Haitian president. 

The assassination was probably catalyzed by the fact that Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon by profession, was appointed by Moïse as the new prime minister of Haiti on July 5, just two days before the assassination. After the murder of the president, Claude Joseph took control of the government. However, under international pressure, he relinquished power to Ariel Henry on July 20, 2021. Léon Charles and Martine Moïse denied the charges and instead blamed Henry for the assassination.

The Ongoing Gang War

Haiti has a long history of gang violence, and unlike in other nations where the government is fighting the gangs, in Haiti those armed gangs are affiliated with political powers in the country. Although many different armed gangs are running rampant in Haiti, they have concentrated into two main alliances—G9 and G-Pèp. G9 is an alliance of numerous Haitian gangs, led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former police officer who allegedly got the nickname “Barbecue” because he would burn people alive during gang massacres. From its inception, the G9 gang has allegedly been allied with President Moïse and the PHTK party, while their main rival, the G-Pèp alliance, is associated with Haiti’s opposition.

Notorious gang leader Jimmy 'Barbecue' Cherizier poses with members of G9.
After the assassination of Moïse, Haiti was plunged into chaos and a power vacuum, which the gangs attempted to exploit. During 2022, G9 and G-Pèp fought a brutal turf war over control of Port-au-Prince. In 2022, Ariel Henry announced an end to oil subsidies, which caused oil prices to skyrocket in the country and hit the already unbelievably poor Haitian population very hard. In response, Jimmy Chérizier and his G9 gang, who had been attempting to present themselves as revolutionaries, seized the Varreux terminal—the nation’s largest oil terminal—in September 2022 and demanded the resignation of Henry and his government. The seizure of the oil terminal essentially stopped the Haitian economy completely, forcing the closure of schools and many businesses, and disrupting the supply of water, leading to the spread of cholera. The blockade lasted for over a month until police finally managed to retake the facility. 

In the aftermath, Henry asked the international community for an intervention to help fight the gangs and alleviate the food and water shortage. However, due to Haiti’s prior experiences with foreign missions, few nations were keen on leading an intervention. The US, which normally acts as “the regional policeman,” refused to send American boots on the ground, perhaps due to the history of American occupation of Haiti. They did offer to financially support any nation willing to lead such an intervention. In July 2023, Kenya announced it would be willing to lead such an international effort and deploy troops to Haiti. They quickly received support from the UN Security Council, while other Caribbean nations also said they would be willing to contribute troops.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Haiti, the two rival gangs, G9 and G-Pèp, continued to run rampant, inflicting carnage with impunity. Anti-gang vigilante groups also started to appear in late 2022, targeting and killing gang members. However, in 2023 reports began to emerge that the gangs G9 and G-Pèp, fearing an international intervention, had agreed to a truce and instead refocused their efforts on taking down the Henry government.

The proposed Kenyan intervention began to stall by the beginning of 2024, as a Kenyan court ruled that the deployment of Kenyan forces was unconstitutional. The idea itself faced quite a lot of opposition within Kenya, as sending Kenyan policemen and soldiers to the other side of the globe to fight gangs proved unpopular. At the end of January, Henry left Haiti to go on diplomatic visits to Kenya and Guyana in an attempt to reignite the fledgling international intervention. The gangs were determined not to allow Ariel Henry to return from those visits. On March 2 and 3, G9 stormed two of the largest prisons in Haiti and freed more than 4,000 inmates, while on the 5th, they attacked the international airport, but were ultimately repulsed. Nevertheless, law and order had broken down to such an extent that it wasn’t safe for Ariel Henry to return to Haiti, and he remained stuck in Puerto Rico. On March 12, 2024, he resigned. A provisional presidential council was set up by CARICOM, consisting of seven members and two observers, who represented different groups within Haiti, and was sworn in on April 24 amidst the sound of automatic gunfire, with the task of choosing a new prime minister and organizing elections in 2026, at which point their mandate would expire. This change in government, however, hasn’t led to a decline in violence. G9 leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier objected to the fact that the gangs were not consulted for the creation of the council, and threatened to murder anyone who recognized their authority.

Kenyan President William Ruto meets Ariel Henry to discuss the deployment of Kenyan police to Haiti.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Kenyan-led international mission is set to go ahead, with Kenya pledging to send more than 1000 police officers to the Caribbean nation.  The first 200 were scheduled to arrive already by the end of May, however a reckon unit from Kenya, that was sent to assess whether Haiti was ready to welcome the international force determined that the operating bases of the deployment were not yet finished and that critical resources such as armored vehicles were missing. As a result, Kenyan President William Ruto announced that the mission would be delayed by at least three weeks. Meanwhile, on the 29th of May, the provisional council elected Garry Conille as the nation’s new prime minister, who will hold office until the 2026 presidential elections.
This is where Haiti stands today: unchecked gang violence, a horrifying humanitarian crisis, a cholera epidemic, and a delayed international intervention. Only time will tell if the provisional presidential council will be able to stabilize the situation in Haiti, if the Kenyan police will be able to defeat the gangs, if Haiti will be able to finally achieve peace and normality. 


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