Around two hundred criminal groups operate in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, a city with a population of one million people. These numerous gangs have established a criminal order capable of hindering the supply of food and humanitarian aid in Haiti; this criminal sovereignty, organized through the illegal activity and violence, manufactures political legitimacy for these gangs. While the criminal network and governmental corruption in Haiti has drawn the attention of the international community, the related food insecurity crisis has not received significant external concern. This article analyzes the use of hunger as an instrument of criminal governance and reinterprets the meaning of sovereignty and governance within the context of criminality.
Haiti is a ‘Criminocracy’
Haiti today can be characterized as a phantom state with a supplanted political structure—competition between gangs vying for political authority has created a limited, fragmented, and authoritarian presence within the state. The country can also be considered as a criminal federation, or a ‘criminocracy’, because several criminal organizations have acquired government capabilities and their sphere of influence threatens the lives of Haitians through direct violence or forced starvation.
Following the assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse on June 7, 2021, the humanitarian and food security crisis of the last two decades further deteriorated. The polarization and political violence that ensued after Moïse’s assassination precipitated limited access to COVID-19 vaccines and widespread hunger due to food shortages. These factors have also enabled criminal networks in Haiti to govern by enacting rules and corrupting the legal regime to exercise control over the lives of the Haitian population, suppressing individual liberties and the most basic rights of Haitian citizens, such as the right to freedom of movement or to access food.
One prominent criminal leader, a former police officer and commander of the G-9 gang, Jimmy Chérizier, previously co-governed with president Moïse through a non-aggression pact in which Chérizier provided territorial control and intimidation over Moïse’s political opposition in return for legal immunity. Pacts between governments and criminals are not uncommon in Haiti. In fact, during the dictatorial government of the Duvalier family (1957–1986), paramilitary forces were developed for intimidation purposes. Presidents Jean-Bertrand Aristide (2001–2004) and Michel Martelly (2011–2016) were also tolerant of organized crime and suspected of ignoring drug trafficking in exchange for bribes. The process by which gangs rose to power in Haiti was gradual, but since 2017, when Moïse took office, their territorial control has greatly increased. The rise of gangs in Haiti is intertwined with domestic political incentives and the deterioration of democracy that sustained the Moïse regime through armed support. Additionally, the criminal groups managed to make alliances with the police and security during the Moïse regime, thus enabling kidnapping, human trafficking, the flow of weapons, and other crimes while minimizing the consequences. Now, following the Moïse regime, more than half of the political institutions in Haiti are controlled by criminal gangs and operate as de facto governments. At this moment, about 60 percent of Port-au-Prince is under gang control. The Haitian state demonstrates its acceptance of gang violence by not counteracting or inhibiting it.
Hunger and Crime
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), there are around one million people at risk of acute food insecurity in Port-au-Prince alone, and five million people currently experience food insecurity across the country. This food insecurity is due, in large part, to the criminal gangs that exercise control over food distribution in Haiti by imposing restrictions on mobility, including access to markets, fuel, medicine, food, and international humanitarian assistance. The hunger produced by criminal intervention in food distribution is leading to the extinction of the Haitian population because an alarmingly high proportion of the population, around 60 percent, depend on criminal gangs to distribute food. Gangs allocate stolen food to cooperative civilians who share information about other gangs or state forces, and leverage food distribution by orchestrating sex trafficking networks in which women and girls receive food in exchange for sexual favors and forced labor. Thus, hunger has become a weapon to control the lives of Haitian people. Gangs take advantage of basic needs to build dependency, legitimize criminal actions, and force cooperation in exchange for food.
In the Cité Soleil neighborhood in the capital of Port-au-Prince armed gangs have besieged the town and blocked the entry of humanitarian missions. Sixty-five percent of residents are experiencing food insecurity, and five percent is on the verge of death from starvation and disease. The combination of natural disasters, such as the earthquake of August 2021, the devastation following Hurricane Nicole in November 2022, and the global crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, has left the Haitian population even more vulnerable. After the 2021 earthquake, the destruction and poverty that ensued, combined with preexisting criminal structures, further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Cité Soleil.
Gang warfare for territorial control often occurs in public, forcing civilians to watch members of armed groups behead dissidents, burn people alive in retaliation for non-submission, and rape women in the streets. Criminal groups maintain a presence on major roads that connect urban and rural areas, controlling the passage of citizens, merchandise, medicines, and food. On the highway that connects Port-au-Prince with southern Haiti gangs have prevented the passage of various humanitarian missions attempting to supply medicine and drinking water. The hijacking and burning of food trucks by gang members has furher inhibited humanitarian aid in the city. Additionally, the 400 Mawozo group controls the land route that connects Haiti with the Dominican Republic—a strategic location for the Haitian economy and an area transited by irregular migrants who are recruited by the gang. There, the criminal group controls movement of people and merchandise by killing presumed enemies and rewarding informants.
Thus, Haitian gangs have facilitated the construction of a criminal federal state. Though the gangs are fragmented, they control large territories and obey an overarching criminal structure. In early October 2022, the Canaán and 5 Seconds gangs, two allied criminal groups, launched an operation on a highway that accesses northern Port-au-Prince, where the largest flour processing company in the country is located, Moulins d’Haïti. The motive of this operation was to take control of the food supply infrastructure in Port-au-Prince, which produces food for a large part of the Haitian population. Fortunately, state forces intervened, but if the operation had been successful, the supply of food to the capital and elsewhere would have been at the mercy of criminal leaders. The seizure of food infrastructure in Haiti elevates the influence of criminal gangs, thus potentially necessitating negotiations with intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN) to attenuate the effects.
Structural solutions can be built in two ways: internationally and domestically. On the one hand, international support is useful for monitoring the contribution of humanitarian aid and as an instrument for constructing a system of governance that appropriately oversees the rule of law and the security forces. But it must be a short, limited, and precise international support mission to avoid repeating the human rights violations of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Teaching Haitians to facilitate their own democratic institutions, as well as police and justice systems, is a crucial component of this process. International experts in law enforcement could help strengthen institutional management and supervision of criminal activity and develop educational and employment opportunities that would dissuade young people from joining criminal structures. The solution, however, should not rely on a multinational military intervention, as this could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and threaten civil society with potential war. There must be support for the restoration of the democratic order, and increased monitoring of free and transparent elections with the support of organizations like the UN.
The possibility of negotiating with criminal gangs should be considered. For that, there must be an established agenda, political volition, and clear rules for justice. With the support of the international community, there can be a post-crime transitional justice process to disarm the gangs. In other words, the idea may be to involve former members of criminal gangs as participants in building institutions for Haitian peace.
On the other hand, legitimate institutions must originate in Haiti. The best way to build legitimate institutions is through local initiatives backed by citizen confidence. Without structural change, Haiti could be the catalyst of broader security problems and instability throughout the region. The power and scope of the gangs greatly increase this possibility, in combination with the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, which has generated irregular migration across the continent.
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César Niño is an associate professor and researcher in international relations at the Universidad de la Salle (Colombia). His research areas include international security, conflict, terrorism, violence, peace, and organized crime. He has a PhD in International Law from the Universidad Alfonso X el Sabio (Spain), and is currently a PhD student in International Peace, Conflict and Development Studies at the Universitat Jaume I (Spain).
Image Credits: Wikimedia, Alex Proimos