When Gangs Call All the Shots

Taking the government to ransom by a band of marauding criminal gangs is an unheard-of phenomenon, in contemporary international society. Similarly, it is rarer still to find an assortment of known criminals with an established history of committing worst atrocities against their fellow countrymen and women to take on the mantle of national political transformation. Welcome to Haiti!

The impoverished country of eleven million souls croaking under decades of bad governance and environmental disasters is now taken hostage by the country’s dreaded criminal street gangs. Once confined to the task of hostage taking, ransom demands, kidnapping, rape and killing they have now a new self-assigned profession – that of harbingers of political change in an already failed state.

A truce of sorts…

After orchestrating weeks of mayhem that included storming the largest prison of the country leading to release of some 4000 hardened criminals, torching of police stations, armed attack on government institution and large-scale street fighting in the urban areas across this beleaguered nation, they pulled off a major victory of sorts by deposing the country’s sitting prime minister.

An uneasy calm of sorts has now engulfed Haiti. According to the peace plan sponsored by the Caribbean Community of nations (CARICOM), the United States and the gangs leading the recent violence, the country will have a transition council and temporary leader were chosen.

Gun-trotting marauding gangs are not in the rampage anymore, as they await their own share in the country’s future power-sharing arrangements. However, peace and prosperity are unlikely to return to this wretched country anytime soon – a new government or no government. Simply put Haiti’s woes are far from over. There are multiple challenges that need addressing before any kind of normalcy returns to this country blighted by both man-made and natural disasters.

The challenges facing Haiti are many. According to the United Nation’s World Food programme director for Haiti, Jean-Martin Bauer, some four million Haitians face “acute” food insecurity and one million of them are one step away from famine. As he has stressed there are levels of hunger in Port-au-Prince that are typically seen in war zones. Then there are hundreds of thousands of Haitians internally displaced whose lives have been blighted by decades of gang violence.

The uneven road to normalcy

Beyond these immediate challenges surrounding food and human security, is the biggest challenge of all, how to rein in the gangs and their violent activism. Any future political settlement in Haiti is dependent on the support, participation and continual goodwill of the country’s armed gangs who freshly overthrew the civilian government.

While the consortium of armed gangs that instituted the uprising claimed to be ridding the country of a corrupt and ineffective government, their objective was far from altruistic. Upon closer examination it becomes abundantly clear that some of the gang leaders harbour political ambitions.

To lead Haiti out from the orchestrated anarchy to something of a viable polity the need of the hour is the instituting a government of national reconciliation. To achieve such a goal there needs to be genuine and positive participation of all the powerbrokers.

The current peace-plan to transition Haiti from the current anarchy agreed upon by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has suggested the establishment of a transitional council composed of seven leaders from various political factions and civil society and religious groups.

An excellent plan on paper, this however, has two serious flaws. First, it falls short of spelling out what role the gang leaders who undertook the current armed insurrection have in any future political configuration. Second, if the political factions will continue to provide patronage and support to the gangs as they have done in the past.

For good or bad one cannot envisage Haiti without its armed gangs. For decades they have been “weaponized by senior politicians, bureaucrats, and business elites to suppress dissent, sway elections, and offer protection.” Conversely, Haiti’s gangs have often leveraged the power of the governing establishment to exert their informal illegal stranglehold across the society. Both have established a symbiotic relationship feeding off each other at the cost of the general public.

Given the enormity of this unholy alliance, gangs cannot be wished away, or their influence brushed under the carpet in the context of future power sharing. Decoupling them any such arrangement would certainly spell doom for the country and that regime presides over such a decision.

The long view

The sixty-four-million-dollar question that begs an answer is the following: Can armed gangs whose only name to fame has been decades of wanton violence, looting, extortion, rape and killing be put in charge of this fragile polity? This is a tough call; almost similar to a Catch 22 situation for most Haitians and those hammering out a peace plan for this fractured country and its equally unfortunate masses.

True, given their appetite for bloody violence, making space for gangs in Haiti’s future political arrangement is not particularly an attractive proposition.  But to exclude them from any such arrangement would be a mortal mistake.  As gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Chérizier put it just before the violent coup against the government of Ariel Henry, “We’re not in a peaceful revolution. We are making a bloody revolution in the country.” Pity the nation of Haiti and pity its equally unfortunate people.

[Header image by Voice of America, via Wikimedia Commons]

Amalendu Misra is a professor of international politics, Lancaster University, United Kingdom, and author of Towards a Philosophy of Narco Violence in Mexico, New York: Palgrave. He’s on X (formerly Twitter) @MisraAmalendu

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