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Anarchy in Paradise: Gang Violence in Haiti

Haiti's National Palace, partly destroyed by an earthquake in 2010.
Haiti's National Palace (2010)


Haiti lies on the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. Consequently, the nation is vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, mudslides, and droughts.[1] In 2010, a powerful earthquake shook the nation. Approximately 220,000 people died, and 1.5 million were displaced. The UN mission aided Haitians in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.[2] Reconstruction cost 8 billion USD.[3] During the mid to late 2010s, a drought ruined 70 percent of Haiti's crops. Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti in 2016. The storm demolished houses, livestock, and infrastructure. In August 2021, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake and Tropical Storm Grace hit Haiti. The former killed 2,000 people, and the latter disaster generated flash flooding and landslides.[4] Port-au-Prince could limit damages by improving urban planning and infrastructure.[5] Roy & Labrador (2024) suppose that populated coastlines and subsistence farming also play a role.[6]

A map showing where the North American and Caribbean plates meet in Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
Haiti fault line map (2010)


Spanish explorers landed on Hispaniola in 1492. Old World ailments, such as smallpox and measles, killed Indigenous Taínos. Colonizers enslaved Africans and forced them to gather coffee, lumber, and sugar on the island. During the 1600s, French merchants founded an outpost in western Hispaniola. The commerce center subsequently became Saint-Domingue, an affluent French colony. Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, two former slaves, initiated a revolution against Paris. Haiti acquired its independence in 1804. France did not recognize Haitian independence until 1825 and mandated that Port-au-Prince pay Paris 21 billion USD. United States President Abraham Lincoln's administration acknowledged Haitian independence in 1862.[7]

Artwork of slaves cutting a sugarcane plantation in Haiti
Slaves cutting sugarcane in Haiti

Between 1910 and 1915, Haiti had seven presidents. President Woodrow Wilson feared German influence in Haiti and sent Marines to the country in 1915. Washington managed Haiti's economy and security. Additionally, the United States segregated Haitians based on race, supported forced labor, and censored the country's media. The U.S. removed anti-American presidents and politicians from office. When Haitians rebelled against American influence, fifteen thousand Haitians died between 1919 and 1929.[8]

U.S. Marines vacated Haiti in 1934 as a component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy.[9] Between 1934 and 1957, Port-au-Prince's authority was frail. François Duvalier ("Papa Doc") established a dictatorship in 1957. Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc") succeeded him.[10] The Duvaliers lost power and fled in 1986 due to domestic and foreign pressures. Their reign is known for human rights infringements and corruption. Thirty thousand Haitians were missing or dead at the end of their term.[11]

Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the next president in 1991, but the Haitian military deposed him.[12] Three years later, the United States and the United Nations helped Aristide regain power.[13] During his term, the World Bank imposed harmful structural adjustment policies on the country. Port-au-Prince bought American rice, thus damaging the domestic rural agricultural sector. Unemployed men traveled to Port-au-Prince and became gang members. Aristide tolerated gangs and utilized them to consolidate his power. The leader instructed gangs to protect him when Guy Phillipe threatened his administration in 2004.[14]

Due to political turmoil, the United Nations intervened. The United Nations assembled the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) on June 1, 2004, which would dissolve on October 15, 2017. Before MINUSTAH, a Multinational Interim Force endeavored to stabilize Haiti.[15] The international mission threatened gangs, and violence decreased. During René Preval's two terms, he offered gang members two choices: drop their weapons or perish. Preval's successors tolerated and backed gangs. Consequently, Haiti became a narco-trafficking state and gangs increased their influence.[16]

Three United Nations Peacekeepers pass a young Haitian boy. The middle peacekeeper is touching the boy's hand.
United Nations Peacekeepers in Haiti

Haitians selected Michel Martelly as president in 2011. However, citizens believed that Washington assisted Martelly. He resigned after postponing elections and governing by decree. Jovenel Moïse was Martelly's successor, and Haitians accused him of committing fraud.[17] Fuel prices increased, and Moïse removed government subsidies. Haitians believed he was corrupt and an illegitimate leader. A group of Haitians and Colombians assassinated Jovenel Moise in 2021. Ariel Henry, Moïse's prime minister, became Haiti's head of state and shelved presidential elections. A year later, an individual tried to murder Henry. Eventually, Henry's administration agreed to hold general elections before August 2025. Haitians last voted in 2016.[18]

Present Day

On February 29, 2024, Haitian gangs began their assault on public and state institutions while the prime minister was abroad.[19] Ariel Henry traveled to Kenya before the rebellion to discuss sending Kenyan officers to Haiti. Kenya agreed to send 1,000 officers to Haiti. The prime minister attempted to return to Haiti or the Dominican Republic, but neither country accepted him. Consequently, he landed in Puerto Rico.[20]  At the beginning of March, gangs stormed Haiti's two largest prisons, freeing over 3,000 criminals in the process.[21] Armed men also attacked Haiti's national football stadium, the Central Bank, police stations, and Haiti's international airport before March 4, 2024. By March 7, 2024, rebels controlled most of Port-au-Prince.[22] On Saturday, March 9, government officials unsuccessfully attempted to regain control over parts of Port-au-Prince.[23] Before March 10, gangs burned 30 state institutions, over 600 homes, and approximately 500 vehicles.[24]

A man on a bike passes at least two burning tires on a street in Port-au-Prince.
A man passes burning tires on a road in Port-au-Prince.

Le Nouvelliste, a popular Haitian newspaper, called gang attacks "a cortège of fire, blood, corpses, incalculable damage, and fear."[25]  The Syndicat de la Police Nationale d'Haïti said: "There are shootings all over downtown, students, and vendors are running in all directions like crazy ants."[26] Anthony Blinken, the American secretary of state described Haiti's situation as a "dire political and security crisis."[27] Médecins Sans Frontières reported that their trauma unit was "overwhelmed by victims of gunshot wounds."[28]  Monique Clesca, a 71-year-old activist, described the situation as being  "[...] pure terror...It is sadness. It is terror. It is horror. It is anxiety. It is desolation".[29]  She also noted, "Two-thirds of the population is under 24. They are the ones who are going to inherit this country. And I think it's a responsibility, it is a duty, to leave something worthwhile for they don't think dying in the sea is better than staying and working in Haiti".[30]

Matt Knight, director for Goal Global, described the situation in Haiti. The British aid worker said, "I spent six months in Ukraine when they started bombing Kyiv, and this is worse than that [...] Men are looting, pillaging [and displacing Haitians] from their neighborhoods.”[31] He also noted that the violence appeared to be planned, but also indiscriminate because some gang members did not have a clear motive. Knight told Phillips "In Kyiv during the day you could walk around... [Here] it's a far less controlled situation, so the fear factor is much higher because it is just seemingly more random...This is the most frightened I've been just because of the randomness."[32] Knight previously worked in Sierra Leone (2014-5 Ebola outbreak) and Sudan (2021 coup).[33] 

Romain Le Court, A Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime security expert, noted, "This is not just random violence [...]. It is gangs bringing down power.”[34] Haitians and foreigners cannot escape the country. According to Knight, "There's no way in or out of Haiti...The Dominican Republic has closed off the border completely. The boat routes are not particularly safe even if you were to get to the places where you could launch a boat."[35] After days of conflict, Ariel Henry finally made a video statement. In a video, he commented: "For more than a week, our country has experienced an increase in acts of violence of all kinds perpetrated against the population: assassinations, attacks against law enforcement, looting, systematic destruction of public and private buildings...We deplore the numerous losses of human life. The government that I lead cannot remain indifferent to this situation. As I have always said, no sacrifice is too great for our common homeland Haiti.'' [36]  

Jimmy Chérizier, also known as "Babekyou" (Barbecue), bore responsibility for the violence, announcing, "The people of Haiti must be free [...] we will achieve that with our guns.".[37] The gang leader was born during Baby Doc Duvalier's term. People have compared Chérizier to Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Robin Hood, and he admires Thomas Sankara, Fidel Castro, and Malcolm X. He grew up destitute. His father died when he was five, and his mother sold fried chicken. Chérizier got his nickname either from his mother's occupation or from burning his victims.[38] He worked as a policeman and for the Unité Départementale de maintien d'ordre. Haitians claim that his riot squad unnecessarily killed protesters. Officials fired Chérizier in 2018 due to his involvement in the La Saline massacre. Afterward, Chérizier led the G9 Family and Allies gang alliance. His gangs captured slums, roads, and supply facilities. Consequently, educational and medical institutions closed. Chérizier believes he is fighting for Haiti's vulnerable and poor. However, the United States and the United Nations have sanctioned him.[39]

Jimmy Cherizier holds a gun. Two men wearing face masks are on his right and left side. Both men are holding guns.
Cherizier holds a gun with two gang members behind him.

Jimmy "Barbecue"  Chérizier  warned foreign governments that their support of a transition would "plunge Haiti into further chaos" and said, "We Haitians have to decide who is going to be the head of the country and what model of government we want." [40] Guy Phillipe agrees that Haitians should determine their future. He asserted, “The decision of [the Caribbean Community] is not our decision...Haitians will decide who will govern [...]."[41]. Jimmy Chérizier also stated, "If Ariel Henry doesn't resign, if the international community continues to support him, we'll be heading straight for a civil war that will lead to genocide.”[42]

Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned on March 12, 2024.[43] The former leader announced that he would quit after a transitional council was established.[44] Potential members could be current politicians, oligarchs, or rebels. One candidate is Moise Jean-Charles. He is the leader of Platform Pitit Desalin and has ties to Guy Phillipe. Haitians do not know who the next leader will be. Jake Johnston, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, wrote: "Though negotiations have been taking place for the better part of a week, none of the participants or discussions [were] public, leaving the vast majority of Haitians in the dark.'' [45] On March 13, Port-au-Prince was calm.[46] Kenyan President William Ruto is still willing to send an intervention force to Haiti. However, Haitians are wary because Kenyan UN workers faced sexual misconduct allegations and might have spread cholera in the past.[47] Hopefully, a new transitional government will relieve Haitians of some of their woes. However, the country still faces international pressure, natural disasters, food insecurity, and internal corruption.[48]


[1] Diana Roy and Rocio Cara Labrador ‘Haiti’s Troubled Path to Development” 4 March 2024. Council on Foreign Relations ; Center for Preventive Action ‘Instability in Haiti’ 13 March 2024 Council on Foreign Relations

[2] United Nations ‘MINUSTAH Fact Sheet’ Oct. 2017. United Nations.

[3] Roy & Labrador

[4] Roy & Labrador (n 1)

[5]  Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Roy & Labrador (n1)

[9] Roy & Labrador (n 1)

[10] Center for Preventive Action (n 1)

[11] Roy & Labrador (n 1)

[12] Michael Weissenstein ‘Why is Haiti so Chaotic? Leaders Used Street Gangs to Gain Power. Then the Gangs got Stronger” 12 March 2024 AP News.

[13] Weissenstein (n 12); Center for Preventive Action  (n 1)

[14] Weissenstein (n 12)

[15] United Nations (n 2)

[16] Weissenstein (n 12)

[17] Roy & Labrador (n 1)

[18] Roy & Labrador (n 1)

[19] Guardian Staff and Agencies ‘Haiti Crisis: Gangs Attack Police Stations as Caribbean Leaders Call for Emergency Meeting’ 9 March 2024. The Guardian.

[20] Peter Beaumont and Luke Taylor ‘Haiti PM Ariel Henry Resigns After Gang Insurrection Caused Days of Chaos’  12 Mar 2024 The Guardian

[21] Sam Jones ‘Haiti Declares State of Emergency after Thousands of Dangerous Inmates Escape’ 4 Mar 2024 The Guardian

[22] Tom Phillips and Etienne Côté-Paluck ‘ “It has been pure terror”: Haiti’s Seven Days of Bedlam’ 7 Mar 2024. The Guadian.; Jones (n 21)

[23] Guardian Staff and Agencies (n 19)

[24] Danica Coto and Evens Sanon ‘Plan to Install New Leaders in Haiti Appears to Crumble  after Political Parties Reject It’ 13 Mar 2024. AP News.

[25] Phillips & Côté-Paluck (n 22)

[26] Ibid.

[27] Tom Phillips ‘Stranded Haiti Aid Worker Describes City under Siege “Fear and Bewilderment” 11 Mar 2024 The Guardian.

[28] Phillips (n 26)

[29] Phillips & Côté-Paluck (n 22)

[30] Ibid.

[31] Phillips (n 26)

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Phillips & Côté-Paluck (n 22)

[35] Phillips (n 26)

[36] Beaumont & Taylor (n 20)

[37] Phillips & Côté-Paluck (n 22)

[38] Phillips & Taylor (n 20)

[39] Ibid.

[40] Beaumont & Taylor  (n 20)

[41] Coto & Sanon (n 23)

[42] Tom Phillips & Julian Borger ‘Haiti Gang Boss Tells Absent Prime Minister to Quit or Face Civil War’ 6 Mar 2024. The Guardian.

[43] Peter Beaumont ‘Can Haiti Avoid History Repeating as Burning Streets Meet Vying Elites’ 13 Mar 2024. The Guardian. ; Beaumont & Taylor  (n 20)

[44]  Beaumont (n 42)

[45] Beaumont  (n 42)

[46] Harold Issac, ‘Calm in Haitian Capital Extends into Second Day as US Eyes Transition Soon’ 13 Mar 2024 . Reuters.

[47] Beaumont (n 42)

[48] Beaumont & Taylor (n 20)


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