Explaining and Predicting: Haiti’s Gang Violence and Proposed Solutions

This explainer examines the political and humanitarian impact of gang violence in Haiti, the challenges facing the MSS mission, and U.S. policy towards Haiti.


As international actors continue to build support for the Kenya-led Multinational Security Support (MSS) Mission, the security, humanitarian, and political situation in Haiti worsens. Today, 80 percent of Port-au-Prince is already controlled by gangs. Over the weekend, in the latest attempt to destabilize and overthrow Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s interim government, gangs attacked critical infrastructure, including Toussaint Louverture International Airport — the country’s largest international airport — and stormed two of the biggest prisons, releasing approximately 3,700 inmates. As authorities declare a 72-hour state of emergency, Henry, who is on a foreign mission to Nairobi to secure Kenya’s support, has not been seen since last Friday. This explainer examines the political and humanitarian impact of gang violence in Haiti, the challenges facing the MSS mission, and U.S. policy towards Haiti.

How have armed gangs in Haiti contributed to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and what potential long-term impacts might these developments have on the country?

Haiti has a history of collusion between criminal groups and politicians back to the Duvalier regime of the 1960s. By the time President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in 2021, gangs had become influential enough to fill the power vacuum left by his murder. Since then, their increasing economic and political autonomy has wreaked havoc on the country. By restricting humanitarian aid and expanding operations into key farming regions, gangs have gained control over the food supply, leading to widespread starvation. Over 60 percent of the population relied on gangs for food distribution as of 2021. They also use systemic rape, now horribly considered “an inevitable part of life,” to subjugate locals and force them to pay ransoms. 

The long-term effects of armed gang violence have already taken their toll. No formal institutions remain, leaving the country with little capacity to properly address widespread homelessness, disease. The country is on the brink of famine. Gangs control over 80 percent of the capital, commanding more authority than the prime minister and National Police combined. International sanctions have done little to cripple the gangs, as they finance themselves almost entirely through extortion and kidnappings. With nowhere left to turn, thousands of Haitians have made the decision to emigrate. Some consider Haiti a failed state. Others call it a “criminocracy.” The consensus is that barring some kind of foreign intervention, Haiti will only continue down this path.

Considering the setbacks faced by the proposed Kenya-led Multinational Security Support (MSS) Mission, what might unfold if the deployment is further delayed?

Although the United Nations Security Council authorized the MSS mission in October 2023, its future remains uncertain. In late January, the deployment of Kenyan police forces to Haiti was blocked by the Kenyan Supreme Court due to the lack of a reciprocal policing agreement between the two countries. Kenyan President William Ruto and his National Security Council offered to deploy 1,000 police officers to Haiti to address the security crisis. In late February, amid growing international support, and in an effort to circumvent the court ruling, the Kenyan government signed a memorandum of understanding with Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Nairobi. 

While negotiations continue abroad, the security situation in Haiti keeps deteriorating, and further delay could make the MSS irrelevant. The interim Henry government may not only fail to stabilize the country before the next general elections, scheduled for August of 2025, but it appears more and more likely to be overthrown by gangs or rival government factions such as the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas. Indeed, the delay is playing into the hands of gangs. As Port-au-Prince descends further into chaos, the Haitian police force continues to shrink. Estimates suggest that over the course of the last three years it lost over 3,300 officers, leaving the Haitian National Police with some 9,000 officers to police a country of 11.4 million people. Recent reports suggest that rival gangs are building a united front led by former police officer and gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, also known as “Barbecue,” to take over the country. 

How does the political instability in Haiti, particularly the protests against Prime Minister Ariel Henry, shape the trajectory of the country’s future, and what potential outcomes can be anticipated in terms of governance and stability?

In addition to the gang violence, Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government faces mounting pressure from civil society. Henry, appointed by President Jovenel Moïse right before his killing in 2021, is seen as a corrupt, incompetent, and undemocratic leader. Though it has international support from the UN Security Council, Henry’s government remains contested. The Haitian parliament never formally approved his appointment, and he is alleged to have been involved in Moïse’s assassination. Haiti has not held presidential elections since 2016. Today, there is no elected official in power. Previous agreements signed to transition the country out of the crisis have failed, including the Montana Accords of 2021 and the National Consensus for an Inclusive Transition and Transparent Elections of 2022 (also known as the December 21st agreement) – a deal between Prime Minister Henry and opposition figures to hold elections in 2023. 

Amid the growing security crisis resulting from the vacuum of power, mass protests have grown in size throughout Haiti. In the latest demonstrations in early February, thousands marched across the streets of Port-au-Prince calling for Henry’s resignation. Concerns center around the dire security situation as well as the lack of basic services, including access to food, health, and education. Although Haiti is slated to hold presidential elections in 2025, it remains unlikely that the country will achieve stable governance in the near future. Prominent opposition figures include the controversial leader of the 2004 coup attempt, Guy Phillipe, imprisoned in the United States on human trafficking charges until last November. Upon his arrival back in Haiti, Phillipe called for a national revolution to overthrow Henry, further generating social unrest. There is little indication that a peaceful, political or negotiated path towards stability is in the cards.

Given the U.S. and international stance on the Kenya-led mission, what are the implications for Haiti’s ability to effectively address the current crisis?

There is no doubt among the international community that its involvement is necessary in resolving the Haitian crisis. What’s most debated is who specifically, to what extent, and for how long. In a statement at a G20 ministerial meeting last month, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the US has pledged USD 200 million to Haitian forces for a multinational security mission, urging other countries to provide support. Several Caribbean and West African leaders also pledged their support at the CARICOM Summit after Henry committed to holding elections by August 2025. Unlike previous efforts led by the U.S., Kenya has become the backbone of this UN mission. 

Though the situation is dire, there is still apprehension surrounding the mission’s long-term effectiveness given previous failures and public sentiments about foreign intervention. The last UN mission in 2010 resulted in a cholera outbreak which killed around 12,000 people, and gangs quickly regained power after UN troops left. There is vehement opposition to U.S. imperialism and the “humiliation” of another intervention. For many, Haiti’s hard-won sovereignty takes precedence over everything else. The same protestors calling for Henry’s resignation are also calling for an end to the foreign occupations with which Henry is associated. Experts agree that Haiti needs some kind of a transitional government with a proper balance of domestic and international support to make any progress. Whether this latest mission can achieve that balance remains to be seen.

In light of the violence and insecurity in Haiti, what measures are other countries in the region taking to secure their borders and manage potential refugee flows?

After a deadly earthquake in 2021 and Moïse’s assassination, immigration has been the most pressing issue for regional countries. The Dominican Republic has taken the hardest stance. President Luis Abinader boosted border security and suspended visas for Haitians starting last September. Tensions at the border grow exponentially as the number of crossings, both legal and illegal, increases. In similar fashion to the U.S, the Dominican government started constructing a border wall in 2022 and deported over 170,000 Haitians. Recently, the government has begun targeting Dominican-born Haitians who live without citizenship in either country and are considered stateless, much to the concern of human rights groups.

Further south, countries are taking measures to crack down on border crossings. The United States remains the preferred final destination for Haitian migrants, but many Haitians migrate to countries such as Brazil and Chile, often moving on due to racism and dwindling economic opportunities. Strict U.S. security measures have also forced Mexico to bear the brunt of resettling not just Haitians, but most refugees. Denied entry and opportunity in the U.S, Haitians have instead opted for the “Mexican Dream”. Still, the majority are denied asylum because of how long they’ve been away from Haiti. As the security and humanitarian situation worsens, it is expected that Haitians will continue to migrate. Coordination to protect the human rights of migrants and secure safe and orderly migration will remain top of the regional cooperation agenda.  

What can we expect from U.S. policy towards Haiti?                                                                                                          

In recent years, U.S. policy towards Haiti has oscillated between aid reduction, support for political stability, and stringent immigration controls. Under the Trump administration, there was a notable cut in USAID’s humanitarian and development assistance, coupled with attempts to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians. The Biden administration initially promised renewed engagement and support. Biden’s approach has included reinstating TPS for Haitians, dispatching aid following natural disasters, and pledging funds to support Haiti’s recovery and political stability. However, criticism has arisen over continued deportations and restrictive asylum policies, even as humanitarian aid and development support have increased. 

Looking ahead, in the context of an electoral year, we can expect a continuation of this dual approach: offering humanitarian aid and supporting Haiti’s political and economic stability while maintaining restrictive immigration policies. The U.S. is home to the largest Haitian population outside of Haiti. Approximately, 497,000 Haitians live in the U.S., with almost half living in Florida. The diaspora is vital for the country’s economy; it is estimated that in 2022 remittances accounted for 22 percent of Haiti’s GDP. 

Addressing the security situation in Haiti remains a priority for U.S. national security interests beyond immediate geographic and diplomatic concerns. Firstly, a stable Haiti is crucial for the stability of the Caribbean region, including the Dominican Republic. Instability in Haiti can lead to regional destabilization, affecting trade, security, and political alliances within the Caribbean. Secondly, the situation in Haiti could have direct implications for the United States in terms of migration. Instability, economic hardship, and natural disasters in Haiti often result in increased migration flows towards the U.S., challenging its immigration policies and border management. The effectiveness of U.S. policy will hinge on its adaptability to Haiti’s changing needs and the commitment to work in partnership for the long haul, underscoring the importance of a broad, unified strategy that involves all relevant actors, including CARICOM partners.

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