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  • Writer's pictureRobbie Sutton

Haiti’s Descent Into Hell: Gangsters, Oligarchs and Imperialism

The island nation of Haiti has suffered greatly in recent years through natural disasters, crippling poverty, and political instability. The situation has further deteriorated into endemic violence, which has only worsened since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021. The Red Line’s Robbie Sutton explores how the situation reached this new low and what is fuelling the seemingly endless cycle of insecurity.

The Caribbean nation of Haiti has been gripped by a political and economic crisis for much of the last two years. One of the poorest nations in the Americas, if not the world, Haiti has been wracked by ever increasing political and gang violence on its streets, following the brutal assassination of its President by a group of heavily armed men, allegedly a band of mostly Colombian “mercenaries”, in July 2021. What’s more, the near total breakdown of its democratic institutions and the state apparatus has created a steadily deepening humanitarian catastrophe.

Haitians protest over the increasing insecurity in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, March 29, 2022. Credit: AFP Photo

The bitter and tragic history of Haiti stretches back to the French colony of Saint-Domingue which, during the revolutionary period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the scene of the only successful mass slave revolt (insofar as it resulted in an independent state). Embodying such a direct challenge to the social and economic regimes underpinning European colonialism in the Caribbean, Haiti had an extremely difficult time establishing any sort of positive diplomatic relationship with any other regional actors (its former ruler France wouldn’t even recognise it until 1938, and infamously enforced crippling reparations for the loss of French property upon the new nation).

Ongoing instability during the early 20th Century would be used by the USA as justification to invade and occupy the country from 1915 until 1934 (even looting the nation's gold reserves), and a succession of autocratic rulers, most infamously the Duvaliers, Francois and Jean-Claude, were supported under a common anti-communist interest. Following the Duvaliers, some efforts at establishing a liberal democratic regime were made, with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest and leader of the civil opposition to the Duvalier’s dictatorship, becoming the country’s first elected President in 1991. Deposed in a military coup less than a year later, he would return to the office following an eventual American intervention in 1994, before being removed via coup again in 2004. This unstable democracy, dominated by a small clique of oligarchic families, persists into the current day.

The Rule of the “Bald Heads”

The most recent man to be actually elected to the Presidency, Jovenel Moise, entered office in 2017 already under a cloud of controversy, with the elections marred by violence, an almost comically low turnout and violence. Moise made his name pre-politics running a banana export business, one dogged by allegations of money laundering and armed expropriations, until he was promoted as a candidate by his predecessor and political mentor Michel Martelly. Delays during the electoral process and to Moise’s assumption of the office led to fierce debates between the President and the opposition as to when his term actually began and ended. Moise was repeatedly caught up in corruption scandals (most notoriously the “Petrocaribe” affair) and his term was marked by widespread and sustained protests beginning in late 2017. He further clashed with parliament over proposed reforms to the constitution and the structure of government, the creation of a National Security Agency, and his reestablishment of the Armed Forces (it having been dissolved by President Aristide in 1995 for its many human rights abuses). Failure to organise and hold legislative elections from 2019 onwards had steadily depopulated both Houses of Parliament, and Moise and his cabinet were effectively ruling through decree and the handpicking of local officials.

A person holds a photo of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who was shot dead, during his funeral at his family home in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, July 23, 2021.
A person holds a photo of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise during his funeral at his family home in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, July 23, 2021. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo

It would be, however, reductive to pin Haiti’s woes on a single politician. Dysfunction has plagued the Haitian Parliament for years, with electoral cycles for different branches wildly out of sync with each other, poorly run electoral institutions, and low voter turnout combined with a profusion of small parties all being contributing factors. The Presidency of Michel Martelly ended in a not too dissimilar breakdown of constitutional order and ‘rule by decree’, foreshadowing the current crisis. Critics of the post-dictatorship 1987 constitution argued that its efforts to separate powers in order to prevent abuse went so far as to actually cripple the government’s ability to govern. According to a report on Haiti’s political economy by Wenche Iren Hauge, Haitians have begun to refer to the government as a “phantom state”, lacking any sort of functioning bureaucracy or capacity to deliver services, with what little state apparatus that does exist being used as mechanisms to control resources and steal funds. The effective non-existence of the state has been exacerbated by the frequent hurricanes and the 2010 and 2021 earthquakes, which added widespread damage to what infrastructure remains.

"Critics of the post-dictatorship 1987 constitution argued that its efforts to separate powers in order to prevent abuse went so far as to actually cripple the government’s ability to govern"

A key dynamic within Haiti’s politics is the influence and factional struggles of the economic elite. Sarcastically dubbed the “morally-repugnant elites” by US officials during the 1990s, this small clique of families and the companies they control have dominated important sectors of the local economy. According to Hauge, the historic basis of the Haitian state has been the cooperation between the post-revolutionary Armed Forces and the leading merchants, dividing political offices and commercial roles respectively between them. Oligarch families derive wealth through transnational business connections, near-monopoly control over local industries (such as food importation in the case of the Mevs family, or for the Madsens, beer production prior to selling to Heineken), relationships of patronage involving allied politicians and exploitation of preferential government contracts. Economic class is also one area where the scars of the colonial area racial caste systems remain most visible, with elites tending to (or at least perceived to) be mixed-race or from immigrant (notably the Levantine Arab community) backgrounds, with the working and lower classes considered ‘black’.

Leading oligarchs are also connected to the Haitian criminal underworld. The Bigio family, allegedly the richest in Haiti, has been sanctioned by the Canadian government for their associations with and enablement of gangs.

Gangster’s Paradise

Armed criminal elements have become the most visible and outrageous aspect of Haiti’s crisis, responsible for thousands of killings, kidnappings, and rapes as they have engaged in increasingly destructive violence with each other and against the civilian populace. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime has produced an excellent report on the origins, relationships, and activities of Haiti’s armed criminal gangs. They note that Haiti’s issues with armed gangs stems from the outlawing of both the official military and the paramilitary elements associated with the Duvalier regimes on one hand and the proliferation of autonomous informal paramilitary loosely affiliated with President Aristide’s Lavalas movement.

Despite these origins within political militancy, any sort of identifying political or ideological platform amongst this profusion of small armed groups has (for the most part) been abandoned, replaced by conventionally criminal interests. Where the gangs did intersect with Haitian politics, it has been in a mercenary context, with gangs serving as muscle for hire (for the oligarchs, as well as the new breed of entrepreneurial politicians), engaging in bribery, extortion, intimidation, the organising and disrupting of protests and more.

Emblematic of the linkages between the criminal and state-political spheres of Haitian society is Jimmy ‘Barbeque’ Cherizier. A former member of the Haitian National Police, Cherizier has been connected to the brutal 2018 massacre in the La Saline neighbourhood, amongst other atrocities. The alias “Barbeque” allegedly stems from his habit of using arson and burning as a terror and execution tactic, though he himself claims it comes from his childhood.

Cherizier’s actions as a police officer (though it seems he was already involved with gangs even then) were also reported to have had the financial and material backing of Moise’s government, and were targeted against neighbourhoods perceived as being pro-opposition. These activities have extended as far as what can quite plausibly be described as ‘crimes against humanity’.

Since his expulsion from the National Police in 2018, Cherizier has attempted to recast himself as a defender of Haiti’s impoverished lower classes, being quoted by al-Jazeera as proclaiming “I am not a gangster. I never will be… It is the system I am fighting against today.” In June 2021 he went so far as to say that his violence was in service of a “revolution” against Haiti’s oligarchy.

" The alias “Barbeque” allegedly stems from his habit of using arson and burning as a terror and execution tactic, though he himself claims it comes from his childhood."

Cherizier has also been at the forefront of the process of coalescence which has taken place amongst Haiti’s gangs over the past few years. The “G9 an fanmi e alye” (“G9 Family and Allies”), established in 2020 is a coalition of gangs which have risen to dominate much of Haiti’s Capital city Port au-Prince, and are led openly by Cherizier. The other major gangs include GPep, a coalition created directly to rival G9, and the separate but apparently allied 400 Mawozo, infamous for its kidnappings for ransom. Unlike Cherizier, these groups have not yet attempted to parlay their growing power on the streets into the political sphere.

In light of these conditions within the Haitian state, the assassination of Jovenel Moise on 7 July 2021 represented not the explosive culmination of a slowly boiling crisis but merely an acceleration of Haiti’s disintegration.

The Power Vacuum

Within the Haitian government, developments since Moise’s death have been no less sordid. In the aftermath of the assassination, Prime Minister Ariel Henry has come to power as interim head of state. Picked by Moise to be Prime Minister just days before his killing, Henry’s assumption of the office was instantly controversial. A long-time politician involved with a variety of nominally center-left parties, Henry was despite this involved with the 2004 ousting of President Aristide and the ‘transitional government’ which followed. Outgoing Prime Minister Claude Joseph, having not yet left office at the time of the assassination, assumed overall control as acting head of state. However, Henry disputed this, and after backroom negotiations, ascended to the post of both Prime Minister and acting-President with the support of the so-called “Core Group”. This has led to a sense amongst many Haitians that Henry is illegitimate and/or a figurehead for foreign interests. Rumors of his being intimately involved with the murder of Moise have only further added to the public’s suspicion.

Such rumors have not been helped by the criminal investigation in the killing having gone basically nowhere. Despite a series of early arrests, specifically of those allegedly directly responsible, proceedings have bogged down, with no charges yet laid in Haiti and the officials responsible for the investigation being starved of resources and information. The USA is conducting its own investigation, taking three suspects into custody in Miami. However, in April 2022, the evidence being gathered was sealed on national security grounds, due to the suspects past as a DEA and FBI informant.

With no real clarity on who was behind Moise’s assassination, and what publicly available circumstantial evidence there is seemingly pointing to the very authorities and “foreign partners” supposed to be investigating, it is no wonder that few Haitians have much faith in the process. Additionally, this has, in a backwards way, made Moise a martyr of sorts. Despite his various corruption scandals and his own links to the oligarchy, some now see Moise as a victim of the various controlling interests ‘behind the curtain’ of Haitian politics, a perception being driven hard by both Cherizier and Moise’s widow Martine.

A picture of Prime Minister Ariel  Henry, acting president of Haiti.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry has served as the acting president of Haiti since Moise's death in 2021. Credit: Matias Delacroix

President Henry’s lack of public legitimacy has only added to the security crisis and emboldened Cherizier’s populist turn. When Henry cut fuel subsidies in September 2022, the G9 gangs began a blockade of Port-au-Princes main fuel import terminal in a bid to force him from office. With the government both unwilling to back down, but also unable to actually reopen the terminal, the resulting humanitarian crisis is becoming, in the words of the UN, “catastrophic”, with as many 4.7 million people suffering “acute” hunger. On top of this, thousands have been forced to flee their homes by the escalating violence.

Meanwhile, the violence between the various gang coalitions and the police continues. What remains of the police force is reaching a breaking point, underfunded, outgunned and undermanned (with as many as 3000 leaving the force to avoid being targeted), and on Jan 26 officers in Port au-Prince themselves rioted in protest.

The Vultures Circle

So where does the international community stand with regards to Haiti’s crises? Various neighbour and “partner states” have commented on the situation, and there have been ongoing calls for intervention. In October 2022, the UN Security Council deliberated on a request by Henry for an armed intervention in support of his government, and the US and Canada supplied weapons and vehicles to the National Police. However, the proposal for direct intervention was dropped in order to achieve consensus on levelling sanctions on Cherizier, giving “Barbeque” the dubious distinction of being just about the only topic America and Russia have agreed on in the last 12 months.

Within Haiti though, to say that the idea of foreign intervention is controversial, would be to criminally undersell it. The long history of imperialism and meddling has unsurprisingly not left a positive impression, and there has been fierce public outrage to Henry’s suggestion of foreign forces (even under the UN’s flag) deploying effectively to prop up his government. The procession of UN Missions operating in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake have also fuelled anger varyingly through incompetence and the conduct of their personnel. Specifically, the ongoing Cholera outbreak, the origins of which have been traced to peacekeepers, as well as the abuse of women and children, and the use on one occasion of indiscriminate gunfire.

The reality is that those states now considering (or who would be called upon to carry out) intervention have never been mere uninterested bystanders. When Moise and the opposition clashed over his Presidential term, Moise’s position on his tenure was backed by the US and Organisation of American States (claiming no democratic alternative), all while Moise was arresting opposition notables for allegedly planning to depose and murder him.

The “Core Group”, comprised of diplomats from Brazil, Canada, the EU (France, Spain, Germany), the US and Organisation of American States, has taken direct action to influence Haitian politics on several occasions, most infamously weighing in on the power struggle between Henry and Claude Joseph. Of all the international actors at play in Haiti, it’s this body which has been singled out for the greatest criticism. The then-US Special Envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, would cite the “international puppeteering” (as well as the US deportation policy) as reason for his resignation from the post in September 2021.

World Bank senior mission chief Peter Breuer, right, speaks with Masahiro Nozaki, mission chief for Sri Lanka, by his side during a media conference in Colombo.
Protesters carry signs that read "France is a double-edged sword" and "USA is a double-edged sword." Credit: Reuters Photos.

Despite the depredations of Haiti’s official and unofficial ruling classes, Haitian society has not yet ceased to exist. Throughout 2022 a coalition of 180 ‘civil society organisations’, the “Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis” developed the “Montana Accord”, outlining a plan for a national transitional government to restore the state apparatus and hold elections. The Commission has attempted a negotiated settlement with Henry’s government, but talks fairly quickly broke down. While the Montana Accord does represent an alternative to the moribund dysfunction of the Tet Kale Party’s administration (one especially appealing to reform-minded liberals at home and the Core Group abroad), the Commissions strategy of developing an intervention under its own banner could well be a kiss of death for its aspirations to lead broader Haitian society, given the reputation such operations have garnered.

Regardless of the furore around the idea, armed intervention under any banner is unlikely. Logistically, any mission would likely require American involvement, and the experiences of the last two decades of large-scale intervention and “nation-building” have left them arguably nervous as to the prospects of any such mission. Given that, as of February 2023, only Jamaica, hardly a regional military powerhouse, has expressed willingness to actually deploy forces, it seems unlikely that a consensus will be reached in the short term.


Written by Robbie Sutton.

Edited by Wade McCagh.


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