Haiti is preparing itself for new leadership. Gangs want a seat at the table

Members of the G9 and Family gang speak to each other while standing guard at their roadblock in the Delmas 6 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

Members of the G9 and Family gang speak to each other while standing guard at their roadblock in the Delmas 6 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Politicians across Haiti are scrambling for power after Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced Tuesday that he would resign once a transitional presidential council is created.

But elbowing their way into the race are powerful gangs that control 80% of Haiti’s capital and demand a say in the future of the troubled country under siege.

No one mentioned the armed groups as Caribbean leaders congratulated themselves late Monday for setting Haiti on a new political path, and experts warned that nothing will change unless gangs become part of the conversation.

“Even if you have a different kind of government, the reality is that you need to talk to the gangs,” said Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert at the University of Virginia, noting that gangs largely control the capital. “If they have that supremacy, and there is no countervailing force, it’s no longer a question if you want them at the table. They may just take the table.”

Gangs have deep ties to Haiti’s political and economic elite, but they have become more independent, financing their operations with kidnapping ransoms to buy smuggled weapons, including belt-fed machine guns and .50-caliber sniper rifles that allow them to overpower underfunded police.

More than 200 gangs are estimated to operate around Haiti, mostly in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. More than 20 of them are based in the capital and rally around two main coalitions: G9 Family and Allies led by Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as “Barbecue”; and G-Pep, led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre, who is allied with Johnson André, leader of the 5 Seconds gang and known as “Izo.”

“Gangs have become stronger, and they have the upper hand in terms of security,” said Renata Segura of the International Crisis Group. “This transition is not influencing the day-to-day security of Haiti. We are very concerned.”

Shortly before Prime Minister Ariel Henry said he would resign and Caribbean officials announced the creation of a transitional council, Chérizier held an impromptu news conference and rejected any solution led and supported by the international community.

“It’s the Haitian people who know what they’re going through. It’s the Haitian people who are going to take destiny into their own hands. Haitian people will choose who will govern them,” Chérizier said.

As the upheaval continues, Henry has been unable to enter Haiti because the violence forced the closure of its airports. He arrived a week ago in Puerto Rico, where he announced his resignation in a recorded statement.

“The government that I’m running cannot remain insensitive in front of this situation. There is no sacrifice that is too big for our country,” Henry said Tuesday. “The government I’m running will remove itself immediately after the installation of the council.”

Chérizier has yet to react to the looming resignation, which he has long sought as he claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on critical government targets that began Feb. 29 while the prime minister was in Kenya pushing for the U.N.-backed deployment of a police force to help fight gangs.

In recent weeks, gangs have torched police stations, forced the closure of Haiti’s two international airports and stormed the country’s two biggest prisons, freeing more than 4,000 inmates.

Scores of people have been killed, and the U.N. says more than 15,000 Haitians have been left homeless by the recent attacks. On Tuesday, the U.N. food agency’s director in Haiti, Jean-Martin Bauer, said 4 million people face “acute food insecurity” and one million of them are one step away from famine.

It’s unclear whether Chérizier, considered Haiti’s most powerful gang leader, and other armed groups will accept the plan to create a transitional council.

The council will be responsible for appointing an interim prime minister, and the new leader will work with the council to select a council of ministers.

It would have seven voting members and two nonvoting ones. Those with votes include the Pitit Desalin party, run by former senator and presidential candidate Moïse Jean-Charles, who is now an ally of Guy Philippe, a former rebel leader who led a successful 2004 coup and was recently released from a United States prison after pleading guilty to money laundering.

Also with a vote is the EDE party of former Prime Minister Charles Joseph; the Fanmi Lavalas party; the coalition led by Henry; the Montana Accord group; and members of the private sector.

“The process that led to this presidential council … is deeply flawed and is going to make that process more difficult,” said Jake Johnston, a research associate at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Announcing a new foreign-backed government will be an uphill battle to try and earn any legitimacy in Haiti.”

Critics of the prime minister noted that he was appointed, not elected, to his position with the backing of the international community shortly after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

While Chérizier and other gang leaders have long demanded that Henry resign, Johnston said it’s unclear if they seek power for themselves or for someone else, such as former rebel leader Guy Philippe, which he believes is the case.

Segura said the role that Philippe and Jean-Charles will play in upcoming days is critical.

Philippe “is one of the few politicians who has an open channel with gangs at this moment,” she said, adding that it’s likely negotiations with them are ongoing. “He has a foot in both worlds.”

Gang violence has eased in recent days as public transportation resumed and some banks reopened, although schools and gas stations remain closed. A growing number of Haitians are returning to their daily routines, but food and water remain scarce in some areas.

Jonas Jean-Pierre, a 40-year-old high school social science teacher who was withdrawing money from a bank, said he doubts that Haiti’s current course will change.

“Knowing how our politicians in this country can never put their heads together, Ariel could be in office for another year,” he said of the prime minister.

Jean-Pierre also said he was bothered by Henry’s brief speech in which he announced his upcoming resignation.

“This is not the first time a prime minister left through the back door without saying ‘excuse me’ to the Haitian people,” he said.

Even if a multinational foreign force is deployed in Haiti at some point, that offers no guarantee of resolving the crisis, Jean-Pierre added.

Johnston agreed.

“You can’t stop the proliferation and activity of armed groups through force alone,” he said. “If you draw this hard line and rely solely on external forces to try and sort of kill the problem away, you’re not actually disrupting the root causes that generate that violence and these dynamics.”

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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