The political functions of non-state armed groups and the limits of foreign intervention in Haiti

By João Fernando Finazzi

September 29, 2023.

Haiti is going through a spiral of crises. An unprecedent sum of major problems (hunger, violence, political deadlock, cholera outbreak, and economic hardship) are reinforcing each other, as international leaders are asking themselves what they could do to reduce or contain the current course of events. The crisis has prompted requests by Haiti’s de facto prime minister, Ariel Henry, and the UN for the creation of an armed force to intervene in the country. The United States is determined to move forward with this option. Since October 2022 it has sought to pass a resolution in the Security Council for the authorization of such force, also seeking partners to lead it. As Kenya has stepped up to assume this role, its creation seems to depend only on the suspension of objections made by China and Russia.

One can argue that, considering the situation, only an armed force supported by great powers can curb the violence and bring some relief to the most vulnerable. But are foreign armed interventions really suited to deal with the complexities of the security situation in Haiti? Understanding the current crisis and political functions of non-state armed groups in Haiti may help policymakers and researchers to clarify the intricacies of the Haitian situation, as any proposed solution must consider its complexity.

The Current Crisis

Contemporary Haiti still struggles with the legacies not only of slavery and revolution regarding French colonialism, but also the brutal authoritarianism which stemmed from the 1915-1934 American occupation. Duvalier’s 30-year dictatorship crumbled in 1986, but the never-ending transition that took place, with a large footprint of international actors, did not resolve the problem of violence, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Instead, market liberalisation and globalisation dynamics converged with pre-existing patterns of violence, and new and more complex forms of violence and disorders emerged.

Over the last years, the situation in Haiti has rapidly deteriorated. Currently, Haiti’s political and judicial institutions are exhausted, as the country lacks elected officials. Ariel Henry was appointed by an assassinated president, and Henry himself is one of the suspects. The mandate of the Senate – which took a stance against intervention at the end of 2022 – expired in January, and Henry governs through decrees. Policing and security institutions have been overwhelmed. In April, police officers in the entire country numbered around 9,000, with 3,500 active-duty members in the streets. In addition to deaths, resignations, and dismissals of police officers, a new US parole program to deal with immigration from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, raised the number of police officers applying to leave the country.

The country is far from being one of the most violent in the world (one list puts it at 24th), but the overall situation is dire. Non-state armed groups are expanding and hindering the provision of social services to a population already subjected to economic hardship. Gangs control 50 to 90 percent of Port-au-Prince, where insecurity has “reached levels comparable to those of countries in armed conflict”, as the UN’s Secretary-General pointed out. In 2022, 73,500 people left the country; homicide increased more than 30 percent from the previous year, and kidnappings more than doubled, according to UN. The European Commission stated: “people in need of humanitarian assistance in Haiti has doubled over the past five years reaching 5.2 million, nearly half of the country’s population. In relation to the total population, the percentage of Haitians facing levels of emergency food insecurity is the second highest in the world.” After troops from a UN peace mission previously introduced cholera into the country, a second wave of the disease is on the brink due to the hampering of relief efforts by gangs. But despite recent reports that Haitian gangs are acting increasingly autonomously, they are part of an older and more complex web of relationships connecting the country’s political and economic elites and global criminal networks.

The Political Functions of Armed Groups

Haitian elites have resorted to violence through non-state proxies as a core component of their politics for decades. Paramilitaries, gangs, personal militias, and private security companies have served as an extension of – or as counterweight to – regular security forces, often as irregular armies loyal to prominent figures. As such, attacks on business may be ordered by political or economic sponsors to extort rivals, and kidnappings and robberies may be committed to fund political campaigns in favor of a party or candidate. Meanwhile, atrocities such as rape and indiscriminate shootings may be a means to terrorise and displace families, following a logic of strategic territorial control.

The Haitian Presidential Palace during Operation Uphold Democracy.
Credit: US National Archives.

The tyrannical rule of the Duvalier’s between 1957 and 1986 used the militia of the tonton macoute as its personal army to terrorise the democratic movement. The coup that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 was spearheaded by the army and paramilitary attachés, many on the CIA’s payroll. At the same time, Haiti was becoming an important hub for drug trafficking from South America to the United States and private companies began to thrive in the country, mainly providing services for members of international organizations and national elites. At the time, the urban poor resorted to community-based armed groups to defend themselves and their neighborhoods against criminal and regime-sanctioned violence.

From 1994, with the intervention of a coalition led by the US to restore Aristide to the presidency, the country faced further foreign armed interventions and statebuilding initiatives under the guise of the UN, including security sector reform. But efforts to demobilize the army were unable to dismantle former macoutes, gang members, and paramilitary social networks connected with elites. Clashes between armed groups (such as the chimères and the Front pour la Reconstruction Nationale) loyal to and opposed to Aristide led to the 2004 coup, another US-led intervention, and the beginning of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which lasted until 2017.

In 2021, president Jovenel Moïse in 2021 was assasinated. Current investigations of the murder shed light on the links between non-state groups, security forces, and elites, as well as external actors. In addition to Colombian mercenaries and the current Prime Minister, the list of suspects also includes Haitian police officers, a former presidential candidate, and private security companies based in South Florida. The FBI and the DEA acknowledge the involvement of active and former informants.

The Limits of Intervention

Three decades of almost continuous foreign-led armed interventions and statebuilding processes have not delivered the basis for a sustainable democracy in Haiti. Although violence between non-state armed groups diminished when the mission was taking place, as troops left the country, the political crisis unfolded and internecine disputes rapidly escalated into harsh conflict. In the past, foreign militaries acting under MINUSTAH were also directly responsible for sexual crimes, armed violence, and the reintroduction of cholera in the country.

A Sri Lankan UN peacekeeper watches a crowd at a distribution point in Haiti.
Credit: US Government

As the political tradition of resorting to non-state armed groups has met in the last decades with processes of globalization, Haiti’s currently growing violence seems to be cause and consequence of a wider multidimensional crisis with the marked presence of foreign and transnational actors. Considering that Haiti has been under almost continuous multilateral peace operations since 1994, isn’t the recurrence of crises a strong indicative of the limits of this kind of endeavor?

João Fernando Finazzi is a researcher at the International Conflicts Study Group (GECI/PUC-SP) and the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU) in Brazil.

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