[Warning: This post contains descriptions of extreme violence]
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement on March 17, that read, “Armed violence has reached unimaginable and intolerable levels in Haiti…It is crucial for urgent steps to be taken to restore the rule of law, to protect people from armed violence and to hold to account the political and economic sponsors of these gangs.”
The statement offered the following account of recent violence:
Between 24 April and 16 May, at least 92 people unaffiliated with gangs and some 96 alleged to be gang members were reportedly killed during coordinated armed attacks in Port-au-Prince. Another 113 were injured, 12 reported missing, and 49 kidnapped against ransom, according to figures corroborated by UN human rights officers. The actual number of people killed may be much higher.
Extreme violence has been reported, including beheadings, chopping and burning of bodies, and the killing of minors accused of being informants for a rival gang. Sexual violence, including gang rape of children as young as 10, has also been used by armed gang members to terrorize and punish people living in areas controlled by rival gangs. Sources also reported the presence of minors in the gangs.
How to make sense of this? International media accounts of Haiti often focus on the growing power and influence of gangs. The news is presented in shocking, sensational tidbits. Too often, the impression the stories leave is that Haiti is descending into chaos. To the contrary, it is important to remember that the gangs and the violence they employ is an expression of the distribution of power in Haiti, and the conflicts are about the future distribution of power. The violence is truly horrible, but the violence is also purposeful.
There are many resources about gang violence in Haiti. Below I share two recent items that will help contextualize the latest crisis in Coix-des-Bouquets, and point to another collection of essays that situate insecurity in a larger historical context.
City of Gangs video and podcast series
Dr. Tram Jones of Haiti Health Network released three videos explaining the different gang formations in Port au Prince, their strategic position along trade routes in and out of the city, and the current alliances and points of conflict at root of the extensive violence that has occurred over the last year. The series covers Central Port-au-Prince, Martissant, and Croix-des-Bouquets. It is definitely worth the time. (Below is the first video in the series)
Dr. Jones also has a podcast called Overseas in which he discusses much of this history and overview of recent events in more detail. As he suggests, it helps to watch the videos first to get the geography fixed in your mind. You can find the podcasts here.
RNDDH's most recent report
The context for this horror is war between the Chen Mechan and the 400 Mawozo gangs in the Plaine du Cul-de-sac communities of Tabarre and Croix-des-Bouquets. The National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) issued a report last week that detailed the history of the gangs and this most recent fight over territory and trade. The violence is shocking, intentionally so. Detailing events of April 24 to May 6 in Plaine du Cul-de-sac, RNDDH concludes:
From April 24 to May 6, 2022, two (2) armed gangs, benefiting from the support of state authorities and people around the ruling power, clash. Never have armed attacks been so virulent: people have been murdered by bullets, others beheaded, some others, thrown in latrines and water wells. Women and girls have been raped. Corpses were meticulously chopped and taken in photos that circulated on social networks, with the aim of maintaining an unspeakable terror among the population in general and the community of the Plaine du Cul-de-Sac in particular.
RNDDH documents a decade of interaction between gang leaders and government officials. The internecine conflicts in these circles are complex. It is not that the government “controls the gangs” in some uniform way, but it is clearly the case that people allied with the state lean on gangs to get things done. So, when there is political conflict, it plays out on the street in the most brutal of ways:
[RNDDH] will never stop repeating that for several years, successive state authorities have chosen the gangsterization of the state as a new form of governance. They supply arms and ammunition to armed gangs, and they practice and promote smuggling to facilitate the entry of illegal weapons into the national territory, 76% of which pass through the port of Port- au-Prince. And, in order not to have to justify, since 2012, under the presidency of Joseph Michel MARTELLY, the various anti-smuggling brigades that operated in the ports, airports, and border crossings of the country have all been dismantled.
RNDDH has been documenting gang violence in the country for many years now, and has a large repository of reports, many available in English.
New Series from Society for Cultural Anthropology
Finally, there is an amazing, collection of articles curated by Greg Beckett and Laura Wagner for the Society for Cultural Anthropology (free to access) that came out at the beginning of May, titled, Haiti Beyond Crisis, which seeks to contextualize a broad range of current and historical issues. The editors write:
"This series suggests new ways to understand the current situation in Haiti and poses questions about what is, and isn't, happening in Haiti right now….The contributors to this series—scholars, activists, journalists, and others from inside and outside Haiti—draw on years of experience to write about themes including violence and ensekirite, migration and deportation, exploitation and industrialization, state corruption, international intervention, everyday life, and Haiti as a symbol of collective freedom."
It is an important work, relevant and crucial for understanding what insecurity means for people's daily lives. For example, Ritzamarum Zétrenne writes of the journey up into the mountains to avoid “the road to death” through Martissant, (which will be much clearer if you watch Tram Jones' video above on the gangs in Martissant before reading). Chelsey Kivland writes in the “Semantics of the Gang today in Haiti” of how the language of the gang is adopted by people who have been forcibly repatriated from the United States as a survival strategy. Jennifer Greenburg centers the kreyol term ensekirite, “a term anthropologist Erica James describes as ‘the embodied uncertainty generated by political, criminal, economic, and also spiritual ruptures that many individuals and groups continue to experience in Haiti'” in “Instability or Ensekirite? The Securitization of Haiti as an Object of International Intervention.”
These are just a few of the articles in this collection. You can view the entire collection here.
Halt the expulsions!
In the context of the ongoing violence discussed above, we continue to denounce the Biden administration's decision to expel Haitian refugees back to Haiti. He has expelled nearly 23,000 Haitians since September of 2021. It is an indefensible policy. Please join us in keeping the pressure on him to stop!