Gangs and power in Haiti, the story of a dangerous liaison

Gangs and power in Haiti the story of a dangerous

Haitians have been demonstrating for several weeks, particularly against insecurity. Gangs now control a large part of the national territory. For decades, these criminal gangs have been financed and exploited by a large majority of Haitian political parties to consolidate their power. Interview with Jhon Picard Byron, teacher-researcher at the State University of Haiti (UEH).

RFI: How did the gangs consolidate their hold on Haitian national territory?

John Picard Byron : The current situation is the product of the convergence of the hegemony of serious crime in state spheres and the proliferation of gangs in working-class neighborhoods. Gangs emerged on the Haitian social scene in the mid-1990s. Initially, we were not dealing with serious crime. Politicians, if not politicians, mobilized petty thugs from the urban working classes. It started with the military: the National Council of Government (CNG) and the other military governments that succeeded one another in the wake of the fall of the Duvalier regimes in 1986. The military recruited these thugs as auxiliaries to the police forces and intelligence services. During the period of the military coup, between 1991 and 1994, the Armed Forces of Haiti had even formed a kind of militia with these thugs, the Armed Revolutionary Front for the Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), quite close to the groups Latin American paramilitaries (such as the death squads of El Salvador, for example). But the fierce repression orchestrated by the Haitian military, which mainly targeted political activists, was not on the scale of that of their brothers in arms in the Americas.

What about civilian governments?

Civilian governments in the 1990s and 2000s also mobilized thugs, but failed to convert them into paramilitary forces. Unlike the military, civilian governments did not always have these thugs in check. The famous “chimè” of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his POs (popular organizations, editor’s note) used to repress political demonstrations often indulged in uncontrollable, even detrimental slippages to power. For all these politicians in power, these bands of thugs were a kind of extension of their organs of repression which allowed them to reduce the scale of the protest movements. They were also mobilized in an electoral context, particularly to prevent the bulk of the population of certain neighborhoods from going to the polling stations. These practices are not specific to Haiti, but the consequence of a political context marked by a crisis of organizational militancy and the weak anchoring of political organizations. The instrumentalization of the bosses of working-class neighborhoods by the powers in place is generally proportional to the decline in their political legitimacy.

In grandstand Recently published on the website of the Haitian agency Alterpresse, you claim that the coming to power of former President Michel Martelly and the party he founded, the Parti haïtien tèt kale (PHTK), was a turning point. Gangs proliferated. What about under the presidency of Jovenel Moïse?

President Jovenel Moïse appeared at a time of discord within the PHTK clan, around the question of the succession of Michel Martelly. Many massacres were committed in clashes between rival gangs during his presidency. For many knowledgeable observers, these clashes reflected on the ground, in working-class neighborhoods, the conflicts between different “associates” in the hushed salons of places of state power.

Do gangs still operate today under the control of the political class? Or are they emancipated?

I think gangs have finally escaped the control of mainstream politicians. Politicians, who had experience of power and who had already used gang services as leaders, believed that once in opposition they could again use their service to fight power. They did not take into account the consequences of the use of the means that flow from the exercise of state power, means (legal, paralegal, and illegal) that end up in the hands of individuals who are not out of the “political mould” [Michel Martelly et le PHTK, ndlr]. Currently, the campaign of terror waged by gangs is not a classic form of repression. It is not directed against known political opponents. It is directed against the population of working-class neighborhoods and the middle classes of large cities that are already precarious.

Who benefits from the chaos?

Chaos benefits the “middle”. It also benefits people who must be accountable. People who have occupied positions in the state apparatus and who have squandered public funds. The rise of terror corresponds to the rise of anti-corruption movements, the movement#PetrocaribeChallenge. In this sense, the gangs were used to dissuade the population from demonstrating in the streets to shout their fed up. How to get out of this chaos? The solution can only be political. The situation is such that the political class has the choice between perishing or finding an established consensus on the basis of a political project that will make it possible to deal with the infrahuman conditions that favor the development of gangs in the working-class neighborhoods of urban agglomerations. As long as we have not put an end to this situation of execrable misery in which three-quarters of its population find themselves, as long as we have not put an end to the precariousness of the middle classes, we cannot restore democratic institutions in Haiti.

■ Jhon Picard Byron is a teacher-researcher at theState University of Haiti (UEH)