Haiti’s gangs are growing stronger as Kenyan-led forces prepare to deploy

They took control of the country’s infrastructure, from police stations to seaports. They drove hundreds of thousands of people out of the capital. And they are suspected of being involved in the 2021 assassination of the Haitian president.

Western diplomats and officials say the influence and capabilities of many Haitian gangs are growing, making them an ever greater threat to the economy. Multinational police force led by Kenya soon deployed to Haiti as the fragile transitional council tries to chart a path to the election.

With their appearance Only a few days leftSecurity experts say 2,500 police officers will face off against a gang force better equipped, funded, trained and unified than any previous deployment to the Caribbean nation. This.

Once largely dependent on Haiti’s political and business elite for money, some gangs have found independent sources of financing since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 and the collapse of the regime. water afterwards.

William O’Neill, a human rights expert in Haiti appointed by the United Nations, said: “The gangs have made money from kidnappings and extortion as well as from payments from politicians in the wars. electoral and business elites in between.”

“But gangs are now much more autonomous and do not need the financial support of the old guard,” he added. “They created a Frankenstein that was beyond anyone’s control.”

Supporting the gangs is an arsenal more powerful than anything they have ever possessed, according to two Justice Department officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments. before. Since February, some gangs have acquired automatic weapons, officials said – possibly a mix of weapons stolen from area troops and others converted from semi-automatic rifles. dynamic.

The gangs have also changed their public stance, posting videos on social media of themselves acting as militias with national ambitions and less interested in conventional turf wars. usually theirs.

Several gangs in Haiti began working together last September, when they announced an alliance called Vivre Ensemble, or Living Together, just days after the attack. The Dominican Republic closed its land borders with Haiti.

The idea, according to two Western diplomats focused on Haiti who were not authorized to speak publicly, is to unite the gangs to overcome the obstacles that border closures pose to trafficking activities. their drug smuggling.

But the alliance fell apart about a week after it was announced, after about two tons of cocaine was stolen from Haitian gang leader Johnson André, known as Izo, diplomats said.

Izo’s 5 Segonn gang, or “Five Seconds” in Creole, is believed to be the country’s largest cocaine trafficking gang, sending much of its product directly to Europe, according to diplomats.

At the end of February, Vivre Ensemble was revived. The gangs have publicly pledged to overthrow the country’s prime minister and vowed to fight Kenyan-led security forces when they deploy, calling the army “invaders.”

A few days later, the coalition attacked two prisons, released about 4,600 prisoners, many of whom joined their ranks. The chaos forced Haiti’s prime minister, who was abroad, to resign.

According to Haitian officials, among those who escaped was Dimitri Hérard, the head of the security unit that protected Moïse’s presidential palace before he was assassinated. Mr. Herard ordered his forces to retreat when mercenaries broke into Mr. Moïse’s house. He was already in prison awaiting trial on charges related to the assassination when he was released during the escape.

According to a senior regional intelligence official and two Western diplomats, Mr. Hérard is now helping to organize and advise Izo’s gang and may provide links to larger criminal organizations in the region. area, including drug cartels.

Mr Hérard could not be reached for comment.

The Haitian gangs appear to be using weapons also used by the Gulf Clan, a Colombian gang, which operates along the country’s Caribbean coast and uses neighboring countries to traffic cocaine. President Gustavo Petro of Colombia said last month that thousands of military weapons had been stolen and sold to armed groups such as drug cartels and may have ended up in Haiti.

Another powerful gang leader, Vitel’homme Innocent, was also linked by authorities to Mr. Moïse’s murder. According to Haitian police reports, he rented one of the cars used in Mr. Moïse’s murder.

Mr. Hérard is also the prime suspect in one of the largest cases the Drug Enforcement Administration has ever pursued in Haiti. In 2015, Cargo ship MV Manzanares arrived at Port-au-Prince port with more than 1,000 kg of cocaine and heroin hidden in sugar bags.

At the time, Michel Martelly was Haiti’s president and Mr. Hérard was a senior member of his presidential security force. Mr. Herard was seen by many witnesses at the port ordered members of the presidential guard to transport drugs off the ship and onto police vehicles.

Most of the drugs in the case disappeared. According to Keith McNichols, the former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was in charge of the case, witnesses were threatened by Haitian government officials, including Jimmy Chérizier, a police officer.

Mr. Chérizier, also known as Barbecue, is currently one of Haiti’s most powerful gang leaders and a key member of the Vivre Ensemble alliance.

Mr O’Neill, of the United Nations, said: “Gangs are increasingly involved in drug trafficking. “And given that some former police officers like Hérard were involved in the drug trade when Martelly came to power, I wouldn’t be surprised if the gangs are now trying to court those former security officials .”

More recently, officials familiar with the negotiations to appoint a new Haitian prime minister said that Mr. Martelly had lobbied Caribbean leaders and his political allies to try to influence the establishment. structure of the provisional government.

His allies in the transitional council have quietly floated a proposal that immunity should be granted to cartels, officials said, possibly as part of broader immunity for officials The previous government could be accused of corruption.

“I unequivocally deny these baseless accusations of active interference in the transition council,” Mr. Martelly said in a statement to The New York Times. Times, called the allegations politically motivated. “I have never had any ties to gangs, nor have I ever mentioned amnesty to anyone.”

The government of Mr. Martelly, who served as president from 2011 to 2016, has accused of widespread corruptionincluding the embezzlement of aid money worth approx 2 billion USD from Venezuela. In 2022, Canada imposed sanctions on him and other Haitian politicians to protect and empower local gangs, “including money laundering and other corrupt practices.”

“The idea of ​​an amnesty could add fuel to the fire if the Haitian people do not consulted”. crisis and claim that gangs have committed serious human rights violations.”

Report contributed by Christian Triebert, Andre Paultre, John Ismay, Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes And David C. Adams.


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