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The Violent Influence of Armed Groups and Gangs in Haiti’s Fragile Democracy

9 April, 2024

by Sam Biden, Junior Fellow

History of Gangs and Armed Groups in Haiti

Armed groups, both at the governmental and communal level, have served as instruments of coercion and intimidation by various Haitian factions and leaders. From silencing critics to disrupting elections, these groups have left an indelible imprint on Haiti’s democracy for over 70 years.

In the shaky narrative of Haitian society and politics, the utilization of non-state armed groups has emerged as a defining feature since the 1950s, developing into a widespread gang culture that continues to plague the floundering nation. The initial struggle can be traced back to President François Duvalier, who when confronted with a thwarted military coup in 1958, opted to establish the Tonton Macoutes, his own personal militia. Initially conceived to circumvent traditional military structures, the Macoutes swiftly shifted into a ruthless enforcer of Duvalier’s autocratic rule, employing state-sanctioned brutality to suppress dissent and opposition. This tyrannical enforcement remained instrumental during Duvalier’s reign, ending as Duvalier’s son inherited the mantle of leadership. Despite efforts to disband these paramilitary entities in the aftermath of Duvalier’s regime, the failure to effectively disarm them facilitated their resurgence in altered guises. Successive administrations, including that of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, continued grappling with this challenge, attempting to outlaw paramilitary factions without fully addressing underlying grievances such as disarmament and the reintegration of former combatants.

Between 1991 and 2004, factions composed of former soldiers persisted as a counterinsurgency against then President Aristide, the first democratically elected President in Haiti. The second military coup d’état in 1991 forced Aristide out of power until 1994. He then returned to to power again from 1994-1996, and again in 2001. Aristide was then ousted from power in the third coup d’état in 2004. This uprising caused severe harm to Haiti’s future democracy, and contributed to a chain of events that led to no elections since 2016, no parliamentary votes since 2019 and with no sitting President since 2021. The other input into the chaos in Hati was the devastating 2010 earthquake, with the aftermath witnessing a notable rise in the composition and motivations of armed groups. Initially aligned with political movements, these groups transmuted into territorially focused entities, motivated less by ideology and more by the pursuit of control over lucrative domains. By 2022, Haiti found itself contending with an alarming proliferation of gangs, with estimates suggesting the existence of around 200 such groups nationwide, with a notable concentration in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Contemporary influence

Recent years have witnessed a concerning escalation in the activities of these armed groups, characterized by the formation of alliances and coalitions aimed at consolidating power and expanding territorial control. The emergence of the G9, a large-scale gang composed of smaller influential gangs with ties to the ruling party, epitomizes this trend. Economic incentives underpin much of the violence, with gangs vying for control over key sectors such as ports, oil terminals and commercial districts, with extortion and protection rackets becoming commonplace, forcing businesses and institutions into paying tribute to ensure their survival.

These gangs and armed groups wield considerable sway across Haiti’s landscape, spanning approximately 63 communes and encompassing strategic hubs vital for electoral, economic and illicit activities. The influence of these criminal groups casts a long shadow over municipalities of electoral significance, such as Artibonite, Port-au-Prince and Pétion Ville. The symbiotic relationship between gangs and political actors manifests in various electoral “services” rendered by these criminal entities, ranging from campaigning and voter intimidation to bribery and fundraising. Ballot vandalism and disruption of political rallies further illustrate the extent of their influence, underscoring the profound intertwined nature of crime and politics in Haiti’s electoral landscape.

Analysis often delineates between criminal gangs and vigilante factions (such as self-defense groups), oftentimes to discern the underlying yet wildly different causes of their emergence.

In Port-au-Prince, youth from working-class districts aligned with Aristide’s political movement formed these self-defense units to fend off assaults by ex-military groups. Over time, these grassroots organizations amalgamated with law enforcement to create a faction loyal to former President Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party. These factions seized control of regions such as Cité Soleil and the La Saline neighborhood, the notorious location of a gang massacre in 2018. Initially allied with Fanmi Lavalas party’s ideology, they gradually gained autonomy, assuming de facto leadership over Port-au-Prince’s slums, control that remains today. However, both groups employ brutal tactics and have an indiscriminately violent approach to their operations, causing major impact on local populations. While their operational methods may vary, from rural-centric activities such as crop theft and market ambushes to urban-style violence like murder and kidnapping, their shared brutality underscores their commonality.

Resurgence in Violence

In late February and early March 2024, Haiti plunged into a vortex of violence and chaos, as armed gangs unleashed a wave of terror across the nation. The turmoil erupted on 29th February, coinciding with Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s diplomatic mission to Kenya. During his absence, gunfire erupted at the country’s main airport, with multiple businesses and police stations targeted in a coordinated assault. The violence escalated further as armed gangs stormed two major prisons on 2nd and 3rd March, facilitating the escape of over 4,700 inmates and leaving law enforcement overwhelmed and outgunned. Amid the mayhem, gang leaders, including notorious figures like G9 leader Jimmy Chérizier, seized the opportunity to demand Prime Minister Henry’s resignation while unleashing a campaign of violence and intimidation aimed at destabilizing the government in Henry’s absence. The situation deteriorated rapidly, with over a dozen casualties reported and 15,000 Haitians displaced as they fled the violence-stricken areas. In response to the escalating crisis, the Haitian government declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew on 3rd March in a desperate bid to restore order. The violence continued unabated with armed gangs launching attacks on key government institutions across Port-Au-Prince, including the Toussaint Louverture International Airport and the National Palace. As the chaos unfolded, international allies rallied to Haiti’s aid, with pledges of military support from countries such as Benin and Kenya. Against this backdrop of the unrest, the US and other nations scrambled to bolster security measures, deploying additional troops and earmarking funds to support the Multinational Mission in Haiti, a UN sanctioned operation aimed at assisting Haitian authorities in restoring law and order as they grapple with gang violence.

The situation reached a tipping point on 12th March when Prime Minister Henry succumbed to mounting pressure and announced his resignation, signaling a seismic shift in Haiti’s political landscape. However, the turmoil showed no signs of abating, with concerns mounting about the security implications for neighboring countries.

Gang Activities in Artibonite

The situation in Artibonite, Central Haiti, epitomizes the climate of fear and lawlessness wherein criminal groups operate with impunity, perpetrating atrocities against the civilian population.

The violent tactics employed by criminal groups in Artibonite are characterized by systematic murder and physical violence, targeting both “rival” villages and major transportation routes, particularly those carrying humanitarian aid. Attacks on “rival” villages serve not only to eliminate perceived threats but also to instill fear and subjugate entire communities. The deliberate targeting of vulnerable populations, including the elderly and children, underscores the ruthless nature of the perpetrators, who stop at nothing to assert their dominance.

These attacks are marked by extreme brutality, with victims, many of whom are civilians, being subjected to unimaginable horrors, including decapitations and mass executions. The psychological toll inflicted on survivors and witnesses further exacerbates the trauma, perpetuating a cycle of fear and insecurity. Roads in Lower Artibonite have become deadly battlegrounds, where criminal gangs lay in wait to ambush unsuspecting travelers. Many gangs choose to erect barricades and launch coordinated attacks against those that travel through departments, demonstrating just how calculated the nature of these assaults are. Innocent civilians are often caught in the crossfire, with many falling victim to indiscriminate violence. Along these roads and into nearby towns, kidnappings have emerged as a preferred tactic for criminal groups seeking to extort ransom payments and assert control over the different local populations. The strategic targeting of public transport into villages highlights the brazenness of these gangs, who operate with little regard for human life or dignity. The sheer scale of these atrocities, with over 1,600 individuals killed or injured in less than two years, underscores the gravity of the situation.

Sexual violence has been weaponized by criminal groups in Artibonite to spread fear, exert control and punish perceived adversaries. Women and girls are targeted for rape and abuse, both during attacks on villages and transportation routes and during their captivity following kidnappings. The profound physical and psychological trauma inflicted on survivors underscores the urgent need for comprehensive support services and justice mechanisms to address these egregious violations of human rights.


The situation in Haiti stands as a stark reminder of the devastating impact of armed gangs and criminal groups on a nation’s stability, democracy and most importantly, its people. From the historical roots of paramilitary factions under Duvalier’s regime to the contemporary resurgence of violence witnessed in recent years, Haiti has been caught in a vicious cycle of unpredictable turmoil. The recent wave of violence that engulfed the nation in early 2024 serves as a tragic, but all too familiar, reminder of unsettled tensions in the state. Moving forward, Haiti must prioritize comprehensive strategies that address the socio-economic disparities, political instability and institutional weaknesses that fuel the rise of armed gangs. Efforts to disarm and demobilize these groups must be accompanied by initiatives aimed at addressing the underlying grievances driving recruitment and perpetuating violence.

Image: Port au-Prince (Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Meranda Keller/Public Domain)

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.