Haiti has long endured a great degree of social and political instability, which has culminated in an acute security crisis characterized by failing governance after the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Violence has soared over the course of 2023 as gangs consolidate control of more than 80 percent of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Between January and mid-August, an estimated 2,439 people were killed; abductions, extortion, and sexual violence have surged. As law enforcement atrophies and cases of vigilantism increase, the United Nations Security Council authorized a multinational-backed security force led by Kenya to assist the Haitian police in countering gang violence.
The small Caribbean nation gained independence from France in the early nineteenth century, becoming the world's first Black-led republic, but it faced many development challenges. Haiti’s weak political institutions have facilitated corruption and impunity, and its vulnerability to natural disasters has exacerbated poverty and inequality, making it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Haiti’s history is marked by multiple coups, dictatorial regimes, and foreign interventions. From 1957 to 1986, Haiti was led by dictator François Duvalier (Papa Doc) and then later his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). Their twenty-nine-year rule was characterized by widespread human rights abuses, political repression, and corruption. The regime ultimately fell when Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country amid mass unrest and international pressure calling for his removal. In 1990, Haiti held its first free and fair election, which saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide win in a landslide victory, but he was ousted in a military coup the following year. In 1994, the United States led an intervention to restore Aristide to power and established [PDF] the Haitian National Police force to help maintain public order. In 2004, the United States intervened again, this time pressuring Aristide to resign due to government corruption accusations and popular uprisings. Following Aristide’s 2004 ouster, the United Nations established a thirteen-year peacekeeping mission, known as the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). MINUSTAH peacekeepers were sent to help reestablish law and order, build a new national police force, and assist with reconstruction efforts after the devastating 2010 earthquake. However, MINUSTAH was viewed as a controversial mission by the Haitian public; peacekeepers were accused of sexually abusing locals and introducing cholera to the island, a disease that killed nearly ten thousand people.
Haiti’s turbulent history of political leadership is a significant contributor to the country’s ongoing security crisis. President Michel Martelly stepped down from office in 2016 after postponing presidential elections twice and ruling by decree for more than a year. His successor, Jovenel Moïse, was elected that November, but he didn’t assume office until early 2017 after allegations of fraud at the polls extended the election process. When he took office, Haiti was still reeling from the fallout of a Category-4 hurricane that made landfall in October 2016. Like many of his predecessors, Moïse's tenure was marked by political and social turmoil and a worsening security crisis. Opposition leaders accused Moïse of consolidating power by restricting the judiciary’s authority and establishing an intelligence agency that reported solely to him. As calls for his removal grew, Moïse refused to step down following the end of his term, instead ruling by decree from 2017 to 2021. Under his leadership, Haiti did not hold elections for four years. Gang violence against citizens rose during Moïse’s tenure, and the United Nations condemned violations of human rights, basic freedoms, and attacks on the press. Furthermore, U.S. officials accused many in Moïse’s administration of collaborating with gangs to suppress political opposition and anti-government protests, therefore contributing to the violence.
On July 7, 2021, a group of armed men assassinated Moïse in his home. As of May 2023, seven people have been charged, including three Haitian Americans and one Colombian, though the joint U.S.-Haiti investigation is ongoing. In Haiti, more than a dozen people have been arrested in connection with the assassination. A New York Times investigation found that Prime Minister and Acting President Ariel Henry could also have been involved in Moïse’s killing. Since the assassination and back-to-back natural disasters in 2021—consisting of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and a tropical storm—Haiti has experienced worsening political instability, criminal violence, and a growing humanitarian crisis. Powerful gangs have become the de facto authority in many parts of the country, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the government continues its efforts to regain control.
Gangs are a major source of instability and violence within Haiti, where they control many aspects of the country’s political and economic landscape. In October 2021, a coalition of nine prominent gangs in Port-au-Prince, known as the G9, and its leader, former police officer Jimmy Chérizier (known as Barbecue), blockaded Haiti’s largest fuel terminal, which supplies 70 percent of the country’s gas. The G9 demanded Prime Minister Henry’s resignation as a condition for removing the blockade; however, they ultimately relented the following month to allow the distribution of critical fuel supplies to resume. An estimated two hundred gangs operate in Haiti, ninety-five of which are in or near Port-au-Prince. Competition has led the gangs to coalesce into seven major coalitions, which has led to an escalation in violent crimes and kidnappings.
After the Haitian government announced the end of fuel subsidies in September 2022, more than doubling the price of gas, protests erupted across Haiti. In response, G9 coalition-affiliated gangs again blockaded the Varreux terminal. The fuel blockade exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis, compounding the island’s food insecurity. The United Nations has assessed that food insecurity is affecting more than four million people, while nineteen thousand are experiencing famine. The Haitian National Police regained control of the fuel terminal in November 2022 after then-politician Dr. Harrison Ernest spent two weeks negotiating with gang leader Chérizier despite the Haitian government’s refusal to negotiate with gangs.
On October 2, 2022, two cases of cholera were confirmed in Haiti after over three years of no reported cases. Haiti has struggled to cope with the outbreak, as the G9’s blockade of the country’s main ports and fuel terminals has made it difficult for foreign aid to reach those in need. In October 2022, the UN Children’s Fund reported that it could only secure a third of the fuel supplies necessary to serve cholera treatment centers and partner hospitals, and by January 2023 the disease had spread to more than twenty thousand people. In April 2023, the United Nations and its partners announced a $720 million Humanitarian Response Plan, which aims to reach more than three million Haitians who require humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, Haiti’s government and police force are understaffed and overwhelmed, enabling gangs to operate with relative impunity. There are only nine thousand active-duty officers serving Haiti’s population of more than eleven million, down from about fifteen thousand officers in 2020. Although Haiti has 13,200 personnel available for active duties, the police suffer from desertions, temporary suspensions due to investigations, and gang violence, which has claimed the lives of at least twenty-two officers in 2023. Additionally, most of Haiti’s elected positions remain vacant, with the last parliamentary election being held in 2019 and the most recent presidential election in 2016. The government has yet to reschedule a presidential election after it was postponed several times.
Beyond political instability, Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters has exacerbated insecurity within the country. Haiti is located in the path of Atlantic hurricanes and sits on the fault line between the North American and Caribbean plates. The country’s topography also makes it prone to flooding, cyclones, droughts, and landslides. Natural disaster vulnerability, along with several aggravating factors including inadequate infrastructure and poor city planning, has caused devastation across the country. The 2010 earthquake was Haiti’s most severe and destructive natural disaster; roughly 250,000 people were killed and 300,000 injured.
As Haitians flee the difficult conditions and violence in their home country, the United States and neighboring countries have experienced an influx of migrants. At the end of 2022, the Joe Biden administration loosened its immigration policies to afford Haitians currently residing in the United States new safeguards and extended protected status, and a massive outflow of Haitians from Haiti has persisted. Between January and September 2022, more than twenty-one thousand Haitians were repatriated by flight or boat from neighboring countries, with 69 percent coming from the United States due to Title 42 expulsions. Title 42, a policy informed by COVID-19 that allowed border agents to expel migrants from the United States on public health grounds, expired on May 11, 2023. However, despite Title 42’s expiration, the administration has remained intent on denying asylum to those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
As the ill-equipped Haitian National Police force further deteriorates due to personnel loss and corruption, some Haitian citizens have taken matters into their own hands. On April 24, 2023, a group overpowered police and burned alive the fourteen suspected gang members in their custody. The killings marked the start of a campaign of vigilante justice against suspected gang members by self-defense groups known as the “Bwa Kale” movement. In its first three months of operation, Bwa Kale vigilantes killed at least 264 suspected gang members. While the movement has received widespread support from frustrated Haitians, some analysts fear that the vigilantes could come to present as much of a threat to civilians as the gangs. Nonetheless, the movement has highlighted the powerlessness of Haiti’s state institutions. At a June 8, 2023, meeting with Caribbean leaders, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris reaffirmed U.S. support for the deployment of a multinational force to stabilize Haiti’s fracturing security landscape and announced $50 million in humanitarian aid.
With Haiti’s police force unable to quell spiraling violence, the UN Security Council on October 2 authorized a yearlong Kenya-led multinational mission to protect vital infrastructure, train Haitian police, and assist in “targeted operations.” Kenya offered to deploy one thousand police officers, and several Caribbean countries said they would contribute as well. Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry had pushed for the authorization, and the Biden Administration pledged $100 million in logistical support. However, some fear Kenyan forces may commit abuses in Haiti, given allegations against them of killing and torturing Kenyan civilians.