Haiti’s Gangs Grow Stronger as Kenyan-Led Force Prepares to Deploy…

They have a stranglehold on the country’s infrastructure, from police stations to seaports. They have chased hundreds of thousands of people from the capital. And they are suspected of having ties to the 2021 assassination of Haiti’s president.

Western diplomats and officials say the influence and capability of many Haitian gangs are evolving, making them ever more threatening to the Kenyan-led multinational police force soon deploying to Haiti as well as the fragile transitional council trying to set a path for elections.

With their arrival just days away, the 2,500 police officers will confront a better equipped, funded, trained and unified gang force than any mission previously deployed to the Caribbean nation, security experts say.

Once largely reliant on Haiti’s political and business elite for money, some gangs have found independent financial lifelines since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 and the collapse of the state that ensued.

“The gangs had been making their money from kidnappings and extortion and from payouts from politicians during elections and the business elites in between,” said William O’Neill, the United Nations-appointed human rights expert for Haiti.

“But the gangs are now much more autonomous and don’t need the old guard’s financial support,” he added. “They have created a Frankenstein that is beyond anyone’s control.”

Aiding the gangs is an arsenal more powerful than any they have ever possessed before, according to two Justice Department officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments. Since February, some gangs have acquired automatic weapons — possibly a mix of arms stolen from regional militaries and others converted from semiautomatic rifles, the officials said.

The gangs have also changed their public posture, posting social-media videos of themselves acting like militias with national ambitions and less concerned with their usual turf wars.

Some of Haiti’s gangs started working together last September, when they announced the alliance called Vivre Ensemble, or Living Together, just days after the Dominican Republic closed its land border with Haiti.

The idea was to unite the gangs to overcome the obstacles that the border closure posed to their drug-smuggling operations, according to two Western diplomats focused on Haiti who were not authorized to speak publicly.

But the alliance fell apart about a week after it was announced, after some 2,000 tons of cocaine was stolen from the Haitian gang leader Johnson André, known as Izo, the diplomats said.

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

In late February, Vivre Ensemble was resurrected. The gangs publicly pledged to overthrow the country’s prime minister and vowed to resist the Kenyan-led security force once it deployed, calling the troops “invaders.”

Days later, the alliance stormed two prisons, releasing some 4,600 prisoners, many of whom joined their ranks. The chaos forced Haiti’s prime minister, who had been out of the country, to resign.

Among the escapees was Dimitri Hérard, according to Haitian officials, the head of the security unit that protected Mr. Moïse’s presidential palace before he was assassinated. Mr. Hérard ordered his forces to stand down as mercenaries stormed Mr. Moïse’s home. He had been in prison awaiting trial on charges tied to the assassination when he was freed in the prison break.

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

Mr. Hérard could not be reached for comment.

Haitian gangs appear to be using weapons also used by the Gulf Clan, a Colombian cartel, which operates along the country’s Caribbean coastline 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, like cartels, and may have gone to Haiti.

Another powerful gang leader, Vitel’homme Innocent, has also been linked by the authorities to Mr. Moïse’s killing. He rented one of the cars used in Mr. Moïse’s killing, according to a Haitian police report.

Mr. Hérard was also a prime suspect in one of the largest cases the Drug Enforcement Administration ever pursued in Haiti. In 2015, the MV Manzanares cargo ship docked in Port-au-Prince with more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine and heroin hidden among sacks of sugar.

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

Most of the drugs in the case disappeared. Witnesses were intimidated by Haitian government officials, including by Jimmy Chérizier, a police officer, according to Keith McNichols, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer who worked on the case.

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

“The gangs are more and more linked to drug trafficking,” said Mr. O’Neill, of the United Nations. “And given that some former police officers like Hérard were involved in the drug trade when Martelly came to power, it wouldn’t surprise me if the gangs are now trying to court those ex-security officials.”

More recently, officials with knowledge of the negotiations to appoint a new Haitian prime minister say that Mr. Martelly has been lobbying Caribbean leaders and his political allies to try to influence the makeup of the interim government.

His allies on the transitional council have quietly floated a proposal that immunity should be given to the gangs, the officials said, possibly as part of a wider immunity for previous government officials who could be accused of corruption.

“I categorically deny these unfounded allegations of active interference with the transition council,” Mr. Martelly said in a statement to The New York Times, calling the accusations politically motivated. “I have never had any relationship with gangs, nor have I made any reference to amnesty for anyone.”

The government of Mr. Martelly, who served as president from 2011 to 2016, was accused of rampant corruption, including misappropriation of aid worth about $2 billion from Venezuela. In 2022, Canada imposed sanctions on him and other Haitian politicians for protecting and empowering local gangs, “including through money laundering and other acts of corruption.”

“The idea of an amnesty could add fuel to the fire if Haitians are not consulted,” said Romain Le Cour, a Haiti security analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, “considering the inability of politicians to come together in this moment of crisis and given that the gangs have committed severe human rights violations.”

The post Haiti’s Gangs Grow Stronger as Kenyan-Led Force Prepares to Deploy appeared first on New York Times.

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