Armed gangs that have turned Haiti into a cauldron of violence have become so interwoven in Haitian society that they run unofficial money exchange bureaus, control medical facilities and manage social foundations to channel humanitarian assistance, recruit children and even fund electoral campaigns., a new United Nations study says.
The leaders, who have amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom from kidnapped victims, have used their spoils to enjoy the finer things such as swimming pools, hydromassage hot tubs and newly constructed mansions built in the middle of the slums, the study adds.
“Gangs have capitalized on the governance crisis that has weakened the state capacity to tighten their control over the territory and infrastructure, while violence increases both in the political and social spaces,” the long-awaited United Nations report from a panel on experts about Haiti’s gang crisis said.
The details are laid out in the detailed 158-page report by the panel of experts tasked by the United Nations Security Council to help its 15 members decide who in Haitian society should be singled out for sanctions, including freezing their assets and banning travel.
While the report stops short of making recommendations on people to sanction, the panel cites several influential Haitians, including former President , former Senate President Youri Latortue and powerful businessman Reynold Deeb as among those who have ties to gangs.
Though the report pays special attention to the current crisis, the panel notes that the proliferation of gangs, especially across metropolitan Port-au-Prince, is due to many factors, and that Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake triggered a “destabilization momentum” that provoked a geographic and social reconfiguration of the country.
With the departure of United Nations peacekeeping forces in 2017 after 13 years, gangs expanded and occupied the void left by U.N. troops and police units.
Taking advantage of the government’s weakness and absence from communities, some gang leaders formed social foundations, both to recruit new members and to ingratiate themselves with the communities they were in, the study says.
“From 2010, foundations have become interlocutors for politicians in the context of elections, including for the organization of demonstrations or anti-protest movement,” the report said. “They have also been increasingly supported by influential businessmen or companies to protect their economic activities.”
The most high-profile person singled out in the report is Martelly, a former carnival singer-turned politician who currently calls Miami home. The panel said that during his 2011 -16 presidency, Martelly “used gangs to extend his influence in the neighborhoods in order to advance his political agenda, thus contributing to a legacy of insecurity whose effects are still being felt today.”
Martelly not only financed several gangs and provided them with weapons during his tenure, but according to several sources he created one gang in particular: Base 257.
“This gang is regularly involved in murders, kidnappings, thefts and drug trafficking,” the report said. “Mr. Martelly also passed through intermediaries, notably foundations or members of his guard close, to establish relationships and negotiate with other gangs.”
To support the claim, the panel pointed out that Ti Lapli, one of the current chiefs of Grand Ravine, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, said in a video that the former president handed over to a former leader of the area a Galil automatic rifle belonging to the police and a rifle of the same type to another gang leader. After the assassination of one of the gang leaders Ti Lapli said he recovered the weapon.
Martelly’s electoral win, according to the panel, coincided with the arrival of several new economic actors on the Haitian scene. One of the most important players is Deeb, the general manager of Deka Group, a major importer of consumer goods. The panel said it has evidence that Deeb, already among 28 Haitian nationals sanctioned by the government of Canada, “finances gang members to protect his business and ensure the transport of the goods he imports.”
“In 2017, Mr. Deeb paid a gang leader so he could carry out his activities in one of the main ports,” the report said. “More recently, according to several independent sources, Mr. Deeb used gang members to put pressure on some customs officials at the port so that his containers were neither inspected nor intercepted, which allowed it to avoid certain import duties.”
The panel noted that a powerful gang federation, the G9, controls the area around the National Port Authority and the roads leading to Deeb and other large importers. “Mr. Deeb, as other large importers, pays the gangs so that its merchandise passes through their territory.”
Described as “a profiteer,” Deeb was among those, the report said, who helped financed the 2019 opposition movement against President Jovenel Moïse known as peyi lok, or country on lockdown, that paralyzed what was left of Haiti’s fragile economy. He later took advantage of the strong demand for food to bribe deputies, who then paid gang leaders to disperse the demonstrators to unblock the streets to allow the entry of his goods in the country.
Deeb’s arrival as an important player in Haiti’s economy, the panel said, coincided with the 2011 presidential election of Martelly. Deeb’s status, they said, was confirmed through interviews with former officials in Martelly’s government, customs officers and confidential files provided by a member nation to the study group.
To this day, Deeb “continues to unofficially influence the choice of customs officers assigned to several of the major entry ports,” the study said. “According to some sources, Mr. Deeb had put in place representatives to help him in his tax fraud activities: under-declarations, false labeling and importation of contraband goods via different ports.
The group of U.N. experts said they found that some customs officers had been involved in financial embezzlement and specifically singled out Romel Bell, the former director of Customs between 2018 and 2022. Sanctioned by the United States, Bell “committed and encouraged tax evasion and other financial offenses including suspicious banking transactions,” the report says.
The report was made public late Wednesday night ahead of a Thursday meeting in which members of the Security Council will decide how to proceed. Their choices are to name individuals to be sanctioned, or add names to an existing resolution that imposed sanctions in response to the gang violence and kidnappings. The resolution was approved last year voted in response to the escalation in criminal activities that have gripped Haiti since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The expanding grip of gangs have left most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, under siege and have led to the deaths of at least 3,334 people since January, according to the U.N.
The resolution imposed an asset freeze, travel ban and an arms embargo on anyone threatening the peace, security or stability of Haiti. It designated as its first target a former policeman-turned-gang leader, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, who had led a gang blockade on the country’s main fuel terminal to protest a government decision to cut fuel subsidies. The blockade led to a shortage of fuel, food and water amid a deadly cholera outbreak. The deepening humanitarian crisis led the Security Council choosing to blacklist individuals from a country in the Western Hemisphere for the first time.
The panel noted that Chérizier, also known as “Barbecue,” is the only individual who had been sanctioned by the Security Council at the time of the submission of its report, and he still heads the “G9 Family and Allies”, which the study says “launches major bloody attacks against neighborhoods under the control of rival gangs, committing numerous murders and rapes and leading to displacement of population. “
The panel of experts shared several photographs of Chérizier that were published on social media in which he is heavily armed. One photo even shows him enjoying a hydromassage in a hot tub at his home in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.
The panel noted that its work is not done. Gathering evidence hasn’t been easy in a country where subterfuge is the norm, and record-keeping is limited or non-existent.
Separately, Canada and the United States have also issued their own sanctions. Ottawa has imposed economic sanctions against 28 Haitian citizens, including former lawmakers, businessmen and gang leaders along with two former presidents and two former prime ministers. Washington has issued only a handful of economic sanctions, and instead relied on the revoking of U.S. visas. It has so far revoked the travel visas of more than 50 individuals.
While the report from the U.N. expert panel is public, the investigative files with the panel’s findings are sealed and, according to a source, contain many other names beyond those cited in the report.
Ahead of the report’s public release, Miroslav Jenča, a U.N. assistant secretary-general, visited Haiti from Oct. 11 to 14.
He met with Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Foreign Minister Jean Victor Généu and representatives of a wide range of political parties and civil society. He also met with Haiti National Police Chief Frantz Elbe to discuss the decision earlier this month to deploy a Multinational Support Security mission to Haiti to assist police in their effort to combat violent gangs.