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Is the lull in gang violence in Haiti just the calm before the storm?

‘This brings hope.’

A street in Haiti. People are seen walking, and some on motorbikes. Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
People go about their activities in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, on 26 June, a day after the deployment of Kenyan police to lead a UN-approved international stabilisation force.

After months of deepening insecurity and political turmoil, Haitians have experienced some respite in the past few weeks as a new transitional government has formed and a Kenya-led stabilisation force has started to deploy. But many are fearful it is just a temporary lull, and that further troubles lie ahead.

In the capital, Port-au-Prince, and neighbouring districts paralysed by gang violence since a major escalation in February, Haitians have been cautiously resuming some of their commercial and other daily activities, although attacks persist in some areas. 

Many Haitians regarded the interim leadership since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse as corrupt and lacking legitimacy, but the formation of a new transitional government – designed to pave the way for Haiti’s first elections since 2016 – has helped restore some sense of normalcy.

“This brings hope,” said Johnny Etienne, a Haitian who works as director of communications for Save the Children in Haiti. “The troops arrived, and with the appointment of the prime minister and a new cabinet, there is a feeling that there is some governance. People tend to go out more in the street, although there still are many locations where the violence continues.” 

Several hundred Kenyan police officers landed in Port-au-Prince on 25 June, four months after gangs joined forces in a coalition called Viv Ansanm (Live Together) on 29 February, starting a rebellion that plunged the country into violent chaos and forcing acting prime minister Ariel Henry to resign

After weeks of lawless limbo, Henry was replaced by a transitional presidential council. In early June, it appointed former regional director for UNICEF Garry Conille as interim prime minister and a new transitional government was installed and will remain in place until elections, expected by February 2026 at the latest. 

"We are on the brink of a new beginning,” Conille told the media on 26 June, as he visited the base of the UN-approved Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission after the first contingent arrived. “I urge the Haitian population to remain vigilant, confident, and patient,” he said, adding: “We will reclaim control of the country.”

Flickers of progress

Gangs, who control more than 80% of the capital and large parts of the neighbouring Ouest and Artibonite departments, have long existed in Haiti, but have tightened their grip on the country since Moïse’s assassination. They joined forces in February – while Henry was out of the country trying to shore up the Kenya-led MSS mission – to launch coordinated attacks on key infrastructure: prisons, police stations, the international airport, and the main seaport terminal. The pressure culminated in Henry’s resignation in April and the introduction of the transitional presidential council.

But the fallout on Haiti’s population of 11.5 million has continued. The gangs use looting, rape, kidnappings and killings as a way to assert their power, disrupting daily life and depriving people of their sources of livelihood. According to the UN, nearly 580,000 people have been displaced due to gang violence, and 3,252 homicides were registered from January to May 2024. Nearly one in two Haitians now faces acute food insecurity. 

People displaced by gang violence take shelter in the Rex Theater in Port-au-Prince. The scene on the left shows stairs. On the right the first floor are people standing, the second floor shows clothes hanging.
Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
People displaced by gang violence take shelter in the Rex Theatre in Port-au-Prince, on 26 June. There are nearly 580,000 people displaced by gang violence in Haiti.

Rosy Auguste Ducéna, programme manager for the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH), said the new political leadership had seen the security situation slightly improve in the Ouest and Artibonite departments. Some schools that had sheltered victims of the violence have been able to reopen for classes, she said, while economic activity was picking up again, along with public transportation.

“This impression of a normalisation of the situation is simply due to the fact that armed bandits don’t have allies among the new authorities,” said Auguste Ducéna. “But these authorities haven't taken any measures to restore security so far.”

Others told The New Humanitarian the lull started even before Conille was appointed. Emmanuel Paul, a security consultant and adviser to humanitarian organisations who used to work in Haiti's Defence Ministry, attributed it to the fact that “armed groups were on the watch to see what the new prime minister would do”.

“They know he is a technocrat with no sulphurous political past,” he added.

The World Food Programme (WFP) also noted several improvements in recent weeks: they’ve been able to operate with more ease; they’ve increased the presence of WFP personnel for registration and post-distribution monitoring; they’ve re-established their humanitarian passenger and cargo services to the airport after months of restricted access; thanks to safer roads, financial service providers have also been able transport cash transfers to beneficiaries, providing some relief to cash liquidity challenges. 

“Over a two-week period in May, 615 metric tonnes of rice, beans, and vegetable oil were distributed to nearly 93,000 people in Cité Soleil (one of the poorest and more violence-stricken areas of the capital), including breastfeeding mothers and children who had been cut off from humanitarian assistance,” Tanya Birkbeck, head of communications for WFP in Haiti, told The New Humanitarian.

Despite this, the situation remains critical.

Dozens of hospitals and health centres that were forced to close haven't reopened, mostly due to a shortage of medicines, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. A recent article by Haitian news outlet Le Nouvelliste reported that northern Port-au-Prince “resembles a region freshly struck by a major earthquake”, and that “everything that symbolised the presence of the state has been destroyed”.

And many Haitians remain very worried about the security situation, especially considering the lack of information surrounding the international stabilisation mission and constant reminders that this relative pause in the violence is extremely fragile.
On 30 June, a gang attacked a police station and set several houses on fire in the commune of Gressier, on the outskirts of the capital, reportedly killing at least 20 residents and threatening the surrounding Palmes region. The Haitian police were eventually able to stop them, but many took it as a sign that hostilities are resuming. Three days earlier, the gang 400 Mawozo torched the town hall of Croix-des-Bouquets, a commune of the Ouest department long controlled by armed groups.

‘There could be clandestine negotiations’

So far, little has been said about the role the MSS force will be playing on the ground. On 1 July, the Kenyan police issued a statement saying that, since their arrival, officers “have been working closely” with the PNH. “[They] have so far undertaken strategic mapping of the key areas of operational concerns and conducted several joint patrols within Port-au-Prince,” the statement read. 

But Haitians – wary after a string of abuse-ridden foreign interventions – remain doubtful of the ability of the Kenyan-led mission to effectively take on the gangs. 

“There is a [new] governance, but at the same time the impression is that gangs have reinforced their capacity,” said Etienne. “What will be the reaction of the armed groups and how will they be using the children and the civilians to protect themselves? No one is capable of predicting that.” 

A Kenyan police officer in uniform and carrying a gun stands in front of a shop.
Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
A Kenyan police officer guards the site where an armoured vehicle used by the Kenyan police and the Haitian National Police broke down as they patrolled a neighbourhood of the capital, on 28 June.

Paul, the security expert, said that all stakeholders have so far adopted a “state of observation”, and that despite the doubts there are high expectations. Things are still at an early stage, he added, but to make sure the force is perceived as positive the government may try to strike secret deals with gangs.

“I think there could be clandestine negotiations with armed groups to make elections possible. This is what the assessment of the force will be based on,” he said.  

But Pierre Espérance, executive director of the RNDDH, told The New Humanitarian that although he doesn't trust the new government, negotiations are unlikely to happen because the population opposes them. 

“Haitians don't want to hear about negotiations with gangs. What they demand is that they put their weapons down or go to jail,” he said. “They want gangs to be dismantled to get the poor neighbourhoods back.”

On 3 July, the RNDDH and other civil organisations sent an open letter to Conille asking him to fight corruption and not to give the gang members any amnesty.

Mixed feelings

Doubts over the MSS are not new. Since it was approved by the UN Security Council last October, Haitians and Kenyans have expressed mixed feelings about the mission.

However, the escalation of the violence and its impacts led some who originally opposed the deployment to change their mind, while others still fear it will repeat the mistakes of the past, especially as the US is its main financial backer

“As long as the force comes to take care of the bandits, even if it turns the earth upside down taking all the mines beneath, personally I won’t have a problem.”

Frantz Dolma, a 43-year-old business owner currently living in the capital’s Delmas neighbourhood.

Giving gangs a way out through negotiations could be perceived as a repetition of past cycles.

Read more: What do Kenyans make of the deployment?

Kenyans have mixed feelings about the MSS too. While some see the opportunity to lead it as a way to strengthen relations with the US and the West, and to project the country's leadership across the region, others fear that lives will be lost and would rather see their government focus on its own security and economic troubles.

The timing of the deployment was also questioned. President William Ruto decided to proceed even as he was facing anti-tax protests at home that saw police firing live bullets and dozens of deaths.

“The predominant view in Kenya is that they shouldn't be sending the police,” Samuel Omwenga, a Kenyan political adviser and columnist now based in the US, told The New Humanitarian. “People say that the country is broke and that people are suffering economically at home. They also say that none of the missions abroad the Kenyan police have participated in comes even closer in terms of the dangers they will be exposed to in Haiti, and that they don't have the expertise to undertake the type of delicate operation required.”

Thomas Mariwa, an entrepreneur and Green party politician in Kenya, said many young policemen joined the force because it would significantly increase their wage and because it was presented to them as a way “to access the West”. But he said they’re unlikely to receive all the money they were promised.

“It is something that has happened before in other countries. They send peacekeepers on expeditionary missions and then the pay does not get to the peacekeepers; the politicians pocket the money,” he said. “That is the biggest fear now.”

Mariwa said Kenya’s involvement in Haiti is yet another example of Ruto’s foreign policies serving an elite more than the interests of the Kenyan people, who face their own security challenges, with bandits and cattle-rustling in the North Rift Valley and constant raids and attacks along the border with Somalia. He also worried about the Kenyan police’s ability to adapt to the Caribbean nation.

“The concern I have is that there is no nexus [between Haitians and Kenyans]. They don’t speak the same language. They do not understand each other's culture. They don’t understand messages, gestures, nuances, nothing brings them together,” he said. “That disconnect may lead to excesses.” 

The United States has a long history of occupation in Haiti.

In 1915, it took control of the country's political and financial interests and occupied the Caribbean nation until 1934. Rebellions against its presence led to the killing of thousands of Haitians, and two decades of occupation and foreign exploitation of the country’s resources contributed to its descent into poverty. 

Later US involvement in foreign interventions further undermined Haiti’s stability, especially the 13-year UN “stabilisation” mission (MINUSTAH) that left a legacy of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation, and a cholera epidemic that claimed more than 10,000 lives.

“This is a US intervention under the cover of Kenya. And when it involves the US, everything is arbitrary.”

Mario Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port-au-Prince

Fears of a new occupation are still strong among Haitians, many of whom hold the US responsible for the current chaos. The US supported Henry and is often perceived as having propped up a corrupt elite with links to gangs they sometimes trained, and to have done little to stop the massive smuggling of weapons and munitions into Haiti.

“All that is happening is due to a drift initiated by Americans,” a Haitian policeman who requested to speak anonymously told the New Humanitarian a few weeks before the deployment of the MSS. “I would like for the force to take the leaders who have supplied weapons to the gangs, the guys in suits who have led the country to this point… But it is the innocents who will pay for the guilty ones.”

“This is a US intervention under the cover of Kenya,” said Mario Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port-au-Prince. “And when it involves the US, everything is arbitrary.”

Not everyone feels this way, however. Among the population, desperation is such that some are willing to risk giving up part of their sovereignty if it brings more security.

“As long as [the force] comes to take care of the bandits, even if it turns the earth upside down taking all the mines beneath, personally I won’t have a problem,” said Frantz Dolma, a 43-year-old business owner currently living in the capital’s Delmas neighbourhood. “I need security to live and have a better life.”

Dolma and his family have been displaced twice: once from their home in Carrefour-Feuilles, one of the most violence-stricken areas, and then from the downtown neighbourhood where his business was.

“We ended up having no home and no business. All I had invested in my life was lost,” he said. “If there are possibilities for the force to take care of something that will be good for the future of my children, it will be good for us.”

Among the long outgunned and demoralised Haitian police force, there is also hope that the new mission – which is eventually expected to involve 2,500 police officers from at least seven nations – will give them some much-needed support. 

“Truthfully, [with] the multinational force […] we will have a break,” one police officer from a specialist crowd control unit told The New Humanitarian weeks before the deployment, asking to speak anonymously. “It will help us because we lack the means, the ammunition to work.” 

To Auguste Ducéna, it’s crucial that lessons from past interventions are learned. The international community, she said, must urge Haiti’s justice system to pronounce harsh sentences on gang leaders and their financial backers and must establish both a reparation fund and health programmes for victims of gang violence. “For once, the international community and the mission must focus on the victims”, she said.

Stanley Jérôme reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Daniela Mohor reported from Santiago, Chile. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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