Guns, Gangs, and Neocolonialism in Haiti

Hundreds of thousands of guns made in the United States propel a gang war that has turned Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince into a war zone.  

July 4, 2023

Domini Resain, the mobilization minister of MOLEGHAF, holds a sign that reads “MOLEGHAF Says no to Foreign Meddling and Occupation” at a protest in 2022. MOLEGHAF is the National Movement for Liberty and Equality of Haitians for Fraternity. (MOLEGHAF)

Guns, gangs, hopelessness, and hunger have reached new heights across Haiti. Port-au-Prince is currently embroiled in a multidimensional war that is affecting every facet of life in the island nation’s capital. CNN reports that Haiti’s crime rate has more than doubled in the past year, with over 1,600 rapes, kidnappings and murders reported in the first three months of 2023. Real numbers are likely double official statistics because in the most oppressed bidonvils (slums, translated from Haitian Kreyòl) such as Belè, Solino, Site Militè, or Site Solèy, there is scant reporting on the dire reality faced by residents.

Inflation in Haiti has surpassed 50 percent. There is no gasoline in the pumps and the black-market cost is $15 per gallon. Food is scarce. According to the World Food Program, a total of 4.9 million Haitians—nearly half the population—do not have enough to eat, and 1.8 million are facing emergency levels of food insecurity. This grueling reality has spurred a hybrid war that has only intensified as gangs fight one another and the Haitian National Police and terrorize local communities. The crisis is deepened by the lack of elected leadership in the country after unpopular president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.

At the center of this neocolonial maelstrom are nearly one million U.S.-made guns that have illegally made their way ionto the western side of the island the Spanish crown once called “Hispaniola” or “Little Spain.”

The U.S. Gun Crisis is Haiti’s Gun Crisis

Prohibition-era rum runners on the East Coast of the United States had a formidable opponent: the United States Coast Guard. Coast Guard efforts to stop trafficking led to the development of faster boats, advanced tactics, and countless barrels of destroyed booze that would have otherwise helped line the pockets of organized crime.

Today's Caribbean gun runners have no such fears. Hundreds of thousands of legally purchased firearms have made their way from the United States to Haiti with little to no opposition from the United States government, leaving notoriously inept and corrupt Haitian authorities tasked with stopping a tidal wave of weapons of war. A series of investigative pieces on the topic point back to the U.S. as the source of nearly every gun in Haiti. Another understudied and underreported result of unregulated U.S. gun manufacturing is a destabilized Haiti.

Gun violence in Haiti has spiraled out of control as the nation reels from U.S./Core Group neocolonial domination, natural disasters, foreign-sponsored presidential coups, and the threat of another U.S.-led invasion and occupation. “Straw buyers” legally purchase guns in the states with lax regulation and sell them to gun smugglers, often in the Haitian-American community, who then sell them to buyers in Haiti for a massive profit.

The United States of Guns 

The United States of America is the most violent country in the world. The firearm homicide rate in the United States is 13 times higher than that of France and 22 times higher than the European Union. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 26,328 suicides and 20,598 homicides in 2021, the vast majority committed with firearms. There are 120.5 guns per 100 Americans, far more than any other country globally. There are a total of 393,347,000 civilian firearms in the United States, meaning there are roughly 60 million more firearms than people. About 4 percent of the world's population has 40 percent of the world's civilian-owned guns. 

The Pentagon operates 750 foreign military bases abroad in over 80 “sovereign countries.” The United States has more than three times as many overseas bases as all other nations combined, costing taxpayers an estimated $55 billion every year. There are more wars now than any other time since WWII, with the U.S. military involved either covertly or overtly in many of them.

Smith and Wesson won the gold medal for the generation of violence, producing 2.3 million guns in 2021, followed closely by the firearms manufacturers Ruger and Sig Sauer. The profits of firearms manufacturers have reached historic levels, and gun companies export roughly half a million guns per year. The mass media promotes suburban panic by distorting the reality of violent crime, which has actually been on the decline nationwide after peaking in the 1980s.

Imperialist projects like the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Libya, and others have shown that the United States, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, continues to be the world’s “leading purveyor of violence” at the expense of diplomacy. Slashing diplomatic budgets while consistently funneling more resources to the Pentagon has locked the country onto an exceptionally bloody warpath.

Politicians corrupted by powerful gun lobbies like the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep regulations relaxed. A CDC report decried the fact that gun violence is the leading cause of death among U.S. children between the ages of one and 18, yet meaningful legislation seems like a sick joke in the wake of events like the shootings in Sandy Hook, Uvalde, and hundreds of others.

The United States gun crisis has been exported to Haiti, where U.S. guns are killing at harrowing rates. Thousands of youth have given up on life and turned to the only way they see how to survive: gang life.  

Co-author Danny Shaw accompanies Domine Resain in a community meeting with leaders in Okap. (Danny Shaw)

Caribbean Blood, U.S. Sharks 

The Haitian people and their grassroots leadership have been telling us for decades that their current and past crisis goes well beyond Haiti. Philosophy Professor Kervins Victor from the State University of Haiti elucidates the hierarchy behind the violence in Port-au-Prince’s ghettos “charting the relationship between gangsters with ties on the top of the social pyramid and gangsters in flip flops at the bottom.” Based on information supplied by local informants in Kap Ayisyen, the capital of the 1804 revolution in the north of the country, on any given day crates and containers with guns arrive in Haiti’s Atlantic Ocean ports.

Despite periodically expressing dismay at the state of gun violence and poverty in Haiti, lawmakers and mainstream media in the United States are unwilling to act to disrupt the flow of this deadly export. Even with constant increases to defense spending, peaking this year at $842 billion, the Pentagon refuses to make any effort to secure the safety of Haitian and Caribbean borders. The U.S. Coast Guard claims to be coordinating security in the northern Caribbean but have not made any significant firearm seizures in the region. They do continually seize drugs and refugees. Servants of the powerful gun lobby, U.S. politicians actively undermine efforts to curb the death toll on both sides of the Caribbean Sea; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis passed a law on May 12 making it tougher for companies and investigators to track weapons.

Politicians like DeSantis and Trump make a name for themselves scapegoating immigrant and oppressed communities but skirt over the push factors that motivate millions to risk their lives fleeing the Global South. Behind the scenes, the NRA has waged a campaign to elect judges in state races and influence supreme court judges, with anti-democratic repercussions far beyond Washington.

A Smugglers Paradise 

The players on the frontlines of this international operation include Jean Gilles Jean Mary, accountant for the Episcopalian Church of Haiti based out of Site Solèy, one of the largest and most oppressed slums in the Western Hemisphere. From 2017 to 2021, shipments officially marked as aid intended for the church contained pistols, rifles, and ammunition. The Episcopal church has denied any involvement but Jean Mary was accused in August 2022 of providing Episcopal Church funds to arms traffickers for over four years before being caught by Haitian investigators. He was taken into custody just 48 hours after the police arrested Father Frantz Cole for "arms and ammunition trafficking, smuggling, tax evasion, tax fraud, crimes of enrichment, and laundering of assets resulting from serious crimes.” Dominican Today reports that in the bust the Haitian National Police seized a container in the port of Port-au-Prince that contained 18 “weapons of war” and nearly 20,000 cartridges. No one knows how many weapons get through Haiti’s porous borders daily, but Reuters reports that the seizure is merely “the tip of the iceberg.”

A naturalized U.S. Marine was caught in late 2020 attempting to sneak weapons and body armor into the country in an attempt to train the Haitian armed forces and run for president of Haiti. When arrested by Haitian customs officials at the airport, he claimed that the arms trafficking was part of a plan “to engage in foreign armed conflict,” a chilling thought considering he was an active duty U.S. Marine.

The most recent case from May involved a Cuban-American arms dealer from Miami, Elieser Sori Rodríguez, who was caught by Dominican authorities attempting to smuggle 33 firearms, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns, along with 350 boxes of ammunition, 56 magazines, and hundreds of cartridges. The Dominican government discovered that Rodríguez aimed to transport the arsenal into Haiti at the border city of Jimaní.

Trafficking guns is big money. The Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reports that “popular handguns, selling for $400-$500 at federally licensed firearms outlets or private gun shows in the U.S., can be resold for as much as $10,000 in Haiti.” More powerful weapons are typically in higher demand by gangs and are sold at correspondingly higher prices.

The majority of smuggling cases covered by the media involve small fry fall guys. The police attempt to make an example out of petty hustlers, while well-protected and connected actors operate with impunity. Given that there has been no updated count since the notorious half million figure reported in 2021, estimates indicate the number of illegal guns in Haiti has doubled for a population of 11.5 million people. This is an operation involving serious funding and coordination, expertly handled by insiders on both ends of the transaction. 

Tchadensky Jean Baptist (center), a student, artist, and anti-imperialist organizer who was killed by a sniper in Port-au-Prince on March 21, 2023. He is pictured here with his partner Tedina and a community volunteer. (Image courtesy of the family)

A Failed State or Successful Imperialism? 

This year the World Bank ranked Haiti as the 179th most corrupt country out of 190 countries evaluated. The average customs official in Haiti earns under $10 per day, making it one of the easiest places to bribe such bureaucrats in the world.

Further complicating the anti-trafficking struggle, Haiti has 1,100 miles of coastline. The Haitian National Police claims it has a handful of functioning patrol boats but most Haitians interviewed for this article said such boats did not exist. The U.S. Coast Guard consistently issues updates about stopping Haitians in boats from “illegally” arriving in the United States but has been silent on the flow of guns in the other direction. Rural makeshift landing strips used by traffickers have been identified but authorities make no effort to regulate or investigate illicit points of entry.

Haiti is vulnerable to contraband of all sorts but certainly the most disruptive to peace is the arms smuggler. A United Nations report from this year underlined the United States’ role in Haiti’s gun violence and called for action to stop the flow of the deadly cargo. Such declarations mean little before the day-to-day carnage as coordinated action to stop gun smuggling onto the island has yet to be seen.

From June 11 to 13, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of state met in Jamaica to discuss, among other matters, a potential fourth U.S. invasion of Haiti in 100 years. In representation of Haiti’s diverse grassroots justice movement, union leader and philosophy professor Josué Mérilien drafted 12 concluding points from the summit, circulated on WhatsApp among grassroots movements in Haiti and the diaspora. The top two demands are telling: 1) “Put an end to the interference of the imperialist powers and recover Haiti’s national sovereignty,” and 2) “put an end to indecent international support, particularly from the USA, Canada and France, to the criminal PHTK government of Ariel Henry and the establishment of a credible transitional government.”

The United States’ gun crisis is Haiti’s gun crisis. The past century of intervention has shown that this is not the first time U.S. action and inaction has been responsible for the proliferation of violence in Haiti. The Haitian people are saying "no” to a military occupation and “yes” to the recovery of the nation’s wealth and reparations after centuries of foreign exploitation.

Jan Critchfield is a U.S. Army veteran of the war on Iraq. He was deployed to Baghdad in 2004, where he wrote and took pictures for First Cavalry Division public affairs. He currently photographs and tinkers with bicycles in New York.

Danny Shaw is an International Affairs analyst with TeleSUR, HispanTV, and other international media outlets. He teaches Latin American and Caribbean studies at the City University of New York. He has worked with Haitian social movements and studied Kreyòl since 1998. His work can be found at @dannyshawcuny.

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