March 15, 2024

IntelBrief: Haiti’s President Resigns After Gangs Threaten Civil War

AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Haitian Acting President Ariel Henry announced on Tuesday that he would resign after a major gang leader threatened civil war and a possible “genocide” if Henry refused to step down.
  • A peacekeeping deal to send one thousand Kenyan police officers to Haiti was paused until a new Haitian government can be formed.
  • Gangs set part of Haiti’s Interior Ministry on fire last weekend, and in recent weeks have attacked the main international airport, police stations, and jails, freeing thousands of inmates.
  • Haiti’s government has been largely vacant for months, with Ariel Henry serving as an unelected president and refusing to call elections since taking over for his predecessor who was assassinated in 2021.

Haiti’s acting president, Ariel Henry, announced on Tuesday he would resign from his post while his country remains plagued by extreme gang violence. Tensions in the Caribbean nation have reached a breaking point, with a prominent gang leader threatening “civil war that will lead to genocide” if Henry did not step down. The Haitian government has been absent of any elected officials for months, and the unelected Henry has delayed elections multiple times since taking office following his predecessor’s assassination in 2021. Henry – a de facto ruler appointed prime minister by the late President Jovenel Moïse and never formally sworn in – pledged to give up his position as soon as a transitional council had been appointed to replace him. Prior to announcing his resignation, Henry agreed to hold elections in August 2025, according to a statement released by the Carribean Community (CARICOM) in late February. The country’s last national elections were held in 2016, and its last remaining senators concluded their terms in January.

Gang activity has barred the embattled Haitian leader from re-entering the country since he travelled to Nairobi to sign a deal earlier this month allowing one thousand Kenyan police officers to deploy as a peacekeeping force to Haiti. However, Kenyan officials said this week that the officers would not be sent to Haiti until the Caribbean nation forms a new government. The UN-backed and largely U.S. financed mission had been on hold since a Kenyan court blocked it in January because the two countries had not signed reciprocal agreements. Though the United States has pledged $300 million to support the force, with some additional support promised by other contributors like Mexico, only $11 million had been made available in the peacekeeping force’s UN trust fund as of Monday, according to a UN spokesperson.

With Henry abroad, violence surged in the capital Port-au-Prince, with gangs attacking the main international airport – cutting the island nation off from air traffic – and police stations. 80 percent of Port-au-Prince is now believed to be controlled by gangs, a sharp increase from the estimated 60 percent two months ago. Last Friday, gangs reportedly launched an assault against government buildings in the capital, and over the weekend, they set fire to part of the Interior Ministry. Jail raids have freed an estimated 3,800 prisoners from the country’s two largest prisons. Numerous embassies have been closed, as well, with the European Union evacuating its diplomats. In addition to airlifting non-essential personnel from its own embassy, the United States has also sent Marine counterterrorism teams to secure the site.

The UN Special Representative for Haiti, Maria Isabel Salvador, told the UN Security Council during a January briefing that the number of gang violence victims in Haiti had more than doubled in 2023 from the prior year. Haiti’s gangs boast superior firepower to the police due to illegal arms trafficking, much of which comes through the United States, according to Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Insecurity has been compounded by private security companies, who Waly says are allegedly involved in weapons trafficking. In response to the violence, citizen vigilante groups have killed hundreds, from alleged gang members to civilians and police, according to the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani.

As of early March, over 362 thousand people had been internally displaced within Haiti, while thousands have been forced to flee the country altogether, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Haitian migrants’ most popular destination is the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Hunger, water scarcity, sexual and gender-based violence, and disease are also major problems. Approximately 40 percent of Haiti’s population faces acute hunger, according to the World Food Program. Cholera has also re-emerged, and an estimated 3.3 million people lacked access to safe drinking water late last year, according to UNICEF.

Haiti’s most powerful gang leader is former police officer Jimmy Chérizier, otherwise known as “Barbecue.” Chérizier leads an alliance of gangs known as the “G9 Family and Allies” and was sanctioned by the UN Security Council in 2022 (the sanction was renewed for another year in October 2023) for threatening Haiti’s “peace, security, and stability” and for “serious human rights abuses.” Chérizier has attempted to characterize the campaign of violence as a form of resistance against the Haitian political system, calling it a “bloody revolution” against an “apartheid system” and claiming their main goal has been to oust Henry from power. Guy Philippe – a former police chief who helped lead the coup against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 before running in Haiti’s 2006 presidential election – has stated his interest in replacing Henry as president, offering amnesty to gang leaders should he attain the office. Philippe was deported back to Haiti from the United States in November, where he had been serving a six-year prison sentence related to money laundering and drug trafficking. Though a senior official with the U.S. Department of State said he was “not [an] appropriate” candidate for the council intended to appoint Haiti’s next leader, some experts believe that Phillipe is uniquely equipped to lead, given his ability to mediate between warring gang and police factions. Phillippe is also popular with poor Haitians after distributing some of his drug earnings to local communities, cast as a modern-day Pablo Escobar.

Though U.S. influence has played an important role in Haitian politics in the past, the United States has ruled out direct intervention in the current crisis, leading regional players in the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as Kenya, to position themselves to lead the response. Following Henry’s call for foreign intervention in 2022 after gangs blockaded Haiti’s largest fuel depot, the United States and Canada sent military equipment, but declined to deploy military personnel. By contrast, during the 2004 coup, the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission to Haiti confronted Philippe in the street before he could enter the presidential palace, though the American diplomat also called on then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down, which he eventually did. Haiti has a troubled history of foreign intervention, from the early days of its French colonization to more recent decades, when over one hundred Sri Lankan members of a UN peacekeeping mission were accused of sexual misconduct and abuse in 2007, as well as when nearly ten thousand Haitians were killed by a cholera outbreak traced back to negligent waste disposal by UN peacekeepers in 2010. Former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley has taken the Biden administration to task over its handling of the situation in Haiti. Ambassador Foley, who served as ambassador during the 2004 coup, has called the current crisis “the fruit of the choices we [the United States] made.”