American guns fuel Haiti crisis

The crisis in Haiti over gangs who have overrun the country and outmatched security forces is fueled in part by a major, illegal flow of U.S. guns to the Caribbean nation, a longstanding problem that has only grown worse despite efforts from the Biden administration to tackle it.

The gangs running amok on the island are armed with powerful American-made weapons, including .50 caliber sniper rifles and semiautomatic AR-15 rifles, along with small arms like handguns.

The Biden administration has worked to crack down on the problems, but with Haiti’s porous borders and little government control, hundreds of thousands of illegal guns are thought to be circulating there.

Romain Le Cour, a senior expert at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, said smugglers have been “literally pouring weapons into Haiti” for years, a situation he described as getting worse even during the ongoing disaster, which has limited imports.

“It is honestly outrageous to see a country and a city under total and absolute lockdown at war for a month, and there is absolutely no sign of shortage of weapons or ammunition,” Le Cour said. “The weapons keep coming in, it’s a never-ending story. We have to take care of the arms trafficking in Haiti, it’s extremely urgent.”

Since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, gang control has solidified, particularly in the capitol of Port-au-Prince. The situation has further deteriorated in the past year, with the United Nations warning that more than 360,000 people have been displaced from their homes so far.

The last few weeks of gang fighting has grown even more volatile. The violence forced the U.S. to send in an elite team of Marines to defend the American Embassy while Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry was pressured into resigning and the government has essentially collapsed.

Gangs are estimated to now control about 90 percent of Port-au-Prince as they outgun the Haitian National Police (HNP). There are estimated to be up to 200 gangs in the country with growing ranks fighting some 9,000 HNP officers.

A Thursday United Nations report says more than 4,400 people died in Haiti in 2023 from gang violence, while deaths have skyrocketed in the first three months of this year to more than 1,500.

The report, which described the situation as “cataclysmic,” also detailed how gangs continue to maintain a “reliable supply chain” for weapons and ammunition.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk issued an appeal for a “more effective implementation” of an existing arms embargo on Haiti.

“It is shocking that despite the horrific situation on the ground, arms keep still pouring in,” Türk said in a Thursday statement.

Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia who has written books on Haiti, said the gangs would never have grown so strong without the mass proliferation of U.S. guns.

“If they didn’t have those weapons, they wouldn’t be as powerful, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “The more guns get there, the more powerful they get.”

The guns arrive to Haiti through a vast network of criminals operating abroad, many of them in Florida or other southeastern U.S. states.

Firearms are bought legally in the U.S., at gun shops or shows. They are usually smuggled in shipments leaving from Miami-Dade and Port Everglade in Florida, paid for with gang profits made through extortion and drug sales.

The ships often dock in nearby countries such as Jamaica or Panama before sending shipments through smaller vessels to Haitian ports at Port-au-Prince or Port-de-Paix, according to a 2023 United Nations report. Firearms can also arrive in Haiti through small planes flying into airports.

In Haiti, gangs control key access to maritime ports, airports and border crossings with the Dominican Republic, another avenue for arms trafficking. With the collapse of the government, there is almost no one stopping the flow of arms once they reach Haiti.

Yet Haiti relies on imports for all kinds of goods and supplies, making the country reliant on shipments that will have to keep flowing. And compounding the problem is that Haiti is notoriously corrupt, with police officers sometimes diverting weapons provided to them from international countries including the U.S. into the hands of gangs.

The United Nations noted that there could be as many as 500,000 guns in Haiti, though the exact number is not known and potentially much higher.

Alexander Causwell, an analyst at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, said the sheer amount of guns in the country has created “pure anarchy” and a spiraling situation — regardless of future arms trafficking.

“The problem is that there’s already lots of guns there. That’s the current problem. Which is why they’re undergoing this kind of criminal insurgency against what’s left of the state,” he said of the gangs.

U.S. guns have long fueled violence throughout Latin American and the Caribbean world, including in countries such as Mexico where cartels have grown to outsized power.

The Biden administration has been trying to get at the problem. Last year it appointed a coordinator for Caribbean Firearms Prosecutions and signed a cooperation agreement with the HNP on a tracing system to better identify smugglers.

The State Department is also working with the HNP and the Homeland Security Investigations agency at the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to bolster probes. And in September, the U.S. launched Operation Hammerhead together with a Caribbean task force, seizing at least 48 pistols, 10 rifles, 10 magazines, four revolvers, and 3,371 rounds of ammunition as of November.

Washington has also moved to prosecute criminal smugglers. The Department of Justice announced in February that Joly Germine, known as the “King” of the 400 Mawozo gang, had pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to smuggle 24 high-powered weapons, including AR-15s and AK-47s from the U.S. into Haiti.

From a Haitian prison, Germine worked with his former girlfriend and at least one other person to purchase the weapons in the U.S. and smuggle them into Haiti inside of a cargo of household goods, according to prosecutors.

Although the U.S. is making efforts, Diego Da Rin, a Latin American and Caribbean consultant for the International Crisis Group, said Washington could do more to step up inspections at ports where the firearms are leaving for Haiti.

“Countries should implement all necessary measures to curb the illegal arms to Haiti, including inspections at their own ports within their own borders,” Da Rin said. “The United States hasn’t made any concrete measures in that sense.”

He also called for enhanced scanning tools for port inspections.

Fatton, from the University of Virginia, said the Navy or Coast Guard, the latter of which already patrols around Haiti primarily to watch for migrants fleeing the country, could stop more small boats heading to the island.

“If you can stop the [trafficking] at the source, that would be the key,” he said. “I think the U.S. can do much better, even if the Haitian authorities are incapable or unwilling.”

Six Democratic senators in December sent a letter to President Biden asking what efforts he is taking to address the Haiti crisis, including to stop firearms smuggling.

Congress passed in 2022 the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which increased penalties for straw purchases of firearms and for the first time made trafficking arms a federal crime.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) joined Democratic colleagues in introducing bipartisan legislation this month to require the Biden administration report on the anti-firearm-trafficking provisions in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

In a statement to The Hill, Castro called for stepping up interagency cooperation, including between the Coast Guard and Homeland Security Investigations, and for more data on the U.S. weapons ending up in Haiti.

He praised Biden for tackling the problem on several fronts, but noted there was room for improvement.

“The administration has been slow to fulfill President Biden’s campaign promise to move oversight of gun exports back to the State Department — a delay that is hampering the fight against trafficking and making it easier for legal gun exports to the Dominican Republic and other nations to end up in the hands of Haitian gangs,” Castro said. “I hope the administration will make good on that promise soon.”

Meanwhile, in Haiti, open borders and lax enforcement have created a free zone for traffickers.

For Haitians, the well-armed gangs have plummeted their country into a spiraling humanitarian crisis, which will have to be addressed first before tackling the flow of arms.

Haiti Country Director Laurent Uwumuremyi, with the humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps, said hospitals and medical facilities are becoming non-functional because of a lack of personnel and supplies, while supply chains are struggling to deliver humanitarian aid.

“If the security situation is not established in the near future, the situation is going to deteriorate very significantly,” he said.

The U.S. and the regional alliance of the Caribbean Community are working to address the situation but are confronted with the reality of a nearly collapsed Haitian government and powerful gangs armed to the teeth.

The U.N. Security Council last year supported a Kenyan-led multinational police force to enter Haiti and quell the violence.

But Kenya has halted plans to send 1,000 troops in the wake of the resignation of Henry, the prime minister, raising concerns about being unable to work with an official entity in Haiti.

Le Cour, with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, said the multinational force may be able to move into Haiti once a transitional government council is appointed, which he said could come as soon as early April.

While there are questions about whether an international mission would be welcomed by Haitians and whether they can restore order safely and effectively, Le Cour said it “has to be done” to help the HNP.

“It’s going to be a challenge for the council,” he said, describing the task ahead as a “titanic” one. “But it’s the first step towards restoring governance and order and a minimum level of rule of law in the country.”

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