Haiti’s worsening national security crisis has the potential to generate regional contagion with global implications
Haiti’s security challenges
From the brief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
Indeed, Haiti has 1,771 kilometres of coastline and a 392-kilometre terrestrial border with the Dominican Republic. Yet the country’s major seaports, border crossings and airports have a modest police and customs presence and virtually no air, sea or land surveillance capabilities.
There are also many public and private ports, irregular roads and clandestine airstrips that are poorly monitored and rarely patrolled. As a result, large portions of Haiti’s frontier are porous and susceptible to transhipment of all manner of contraband, including narcotics and firearms.
Another factor that influences Haiti’s criminal economy are its extensive dependencies on imports. Indeed, every facet of the country’s formal and informal economy is connected to goods imported from abroad. For example, approximately 80 percent of all rice and cooking oil and roughly 50 percent of all food products used by Haitians are imported.
As a result, there is extensive exchange of goods and services across Haiti’s borders, particularly ports and border crossings, very little of which is subject to scrutiny by POLIFRONT, customs and the HCG. Notwithstanding changes in customs leadership in 2022 and extensive support from countries such as the US, France and Canada, Haiti’s policing and customs authorities are struggling to staff and resource their agencies, especially in frontier areas of the country.
They are not only unable to monitor the inflow of contraband but are themselves a frequent target of gangs. Corruption and patronage networks also incubate thriving black markets.
Haiti has frequently been included among the world’s most corrupt countries. In 2020, the World Bank scored Haiti 179 out of 190 economies in the ease of doing business.
Despite these challenges, the country’s anticorruption unit (ULCC) has made tentative inroads, including investigations into embezzlement of public property, the illegal award of contracts, misappropriation of funds and abuse of funds from the national to the local levels. The ULCC has reportedly issued over 70 requests to the judicial authorities of political figures failing to declare assets.
However, deeply entrenched corruption in the criminal justice sector means that convictions are exceedingly rare.
A majority of the legal and illegal products entering Haiti are offloaded from the country’s public and private seaports. There are several public and private ports spread out across Haiti, with the largest cluster in Port-au-Prince and others in Cap Haïtien, Les Cayes, Miragoâne, Port-de-Paix, Petit Goave and Corai.
With some exceptions, these ports are in poor condition, intermittently operational and several are closed down indefinitely.
There are a significant number of private ports distributed across Haiti, including Gonaïves, Jacmel, Jérémie and Saint Marc, some of them involved in handling international shortsea shipments.
There are also large numbers of unmonitored, unmarked and informal landing areas on western and southern Haiti’s coasts, including docks, wharves and beaches that facilitate easy access for firearms and drugs shipments.
Owing to both the security situation and the derelict state of many ports, container traffic is primarily from major hubs such as Miami-Dade and Port Everglade in the US and routed to Haiti via neighbouring ports such in Freeport (Bahamas), Kingston (Jamaica), Manzanillo (Panama) and Colon (Panama).
In many cases, consignments are shipped to Haiti not by large container ships but rather via smaller feeder vessels.
According to Haitian customs officials, different Haitian ports are associated with different types of contraband. For example, firearms and ammunition seizures are common on the western and north-western coasts including Port-au-Prince and Port-de-Paix, whereas drug interdiction is a more common occurrence on the northern and southern coasts of Haiti, notably Les Cayes, Jacmel and Jérémie.
Haiti’s primary and secondary road networks are also critical vectors for the movement of legal and illicit goods from the coasts to the Dominican Republic and from Dominican Republic into Haiti.
The principal road corridors consist of the RN1 running north-south from Cap Haitien to Port-au-Prince; the RN2 that that connects Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes in the south of the country; and the RN3 that stretches west to east from Port-au-Prince through Mirebalais and Hinche to the frontier with Dominican Republic.
Haiti also has many secondary road corridors of variable condition and more seldom, if ever, monitored by authorities. Several gangs presently control key access points to the RN1, RN2, and RN3, particularly junctures connected to Port-au-Prince. From there they can control territory, conduct kidnapping operations and extract illegal rents from passing vehicles.
Haitian and international authorities are preoccupied with how gangs have expanded their influence over access points to critical infrastructure and public facilities, presumably to strengthen their negotiating position with government authorities.
Gang federations such as the G9, for example, blockaded access to ports and restricted access to gasoline and diesel supplies, while calling for the resignation of high-level public officials. Other groups such as the 5 Seconds gang have periodically controlled sections of the RN1, blocked port Latifo, Cimenterie and Moulins d’Haiti, occupied Haiti’s main courthouse, and even freed inmates from Titanyen prison.
Meanwhile, large gangs such as 400 Mawozo have controlled key sections of the RN3 on route to the Dominican Republic, while also facilitating drugs and firearms shipments, robbing merchandise, selling black market fuel and choking local economies.
Airports and clandestine runways are another means of shifting legal and illegal products in and out of Haiti. Haiti has long served as a transit hub for the movement of cocaine, cannabis and to a lesser extent, heroin and amphetamines to the US and Dominican Republic.
Haiti’s official airport hubs are Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, with intermittent airline services available for Hinche, Jacmel, Jérémie, Les Cayes and Port-au-Paix. There are several other runways located from Anse-à-Galets and L'île de la Gonâve to Port-Salut, though few of these are currently operational.
Following Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, makeshift airstrips were hastily constructed to facilitate humanitarian assistance.
While not officially monitored by the Haitian government, clandestine runways were reportedly widespread across Haiti, though several strips were destroyed over the years by UN peace support operations in partnership with foreign and domestic authorities.
There are also indications that roads themselves have sometimes served as illegal runways for unregistered flights.
Although data on clandestine airstrips is limited, the case of Savane Diane in Arbonite is instructive .
HAITI’S CLANDESTINE AIRSTRIPS
A share of the cocaine shipped through Haiti and onward to foreign markets is transferred by air, including via illegal runways. Since the 1990s, for example, Cessna aircraft flew laden with cocaine from Colombia destined for the US and landed on clandestine strips built in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
With the expansion of Haitian cities over the past three decades, landing strips were gradually surrounded and in some cases overrun by new settlements.
During the 2000s, drug traffickers moved illegal airstrips northward to more isolated areas, including Savane Diane in the Department of Arbonite, roughly 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
The scale of drug shipments moving via planes in Haiti allegedly expanded during the 2000s and 2010s. During this period the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) benefitted from reconnaissance and logistics to disrupt the building of such illegal runways, though these capabilities reportedly declined due to a lack of intelligence and resources.
Over time, the Savane Diane area, which since 2021 was designated a “free agro-industrial export zone”, has benefited from several major development projects, including some that are a few miles from airstrips known for cocaine and heroin deliveries.
According to HNP officials, many locals are aware of drug trafficking, and the area is littered with the wreckage of abandoned or destroyed planes, some purported to be discarded after transferring their cargo.
Savane Diane is suspected of having experienced an uptick in air traffic in May and June 2021, with thousands of kilos of drugs allegedly changing hands.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), some planes also stopped and refuelled in Port-au-Prince even when the international airport was closed.
When President Moïse ordered the destruction of suspected clandestine airstrips in June 2021, including in Savane Diane, local authorities refused. A week later, President Moise was assassinated.
THE DYNAMICS OF FIREARMS SMUGGLING
There are no official statistics documenting the number or types of firearms in circulation in Haiti. A 2020 report of the National Commission on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (CNDDR) estimated that there could be as many as 500,000 small arms in the country. The CNDDR projection is double the estimate rendered by the UN in 2020 and HNP in 2015.
While the absolute number of weapons in Haiti may never be known, the vast majority in circulation are believed to be illegal. According to the Superior Council of the National Police, the HNP registered just 38,000 “legal” firearms in 2015, less than 15 percent of the estimated national stock at the time.
Assuming these figures are remotely accurate, Haiti’s law enforcement agents are outgunned by Haitian residents, private security company personnel and armed gangs.
Firearms and ammunition enter Haiti in multiple ways. Since Haiti does not officially manufacture firearms or ammunition, virtually all new rifles, handguns, magazines and bullets entering the country are imported either legally or illegally.
Very generally, several categories and calibre of firearms and ammunition are transferred lawfully to public and private authorities through licensed dealers and authorized transactions. According to multiple ICE and DEA reports, however, a larger share of weapons, munitions, parts and components are trafficked into the country through networks of diaspora and brokers either in shipping containers, in air freight consignments, hidden in trucks and cars or carried by individuals.
Weapons that are trafficked from the US to Haiti may first move through a variety of intermediaries, including Caribbean ports or middlemen in the Dominican Republic, before reaching their intended users.
Haitians legally import firearms, ammunition and parts for both public security agencies and private security companies.
Although Haiti is subject to a US embargo, several amendments allow for export of certain firearms and munitions to Haitian security forces. For example, in 2019, the US International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) awarded contracts for provisions of riot gear kits to the HNP.
The US also increased its support for the HNP from $2.8 million in 2016 to over $12.4 million by 2020. Direct assistance and training support is often delivered through intermediaries and established vendors. And in 2022, the US and Canada expanded new commitments, including military and policing supplies, to the HNP. Owing to weak oversight and controls, however, weapons and ammunition are periodically diverted and recirculated into civilian markets.
Owing to weak oversight and poor record-keeping, the dimensions of diversion of lawfully acquired firearms and ammunition are difficult to estimate. Specifically, firearms and munitions managed by the HNP – whether procured for police officers or seized arms that are held in storage – can end up being resold into secondary markets or passed on to friends and family.
Likewise, handguns and shotguns legally acquired by registered private security companies and licensed users can be resold to unregistered users.
According to multiple sources, most new firearms and ammunition entering Haiti are smuggled into the country illegally by land, air and most frequently, sea.
Indeed, many firearms and ammunition seizures by Haitian customs officials are a result of inspecting containers heralding from the US and docked in Haiti’s public and private ports, particularly in Port-au-Prince.
A modest number of companies and private interests with access to ports and transportation logistics are often implicated in weapons and ammunition trafficking.
The principal source of firearms and munitions in Haiti is in the US, and in particular Florida.
Popular handguns selling for $400-500 at federally licensed firearms outlets or private gun shows in the US can be resold for as much a $10,000 in Haiti, though prices vary depending on local preferences and international supply.
Higher-powered rifles such as AK47s, AR15s and Galils are typically in higher demand from gangs, commanding correspondingly higher prices.
A network of criminal actors, including members of the Haitian diaspora, often source firearms from across the US.
Analysts speak of an “iron pipeline” that not only spans the US, but also shuttles firearms and ammunition to countries across the Americas, including Haiti.
Weapons are frequently procured through straw man purchases in US states with looser gun laws and fewer purchasing restrictions. Once acquired, firearms and ammunition are then transported to Florida where they are concealed and shipped to Haiti.
Consignments may be assembled and delivered in containers directly from ports in South Florida, with items hidden inside consumer products, electronic equipment, garment linings, frozen food items or even the hulls of freighters. On arrival in Haiti, including major hubs such as Port-de-Paix and Port-au-Prince, cargo is offloaded and passed on to end-users via a host of intermediaries.
Another means by which firearms and ammunition are shipped to Haiti is via the Dominican Republic and to a lesser extent Jamaica.
Media reports and interviews with Haitian customs officials suggest that weapons may first transit through key ports in Santo Domingo such as Haina, before being shipped across border crossings into Haiti, including from Jimani, Comendador and Elias Pina.
Officials at the Haina port alone reportedly seized over 112,000 “units of firearms and ammunition” in the first six months of 2022, most of them heralding from the US.
Haitian customs officials also periodically intercept contraband at the border – including firearms – intermingled with food products such as beans, flour and rice.
Firearms and ammunition have been seized at border crossings including Pedernales and Dajabon in Dominican Republic and Belladère, Malpasse and the Codevi tax free zone in Ouanaminthe in Haiti.
The extent of crossborder trafficking appears to be linked to the extent of police and customs presence as well as the extent of gang control. For example, Malpasse recently registered a decline in the volume of crossborder transactions due to gang activity, resulting in a surge of illicit goods diverted through Belladère instead.
Haiti’s customs agents are operating in a context of extreme insecurity. According to the director general of customs, multiple offices have been sacked and forced to close since September 2022, with several officials forced to abandon their posts. For example, customs offices in Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc and Gonaïves together with the Léogâne road checkpoint have all been vandalized. Customs authorities also claim that Port Latifeau, the Malasse and Belladère customs offices and the Gantier road checkpoints are essentially “inoperative”.
Media have reported that a customs officer in Belladère was doused with gasoline by a purported smuggler in late December 2022. The threat of kidnapping and ransom is ever present.
Meanwhile, in the US, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has reported a surge in firearms trafficking from Florida to Haiti between 2021 and 2022. A spokesperson described the recovery of increasingly sophisticated arms including .50 calibre sniper rifles, .308 rifles, and even belt-fed machine guns destined for Haitian ports.
The US has linked the increased pace of purchases to gang activities in and around Portau-Prince. For example, in May 2022, one of the leaders of the 400 Mawozo gang was extradited to the US under an arrest warrant connected to firearms trafficking.
The HSI has also launched a series of operations to scale-up interdiction measures in partnership with the ATF, the Department of Commerce, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Growing international attention to firearms trafficking may be contributing to an increase in publicized seizures in Haiti. On 1 July 2022, for example, 157 cases of munitions totalling over 120,000 rounds were seized in Port-de-Paix.
News reports indicated that vehicles with police plates were reportedly waiting nearby to transport the cargo via routes controlled by local gangs.
Another consignment of more than 25,000 cartridges was intercepted between 12 and 13 July 2022 while being transported on a public bus.
Meanwhile, on 13 and 14 July 2022, customs officials in Port-au-Prince reportedly intercepted several containers containing assault rifles, pistols, ammunition, and cash on a boat from Miami.
FIREARMS TRAFFICKING AND THE CHURCH
Haiti was recently rocked by a controversy involving a sophisticated arms trafficking network and the Episcopal Church. In July 2022, Haitian customs authorities in Port-au-Prince intercepted containers addressed to the Episcopal Church and labelled as relief supplies containing semi-automatic weapons, handguns, and cash in Port-au-Prince.
The Church itself is not under investigation and has denied any direct involvement in arms trafficking.
The scandal shines a light on the privileged tax exemption status enjoyed by religious, non-governmental, and certain commercial institutions in Haiti.
The 1989 amendment to Haiti’s Investment Code allows certain customs privileges for non-governmental organizations and companies operating in designated sectors. However, as rules were increasingly abused by those provided with exemptions, customs officials started more closely scrutinizing bills of lading.
An investigation led by an established human rights organization in Haiti, Reseau National de Defense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), offers a detailed timeline of the alleged weapons trafficking incident.
According to the report, three containers reportedly sent by the Episcopal Church arrived at Haitian customs in April 2022; after several attempts to verify their contents were blocked, rumours began circulating of possible malfeasance.
On 14 July 2022, Haitian customs authorities inspected the three containers that had been shipped by a Florida-based company. While the first container did not raise suspicions, in the second container customs officials uncovered 17 5.56 and 7.62 semi-automatic rifles, four 3 and 40mm pistols, a shotgun, 12,779 rounds of 7.72 ammunition, thousands of rounds of 5.56, 9mm and 12-gauge ammunition, and at least $50,000 in counterfeit bills.
According to local news reports, Haiti’s BLTS and its Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) were immediately involved in the inspection. At least 12 people were identified as suspects in the smuggling of weapons, though just six were later arrested. Among those charged by the police were church employees and a customs commissioner.
The latest uptick in firearm seizures together with intelligence and law enforcement reporting suggests that firearms trafficking between the US and Haiti is surging. That said, it is important to be cautious with inferring trends from the limited data that is available.
The HNP do not yet have a capability to collate data or conduct traces on seized firearms. For its part, UNODC has received no official information from the Haitian government on firearms trafficking in Haiti.
While the UNPOL office in Haiti collects statistics on firearms seizures from HNP, customs and other agencies, these datasets are incomplete. Nevertheless, the data available do provide indicative trends on both categories of firepower and the volume in circulation.
A review of seized firearms reported by HNP and UNPOL from 2021-2022 provides some insight into the categories of weapons being used, the numbers in circulation and the location of their use. Specifically, the largest share of firearms intercepted by the Haitian authorities during this period appear to be pistols, rifles and home-made weapons, including pipe guns, followed by revolvers and shotguns.
Most reported seizures between 2021 and 2022 occurred in the West Department, where Port-auPrince is located. The next highest cluster of seizures occurred in the North Department, including Cap-Haitien, followed by the Northwest, Center, and South Departments. The breakdown of seizures also corresponds roughly with population concentration across Haiti but may also be correlated with policing priorities and capabilities.
DRUG TRAFFICKING DYNAMICS
Haiti has a long history of involvement in the international drugs trade. The country emerged as a transit hub for cocaine heading to the US, courtesy of the Medellin Cartel in the late 1980s.
According to early media reports, Colombian criminal organizations moved dozens of tons of cocaine a year.
Powerful politicians and local business elites were allegedly involved for decades.
Over the years, at least a dozen countries have been connected to the drugs trade in Haiti and prominent nationals from Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela were arrested in Haiti by the DEA for their involvement in drug trafficking.
Most of the cocaine passing through Haiti appears to be sourced from Colombia and the cannabis from Jamaica.
Drugs may transit a range of countries and territories before and after arriving in Haiti, including Venezuela, Bahamas, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos.
Different drugs take different routes both getting to and leaving Haiti. Haiti is primarily a transit country for the movement of cocaine and cannabis.
While there are periodic seizures of crack, heroin, fentanyl, amphetamines and local products, these are widely regarded as a comparatively low priority by international and domestic law enforcement.
An analysis of official data on drug routing, seizures and related offences involving cannabis and cocaine in Haiti between 2020 and 2022 is revealing.
With respect to drug routing, the vast majority of cannabis herb and cannabistype drugs arriving to Haiti were from Jamaica. Likewise, the majority of cannabis herb and other cannabis-type drugs leaving Haiti were destined for the Dominican Republic, supposedly to feed tourist demand.
Destination countries for cocaine include the US, along with Canada, France and Switzerland, among others.
There are multiple reported sources, entry points, and vectors for transhipment of cocaine and cannabis in Haiti. For one, cocaine is believed to be sourced primarily from Colombia, including via Venezuela.
Owing to a lack of laboratory testing, there is limited insight into whether cocaine seized in Haiti comes from production in other countries such as Bolivia or Peru.
Cannabis is sourced from Jamaica, though Haiti has limited domestic production of poorer quality herb.
The most common entry points for drugs include Hanche and Jacmel, Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitian to the north.
Key border crossings for the transit of drugs out of the country include Malpasse as well as less monitored secondary routes across the mountainous terrain of southern Haiti into the Dominican Republic.
Product enters Haiti directly on containers or via GPS-tagged parcels retrieved offshore by go-fast boats and then offloaded in private ports or coastal areas to be shipped by land to the Dominican Republic border.
Although most cocaine, cannabis and heroin transiting Haiti are reportedly destined from US and Western European consumers, including in the Dominican Republic to supply foreign tourists, there are anecdotal reports that narcotics are also integrated into domestic criminal markets.
In a country suffering from extreme poverty and inequality, there are significant pay-outs for political and economic elites, customs officials, law enforcement agents, gang leaders and a host of other intermediaries in the physical retrieval, shipment and storage of drugs and protection of illegal networks.
What is more, cocaine itself may be used as a medium of exchange among criminal groups, including for acquiring firearms and ammunition.
In addition to being consumed by local elites, drugs are also shared among the rank and file of gangs and serve a modest demand in larger Haitian cities.
Notwithstanding the dearth of published studies on drug use in Haiti, national authorities contend that there is comparatively low domestic drug consumption in Haiti.
The head of the Haitian drug observatory (OSV) for the national commission for the fight against drugs (CONALD), reported in 2020 that there were modest increases in the consumption of locally produced drugs among youth and women.
Given the comparatively low incomes of most Haitian residents, it stands to reason that there may be only modest consumption of cocaine, most likely restricted to wealthier residents.
The Haitian authorities oversee small-scale public awareness initiatives and demand reduction services funded through CONALD, though the impacts are unknown.
While Haiti has long served as a transhipment hub, increased instability may be influencing its attractiveness to traffickers.
There are several attributes that continue to make Haiti a magnet for the transhipment of drugs. For one, it lacks an effective maritime control capability.
The HCG consists of fewer than 200 officers and oversees a fleet of a dozen vessels, though only one is reportedly operational, four require repairs, and seven are no longer functioning.
The country’s drug enforcement agency, BLTS, has just one functioning boat for maritime interdiction.
Customs officials lack remote scanning and X-ray facilities, reducing the scrutiny of incoming cargo.
And while countries such as the US, Canada and France have invested in strengthening local customs and police capacities, particularly in the north of the country, Haiti lacks meaningful surveillance and patrol infrastructure at the border.
The continued high levels of cocaine production in source countries and increased gang influence in Haiti are additional factors that suggest that the HNP may only be capturing a modest share of the drugs passing through the country.
A review of UNPOL and HNP trend data on drug seizures between 2021 and 2022 sheds some light on the dynamics of drug transhipment in Haiti. Both the information and the analysis should be treated as inferential given the uneven nature of data collection.
As in the case of firearm seizures, it is not possible to specify empirically whether Haiti is experiencing changes in the scale or prevalence of drug transhipment. For example, an increase in reported drug seizures on its own can be interpreted in multiple ways – signalling that drug enforcement capacities have increased, that drug shipments expanded, some combination of the two, or another independent variable. Even so, the assessment offers temporal insights into the types of drugs being seized, a generic overview of the volume being captured and the locations over time. The high level of seizures over the past two years in a context of diminished HNP capacity may indicate that drug flows are relatively stable, though more research is needed.
A review of 2021-2022 drug seizures suggests that, compared to the longer-time series, quantities of intercepted of drugs declined. A relatively small number of major cannabis seizures account for the overwhelming share of all drugs intercepted (by quantity). Cocaine seizures are stable, with just a scattering of low yield seizures between 2021-2022. All told, there were five metric tons of cannabis herb seized in total and a little over 67 kilograms of cocaine (from January 2021 to December 2022), though it is not clear to what extent this may be an undercount.
As noted, it is not advisable to infer trends from the data featured in this report, including whether the overall extent of drug transhipment is rising or declining.
Seizure data also provides some insight into the scale of product that transits through Haiti. For example, between 2000 and 2022, the extent of cannabis herb and cocaine intercepted varied from year to year, although there was negligible interception of crack, heroin or amphetamines.
Cannabis herb seizures oscillated from a few hundred kilos to several thousand kilos, with a peak in 2014 of some 4,321 kilos. Cocaine seizures vary from single digits to several hundred kilos, with a high point of 335 kilos seized in 2012.
The extent of seizures over the past few years would suggest that Haiti’s role as a transit country has not necessarily diminished, nor has it increased dramatically. However, unverified reports of major drug shipments via Haiti in 2021, for example, warrant further examination.
The relative importance of Haiti as a hub for cocaine shifts when accounting for seizures destined for Haiti or arriving to separate ports from Haiti. Indeed, some experts believe that cocaine trafficking to and from Haiti may have peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s and has steadily declined since then.
In 1999, for example, the DEA estimated that approximately one fifth of all Colombian cocaine consumed in the US transited Haiti, as much as 67 tons a year. In 2015, it was reported that authorities failed to seize an estimated 700-kilogram cocaine and 300-kilogram heroin shipment in Port-au-Prince’s Varreux port, an incident that continues to be shrouded in mystery.
Another 907-kilogram shipment of cocaine was reportedly seized from a Haitian vessel by US authorities in Miami in 2016.
And in 2017, a 410-kilogram shipment of cocaine headed to Haiti was intercepted in Colombia.
These large intercepted shipments are in stark contrast to the modest cocaine seizures in Haiti proper with approximately 32 kilograms seized in 2021 and 35 kilograms in 2022 (see Table 4).169
IMPLICATIONS AND RESPONSES TO FIREARMS AND DRUG TRAFFICKING
Haiti’s worsening national security crisis has the potential to generate regional contagion with global implications. If the country’s security and development institutions disintegrate, a significant international response will be required, including large-scale relief assistance and a stabilization or peace support operation.
At a minimum, years of recovery and development investment are unravelling. Organized violence is being deployed as a well-defined strategy on the part of gangs and their backers to subdue populations and expand territorial control.
According to Haiti’s UN Special Representative, at least five million Haitians are facing acute hunger and education and health services, already faltering, are on the verge of collapse.
Against a rapidly deteriorating security situation, the UN Security Council has demanded an immediate cessation of violence and urged all political actors to engage in meaningful negotiations and hold free and fair elections.
The UN Mission, BINUH, has urged political dialogue while several civil society groups produced a “national consensus document” to recommend practical steps toward an election within 18 months.
The National Consensus Agreement for an Inclusive Transition and Transparent Election was signed on 21 December 2022 and called for elections by February 2024.
The Haitian government has signalled its inability to stabilize the country on its own, as evidenced by the request for the deployment of an international specialized security force.
The Security Council has said it would “welcome” the force and the UN Secretary-General has likewise urged support for a multinational rapid reaction force that would “support the HNP”, primarily in the Portau-Prince metropolitan area.
A fundamental priority in Haiti is the restoration of security and stability, including in relation to the control of firearms availability and transhipment of drugs.
The Security Council has repeatedly expressed concerns about the illicit trafficking and diversion of arms and related material that are undermining human rights and the provision of assistance. It has also underlined the need to prohibit the transfer of weapons to non-state actors and urged Member States to provide and exchange timely and up-to-date information on illicit trafficking supply chains.
Moreover, the Security Council has stressed the need to disrupt the links between political and economic actors and gangs, as well as ensure more access of the HNP to areas controlled by armed groups.
To this end, the Security Council has established a sanction regime with travel bans, freezes on funds and financial assets and targeted arms embargoes for key individuals and entities associated with criminal activities, including those benefiting from the proceeds of illicit production and trafficking in drugs.
Resolution 2653 also established a Panel of Experts to gather, examine and analyse information on the sanctions measures, including the source and routes of arms trafficking to Haiti and incidents undermining the political transition.
Sanctions were also issued in late 2022 by some Member States targeting Haitian political and economic elites believed to be directly and indirectly assisting Haitian gangs acquiring drugs, firearms and ammunition, though the extent to which these will be enforced remains to be seen.
Regional measures to control firearms and drug trafficking must accompany in-country support. To this end, Caribbean countries are scaling-up operations to seize illicit firearms and drugs across the region.
A recent example is Operation Trigger VII in September 2022 led by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) and INTERPOL together with US agencies such as HSI, ATF, the Joint Regional Communications Center and law enforcement agencies from at least 19 countries.
The week-long operation seized 350 firearms, 3,300 rounds of ammunition and “record” hauls of illegal drugs. Police reportedly arrested over 510 people and seized more than 10.1 metric tons of cocaine and over 2.5 metric tons of cannabis.
Notwithstanding the recent operation, regional organizations have yet to craft a coherent strategy with Haiti.
CARICOM IMPACS is exploring proposals to support stockpile management and destruction measures and investigations, but a more comprehensive and sustained engagement is needed.
Amid reports of increased trafficking of firearms from Florida to Haiti and after designating Haiti a “major drug transit” country, the US increased interdiction efforts on the mainland and in Haiti.
In the US, agencies such as HSI, ATF and others established a Border Enforcement Security Task Force in order to “ramp up efforts to stem the flow of illicit weapons in Haiti and the Caribbean”.
ICE also opened an office in Port-au-Prince to coordinate efforts, and committed extra resources to close down smuggling routes, confiscate funds and disrupt money laundering.
Meanwhile, the Organization for American States (OAS) has also affirmed its concern with the deteriorating situation in Haiti. The OAS Secretariat has urged Member States and permanent observers to urgently offer direct support to the Haitian authorities to improve training of port security agents, particularly with respect to the fight against firearms trafficking.
The OAS has underlined the importance of devoting more resources to strengthening the capacities and means of the HNP to restore order in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Moreover, the OAS has set up a working group on Haiti, taking note of measures adopted by the Security Council, in particular the provisions of resolutions 2645 regarding arms and ammunition trafficking and 2653 on sanctions.
Ultimately, regional cooperation must extend beyond a narrow focus on interdicting firearms and confiscating drugs. Indeed, the CARICOM region must also engage with a range of issues that shape Haiti’s security challenges, including criminal networks and migration and human trafficking.
To this end, a priority for the region is the reinforcement of early warning mechanisms and rapid coordination measures to support preventive strategies and operational activities. A greater emphasis is needed to promote the sharing and exchange of experiences among member states across the region, as well as with other counterparts.
The principal focus of international and national efforts to promote stability is on reinforcing the capabilities of the HNP.
Haitian authorities have emphasized the importance of practical support for anti-gang operations and the prevention of sexual violence, including the deployment of international police advisers embedded in specialized HNP units.
Other areas of focus include expanding the number of trained officers, continued vetting of recruits, expanded community-focused policing capabilities and the restoration of police stations destroyed in gang-controlled areas.
Governments have been urged to provide equipment, including tactical vehicles, as well firearms and ammunition. Any such actions must be accompanied with stringent oversight and management measures to avoid diversion, as well as efforts to strengthen the capacities of the Haitian government, including the HNP, to stem the trafficking of firearms and ammunition.
The UN Security Council has repeatedly stressed the importance of reinforcing the capacities of HNP and its specialized units focused on borders, drugs, firearms, sexual crimes, the protection of minors and the anti-kidnapping cell.
UN representatives have also underlined that efforts must be Haitian-led and that additional measures to prevent and reduce armed violence, including in “hot spots” near critical infrastructure, are warranted.
These calls are not without precedent. Security system reform has been a priority in Haiti for years.
For almost three decades, international partners have sought to strengthen police leadership; improve recruiting, vetting and training opportunities; provide equipment and build facilities; and improve overall operational capabilities.
Although Haiti has registered progress, its police, customs and coast guard agencies remain far too small in size, unevenly trained and under-resourced. For example, the HNP has a ratio of 1.06 officers per 1,000 residents, well below the 2.2 per 1,000 recommended by the UN.
Owing to the deteriorating security environment in 2022, several efforts are underway to rapidly expand support to the HNP and associated border and customs agencies. For example, several Member States transported several armoured vehicles to Haiti in 2022 and 2023 to support counter-gang operations.
Meanwhile, international partners launched a new multi-donor security basket fund to mobilize support for the HNP and have raised $17.8 million by the end of 2022. Several Member States are also focused on ensuring continued support to the HNP academy and HNP school to ensure ongoing professional training and development of new recruits and serving officers.
A concern expressed by several experts was the risk of the de-professionalization of the HNP and the dangers of deteriorating morale.
The challenges are formidable: at the end of January 2023, media reported that HNP officers had taken to the streets in protest of recent killings of police officers by armed gangs, and in the process blocked roads, attempted to break into the residence of the Prime Minister and temporarily trapped the Prime Minister himself at the airport.
The HNP leadership subsequently announced the launch of a counter-offensive against the gangs, Operation Tornado 1.
Assistance is also needed to expand HNP numbers and capabilities, including in relation to counternarcotics, with support provided to BLTS, POLIFRONT and the HCG.
For their part, US officials contend that the HNP needs to expand to at least 22,000 officers and address persistently low operational capacity, insufficient funding, fuel shortages and management shortfalls.
Likewise, greater investment is required in strengthening SWAT capabilities, community- and place-based policing, improving investigations and chain of custody, criminal justice sector reform and modernizing data collection, analysis and sharing (including laboratory capacities) across agencies.
An essential priority in the short- to- medium-term is the reinforcement of Haiti’s justice and penal systems that have been degraded by gang-related violence and chronic funding gaps.
Haitian authorities are stepping-up action to bolster legislation to control firearms. For one, the HNP has reportedly suspended all firearms licences amid concerns about rising unrest, though it is not clear how this act is being enforced.
Haiti is the twelfth country to commit to adopting the Caribbean Firearms Roadmap (signed in 2020), an initiative of CARICOM and the Dominican Republic.
As part of its commitment, Haiti drafted a National Action Plan (NAP) to address illegal firearms in the country in 2022.
In line with the Roadmap, the NAP updates the regulatory framework for governing firearms and ammunition, outlines a strategy for reducing illicit flows across Haiti’s borders and calls for the reinforcement of law enforcement capacities to fight trafficking and decrease diversion from state and non-state arsenals.
The NAP was prepared in partnership with the UN Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) and awaits approval by the Prime Minister.
There is an urgent need to centralize the regulation and management of firearms. The NAP could help Haiti evolve a single focal point for managing firearms control issues across government. Likewise, strengthened firearm legislation could usefully clarify rules and responsibilities.
Firearm control measures are currently managed under the Central Division of the Administrative Police (DCPA). But the DCPA’s carry permit service (Service de Porte d’Armes à Feu, or SAF) lacks a clear mandate, personnel and material resources.
Support to strengthen the SAF could also include a functional civilian firearms database as recommended in the draft NAP. Moreover, stockpile management processes could be usefully reinforced, a theme raised in prior UN evaluations.
Additional assistance could be directed toward standardizing procedures for investigating (e.g. handling and tracing) seized firearms, tasks currently managed by the Central Direction of the Judicial Police.
Any measures to control weapons and seize drugs must be further accompanied by improved transparency and accountability over political and economic actors who may be involved in trafficking, illicit financial flows and supporting armed groups with financial resources and material.
International partners are determined to prioritize anti-corruption measures in the medium-term. Haiti only recently classified corruption as a crime in 2014, after which penalties were established for bribery and illegal procurement.
Strengthening Haiti’s Unit for Combating Corruption is essential to curb drug and firearms trafficking. So too is upgrading the country’s judicial system, including to address outdated penal and criminal codes, inadequate judicial oversight and reported widespread systemic corruption.
As of 2022, there have been just five successful convictions of drug trafficking and one corruption conviction in Haiti.
Moreover, there are several longer-term challenges related to drugs and illicit firearms that will also require careful attention after Haiti’s security situation is stabilized. For one, there are risks that local drug consumption, particularly among younger Haitians, could increase, and public services are under-funded and ill-prepared to address the consequences.
Other priorities include investments in community violence prevention and reduction, including through integrated programmes emphasizing the restoration of territorial control and resumption of services for young at-risk residents.
Even if an immediate focus of support to Haiti is on law and order, these longer-term priorities cannot be neglected. Ultimately, sustained assistance and institutional reforms will be required to restore basic public security, criminal justice, border control and customs institutions, to support Haiti’s path out of crisis.