What led to the Haiti jailbreak – and can democracy be restored?

With gangs growing more powerful, political leaders abroad and a UN force yet to appear, the country finds itself in an unprecedented crisis

On Sunday, after criminal gangs stormed Haiti’s two biggest jails and freed more than 3,800 criminals, the Government declared a 72-hour state of emergency and a night curfew. But with gangs now exerting de facto authority over about 80 per cent of the capital, and senior figures including the prime minister and acting president, Ariel Henry, out of the country, the government’s future appears increasingly uncertain.

In theory, Haiti’s path back from anarchy lies with an international UN-backed security force, led by 1,000 Kenyan police officers, to bring the gangs to heel – but the prospect of their arrival has led to a non-aggression pact between the warring gangs, and a declaration that they will seek to capture the police chief and government ministers.

What are the origins of the crisis?

It is seven years since Haiti held an election, almost three years since the president, Jovenal Moïse, was assassinated, and more than a year since the last elected officials left office – and the return of democracy to Port-au-Prince still appears to be distant.

Haiti’s crisis can be traced directly to Moïse’s assassination but the roots go much deeper: back to the economic catastrophe caused by the 2010 earthquake, the 29-year dictatorial rule of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and even to the grotesque impact of the vast “reparations” Haiti was forced to pay to France for generations after independence in 1804, which severely hampered economic development.


Prof Matthew Smith, a historian of Haiti at University College London, said last year: “You could see the country’s history as a series of crises with brief periods of hope and peace” – but even so, “the situation is unprecedented in Haiti’s history”.

What’s happened in the past year?

The situation has got worse. Almost 4,000 people were killed and 3,000 kidnapped in gang-related violence in 2023, the UN says; sexual violence is rife, with 1,100 attacks on women by October. About 200,000 people have been displaced, and half of Haitians do not have enough to eat. Basic services such as electricity, clean water and waste collection are unreliable. The final figures for 2023 are expected to show that the economy has contracted for five consecutive years.

The events of the past few days have caused deeper pessimism. Diego Da Rin, a Haiti expert at International Crisis Group who recently visited to research this report on the crisis, said: “The situation has greatly deteriorated with the prison attack, and other co-ordinated actions against state institutions. They have burned down police stations, attacked the main airport and threatened to seize the national palace.”

How much power do the gangs have?

Haiti’s prime minister, Henry, took up the role of acting president after the death of Moïse but is widely viewed as illegitimate, and has repeatedly failed to hold promised elections. The vacuum of democratically accountable political authority created space for already powerful gangs to expand their influence in the capital, and rival coalitions – G9, led by the former elite police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, and Gpèp, which lacks a single clear leader – have fought for control of the city.

Meanwhile, the police force is severely underpowered, with about 10,000 active officers across the country. UN estimates suggest they need about 26,000. Last year, about 1,600 officers stepped down.

The UN security council’s vote in October to send a multinational security force to Haiti to help combat the gangs appeared to worsen the violence, Da Rin said, with both sides seeking to secure more territory before the force’s arrival. “They were trying to show their superiority and to bring the state to its knees – and to send an intimidation message to foreign troops,” he added.

Now the two coalitions have revived a non-aggression pact as they seek to topple the interim Government and strengthen their position.

Could an international security force make a difference?

The UN’s announcement of its support for an international force led by Kenya prompted some optimism that it could challenge the gangs. The plan is not a formal UN peacekeeping force, in part because of the disastrous impact of the previous UN mission, which was tarnished by appalling sexual misconduct allegations and the fact that sewage from a UN camp was implicated in a cholera outbreak that killed nearly 10,000.

The hopes for the force were not to eliminate the gangs but to restore control of key routes in and out of the capital, protect state infrastructure and stabilise the security situation. Even so, there were warnings that any incoming force would need considerable training to take on the gangs in a labyrinthine urban environment where gang members typically wear normal clothes and are hard to distinguish from civilians.

“It is a very complicated challenge that the mission would have to face,” Da Rin said, pointing out that as well as the gangs the new arrivals would have to contend with Bwa Kale, an organic and diffuse civilian vigilante movement that has been linked to public lynchings of suspected gang members.

Nonetheless, he said, the gangs were “really fearing for their lives” in the face of the prospective new opponent. “They know the Haitian police are weak, but they are concerned about them having the backing of a well-trained and better-equipped foreign force.”

Why isn’t that force in place yet?

Five months after the force was given a UN mandate, there is still no presence on the ground – and it has been given an initial authorisation for only a year. “The clock has been ticking on that since October 2nd,” Da Rin said. “It should have been enough time to train, equip, and get the funds and personnel in place.”

One significant obstacle has been within Kenya, where the Government promised 1,000 police officers to lead a proposed force of up to 5,000 personnel – but then faced a court ruling that the plan was unconstitutional. Henry went to Nairobi last week to try to salvage the plan by signing a new agreement with Kenya’s president, William Ruto.

Henry’s absence from Haiti appears to have contributed to the gangs’ move on the prisons, and it is not yet clear when he plans to go back. The Miami Herald reported panic at rumours of his return on Monday, with businesses closing and police patrols increasing in response.

A further 2,000 personnel have been offered by Benin – but “they only appear to have committed these troops very recently, so it’s not sure at all if they’ve started training”, Da Rin said. “The problem is not just whether sufficient troops are being committed, it’s also the required funds for the mission to be fully operational.”

All of that means it could be months before the plan can be put into practice. There are suggestions that Kenya will not send its officers until funding is fully in place, and “if there is no leading nation there is no mission”, Da Rin said, “the window of opportunity for success will be closing soon”.

What will it take to disempower the gangs and restore democracy?

There were some indications that Barbecue and other gang leaders could seek a way out, Da Rin said, by attempting to position themselves as political actors seeking the best outcome for the Haitian people.

“That discourse could lead to a negotiated demobilisation or amnesty,” he said. “But they clearly have the upper hand right now, and the gangs have made the Haitian people suffer for so long – it will be very difficult for regular people to understand any negotiation with people who have kidnapped, raped and killed indiscriminately. So the right sequencing would be to deploy the mission, and then engage in negotiations from a position of strength.”

Meanwhile, the political opposition appears to have little faith in Henry’s promise to hold elections by August 2025. “Many don’t believe his word any more,” he said. “It will take a lot of effort from regional actors to convince them to resume negotiations with him.”

But such political questions appear a luxury at the moment. “The situation is an emergency,” Da Rin said. “If the gangs continue with these large-scale attacks, they could control all of the capital in a matter of days or weeks.” – Guardian