Strategic Assessment: Haiti

Gang Violence, International Intervention, and Civil War


Executive Summary

  • At least 80% of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, is controlled by violent gangs that killed and kidnapped thousands of people in 2023.

  • The UN Security Council voted on October 2, 2023, to send a multinational force led by Kenya to help quell the violence, but Kenya is only sending 1,000 police officers.

  • The multinational force is extremely unlikely to have a positive impact on the situation, and Kenya’s political situation will likely end the intervention before the mandate is complete.

  • It is extremely unlikely that the political and economic situations will improve, which will aggravate pull factors for people joining gangs to secure resources and territory.

  • Vigilante violence is extremely likely to increase as law enforcement continues to fail in counter-gang operations.

  • Considering the relevant factors, the country is likely to descend into a complicated civil war over the medium term rather than see any improvement in gang violence.


In late 2022, Haiti requested international assistance and direct intervention to mitigate the expanding problem of gangs in the country. On October 2, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved sending a Kenya-led multinational force to Port-au-Prince. The UNSC mandate will last for 12 months and includes Kenya sending 1,000 police officers to supplement Haitian forces. In addition, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, and Jamaica have offered assistance along with the US pledging $200 million in aid. According to the mandate, the primary goal is to create sufficient stability for free and fair elections to occur, but this is extremely unlikely to occur in the medium term.

Haiti is extremely unlikely to improve even with the multinational force of additional law enforcement officers. The political and economic instability are too systemic, and local law enforcement lacks personnel and resources. Violent gangs are now being met by vigilantes, and the government has practically no control of the situation. Therefore, the most likely scenario for Haiti is increased violence, a failed intervention, and probable civil war.


Approximately 80-90% of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area is controlled by gangs, and since January 1 more than 3,000 homicides and more than 1,500 kidnappings have taken place combined with 200,000 internationally displaced persons fleeing the area. The Dominican Republic even closed its borders in September to stem the overflow of violence, though such closures happen on a recurring basis for different reasons. A report by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights has noted there are several dozen makeshift camps in the capital with more than half of them schools. Approximately 30-35,000 people became internal refugees in the last few months alone.

While gang violence is focused on Port-au-Prince, the gangs have blocked roads in and out of the city, which is making the situation significantly worse. Floods in the summer of 2023 saw humanitarian aid diverted from those roads, and food prices have skyrocketed because of a lack of access. According to the UN, almost 5 million Haitians are facing “acute food insecurity.” Almost all of Port-au-Prince faces gang violence, but there are also major issues of homicides, kidnappings, and rapes in Gonaives and Cap-Hatian.

Source: Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

Political issues in Haiti harm the legitimacy of the government. Prime Minister Ariel Henry leads the country, but he was neither elected nor has a constitutional mandate. Henry came to power following the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in 2021. Moïse was an unpopular leader who used extralegal measures to achieve his goals. In addition, Haiti’s economic situation is a critical driver of the gang violence, and this is extremely unlikely to improve over the medium term. Currently, half the population lives below the poverty line and relies on subsistence farming.

Economically, Haiti is dependent on external revenue, such as the $13 billion in UN relief from 2010-20 and billions in remittances ($4.5 billion in 2022, or 22% of the country’s GDP). National disasters have exacerbated the economic problems, particularly because of the mismanagement of humanitarian relief. The decline of tourism due to disasters, violence, and the pandemic has been especially harmful to the country’s economy. Finally, the country’s debts are a major problem because the government has extraordinary difficulties in making payments.

Fundamental Problems of Counter-Gang Operations

Despite Kenya’s deployment of law enforcement officers to help, the situation in Haiti is extremely likely to deteriorate further because of the relevant factors. These include structural inadequacies in law enforcement, political and economic instability, political problems in Kenya, the rise of vigilantism, and endemic difficulties of counter-gang operations outside of extreme force. The following sections will delineate the major problems and how Haiti is extremely unlikely to improve even with intervention.

Systemic Issues in Haiti

One of the primary problems with enforcing counter-gang operations will be major structural issues, foremost that Haiti only has about 10,000 police officers for a population of more than 11 million. For comparison, New York City has about 9 million people, but the NYPD employs more than 50,000 people. There are simply too few law enforcement officers in Haiti, and it is extremely unlikely that 1,000 additional ones from Kenya will cause a significant dent in gang warfare.

Understanding why Haiti’s security situation is precarious and extremely unlikely to improve starts with understanding the difference between gangs and other forms of sub-state violence (e.g., terrorism and organized crime). Gangs have leadership structures, but they are not object- or goal-oriented beyond controlling a specific and often small area for the purpose of committing street crimes. There is rarely an organizing ideology, developed hierarchies, or long-term strategies, which is why they can become so prevalent so quickly. They are often merely a collection of individuals from the same neighborhood (or even a few streets within a neighborhood), and they typically focus on indiscriminate violence for the sake of stealing or sadism. Another way to state this is that “activities of gangs are usually more fragmented, opportunistic and based on individual contacts.” (See here for a literature review of the subject).

This matters for assessing counter-gang operations and the likely success of the Kenyan-led multinational force of law enforcement intervention. Because gangs are diffuse and lack developed hierarchies, they will be harder to eliminate en masse. Hundreds of gangs exist in the Port-au-Prince area, and they are not only battling the government but each other. No strategy can encompass that many different gangs as when one is eliminated another could simply take over the territory or the targeted gang could split and regroup. In addition, gangs offer important psycho-social needs (belonging, physical safety, resources) that are systemically missing in Haiti. The political instability and economic deprivation will not be resolved in the medium term, which means that driving factors to join gangs will remain. Without managing the economic problems first, the pull of gangs will be strong, and the Haitian police cannot overcome those pull factors.

Issues in Kenya

Although Kenya currently supports the operation, following the UNSC vote Kenyan President William Ruto implemented a major cabinet reshuffle to help manage the politically fraught decision. Kenya’s parliament approved the deployment in mid-November, though opposition parties still opposed it. Despite the approval of parliament, the High Court determined that the deployment would be unconstitutional without a "reciprocal arrangement." President Ruto stated, though, that the mission would move forward because Haiti would provide the requisite documentation. Haiti will likely do so quickly. Importantly, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki told the legislature that “unless all resources are mobilized and availed, our troops will not leave the country.” Once Haiti submits the required reciprocal arrangement and the forces are seen as trained, they will be deployed to the island.

Bwa Kale

In response to the gang violence, some Haitians have attempted to improve their security despite the insufficient policies of the government. A vigilante movement started on April 24, 2023, when residents grew so frustrated they lynched and burned several gang members. Referred to as Bwa Kale, vigilantes are brutally fighting the gangs, matching force with force. This includes chopping off limbs of suspected gangsters, beheadings, and immolation. Bwa kale is “peeled wood” in Creole, and the term is a colloquialism for dominance and power. Though vigilante homicides are less than 10% of those committed by gangsters, Bwa Kale has brought some security to neighborhoods by providing access control. The Bwa Kale movement is highly likely to expand over the coming year because law enforcement will continue to fail to protect neighborhoods in the Port-au-Prince region. If the movement expands, then there is an increased likelihood of general mobilization by the populace into armed militias to fight the gangs and protect the neighborhoods. An expanded movement will delegitimize Prime Minister Henry, and it will significantly increase the likelihood of civil war.

Successful Counter-Gang Operations

Counter-gang operations are incredibly difficult to do well. Even the US with significantly more resources, a developed economy, and the rule of law has not been able to neutralize gangs in places like Los Angeles or Chicago. The most successful counter-gang strategy has come from El Salvador that began an extensive campaign to contain the violence that was leading to dozens of deaths per day. Considering the relevant similarities between Haiti and El Salvador (e.g., economics, refugees, levels of violence), the latter is a useful example for assessing indicators of whether the operations in Haiti will be successful or not. In El Salvador, the government suspended legal rights and arrested more than 66,000 people. The suspended rights included: police did not have to inform a suspect of the reason for their arrest or inform them of their rights, suspects could be held up to 15 days without arraignment, no right to an attorney, and increased ability for law enforcement to tap phone lines. The Salvadorian government also built a new prison specifically for gang members. A year after the measures, Salvador even went some days with no homicides. Importantly, the population accepted the violation of rights and abuses in order to stop the violence (about 80% of Salvadorians approve of the counter-gang measures).

Even if Haitians and the international community were to tolerate the suspension of legal rights and aggressive tactics, Haiti simply does not have a sufficient number of law enforcement officers nor the holding facilities to target gangs like El Salvador did. Considering these factors, it is extremely unlikely that Haiti’s counter-gang operations supported by Kenyan forces will have much impact.

Medium-Term Scenario

The most likely scenario for Haiti over the medium term is that following the intervention led by Kenya gangs will expand their violence further and target Kenyan officers directly. The Kenyan officers will respond with brutal tactics, and the intervention will lose international legitimacy followed by a removal of the international police officers because of deteriorating support in Kenya.

During the intervention and increased violence, the local population in Haiti is highly likely to increase their vigilante activity. Following the removal of international law enforcement, these vigilantes have a moderate likelihood of organizing more broadly against the gangs. Should this occur, Haiti will descend into a complicated civil war where there are hundreds of gangs facing off against the central government and dozens of vigilante groups. All of those involved will use extremely brutal tactics as described above, such as immolation and beheadings.

It is extremely unlikely that presidential elections will be held in 2024, particularly given the lack of progress that Haiti has made towards forming a government. Such progress appears to be continuously stalled in anticipation of foreign security assistance. In the unlikely event that elections are held, there would likely be significant structural issues to overcome, including likely allegations of fraud and/or foreign influence. The economic situation will continue to deteriorate, and the half of the population facing food insecurity will expand to the majority of the country. Political instability will preclude the effective application of foreign aid. As such, there is highly likely to be a major refugee crisis in the Caribbean with Haitians fleeing primarily to the Dominican Republic and the United States (Florida). That will cause security and geopolitical problems, and both the Dominican Republic and the United States are unlikely to accept a large number of refugees.

The medium-term scenario for Haiti is a declining situation of more political and economic instability, greater violence, mass refugees and internally displaced persons, and probable civil war.


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