The United States Embassy in Haiti has issued an urgent advisory for American citizens in the Caribbean nation, calling for their swift departure “as soon as possible” due to the escalating security and infrastructure challenges that have plagued the country. The deteriorating situation is marked by surging violence, leading to a spike in homicides and the displacement of thousands.

Dire Humanitarian Fallout as Gang Turf War Rages On

In a press statement released Wednesday, the embassy emphasized the critical need for US citizens to leave Haiti using commercial or private transportation. The advisory also stressed the importance of exercising “extreme caution” throughout the departure process.

The catalyst for this dire advisory is an ongoing gang turf war that has wreaked havoc across the island nation. The humanitarian crisis triggered by this conflict has reached alarming proportions, resulting in the displacement of approximately 200,000 individuals nationwide. Shockingly, this turmoil has left a staggering 5.2 million people, nearly half of Haiti’s population, in desperate need of humanitarian aid. The United Nations has confirmed these distressing statistics.

Safety Concerns Prompt Temporary Closure of US Embassy

Tensions escalated to such an extent that earlier this month, the US Embassy in the capital city of Port-au-Prince was forced to temporarily close its doors. Gunfire in the vicinity prompted the embassy to take this precautionary measure. All embassy personnel were confined to embassy compounds until further notice due to the ongoing threat posed by the gunfire.

In response to the unpredictable security situation, the embassy also issued a security alert regarding possible travel disruptions. The alert cautioned that certain routes leading to the embassy could be affected by rapid gunfire, further highlighting the perilous environment that American citizens and embassy personnel find themselves in.

The recent closure coincided with intense demonstrations that shook the capital earlier that week. Protesters clashed with police officers, demanding protection from the rampant gang violence that has gripped the nation. These protests underscore the widespread fear and frustration among Haitian citizens grappling with the dire consequences of the escalating violence.

Historical Context of Gang Violence in Haiti

The ongoing turmoil and escalating gang violence in the Caribbean are not isolated occurrences; they are deeply rooted in the nation’s history of political instability and external pressures. Over the years, Haiti, with its population of 11 million people, has grappled with a series of challenges, with the situation deteriorating significantly following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021. This tragic event marked a turning point, propelling gangs to exert outsized control and employ indiscriminate violence to seize dominion over most of the territory in Port-au-Prince while expanding their influence to other regions.

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Haiti’s history bears witness to violence perpetrated by groups and gangs closely connected to the state. While such occurrences are not new, a convergence of factors has amplified the power of these gangs in the present moment. Going as far back as the rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who transitioned from being a populist elected leader to a dictator reigning from 1957 to 1971, political leaders have established and harnessed armed groups external to national security forces. These groups have been utilized to enforce personal agendas and self-interest or ensure protection, as highlighted in an October Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime report.

In the contemporary context, two primary groups have emerged as the focal points of the current gang violence crisis: G-Pep and G9. Their struggle for control over Port-au-Prince has led to a chilling reality where an estimated 60 percent of the capital city is under their sway. The tactics employed by these groups are terrorizing and indiscriminate, encompassing not only threats of murder but also instances of abduction for ransom, extortion, and sexual violence. The suffering inflicted upon civilians often occurs randomly, adding to the fear and insecurity gripping the population.

The origins of the current gang structure can be traced back to the leadership of Jean-Bertrande Aristide, a former leader of Haiti. According to insights from Daniel Foote, the former US special envoy to Haiti who resigned in 2021 due to policy disagreements, this structure began taking shape during Aristide’s rule. The exact nature of the involvement of political leaders and their role in nurturing these groups remains a complex issue.

Gang Violence’s Widespread Impact: Calls for International Assistance

The surge in gang violence has not only led to increased kidnappings and homicides but has also wrought havoc on the country’s healthcare infrastructure.

Since the beginning of the year, the UN estimates that at least 2,439 people have been killed, and about 200,000 have been displaced by gang warfare.

Instances of kidnappings and rapes also have increased, as have widespread hunger and public health crises. The dire security situation has been compounded by unsettling statistics of violence, displacement, and social disruption. According to the United Nations assessment, the ripple effects of this turmoil have left an alarming 5.2 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, the Haitian National Police, responsible for maintaining law and order, has faced severe challenges. High numbers of killings and kidnappings of officers have been reported. The force remains under-resourced and ill-equipped, and accusations of ties to gangs and corruption have further eroded public trust. The UN reveals that the Haitian National Police comprises around 10,000 active officers, yet only approximately 3,300 are dedicated to public safety duties. This disparity has fueled a rise in vigilantism as citizens seek to fill the security void left by the struggling police force.

In response to the escalating crisis, international efforts have been initiated to provide support and restore stability. In late July, Kenya took a significant step by offering to lead a potential foreign force and contribute 1,000 police officers to train and assist Haiti’s police. This initiative aims to “restore normalcy in the country and protect strategic installations.” However, critical questions surrounding the nature and scope of this mission remain unanswered. Discussions revolve around whether the foreign force would engage in offensive actions against gangs or primarily focus on safeguarding key infrastructure. Moreover, the mission’s duration, funding sources, and roadmap have yet to be solidified. Both the Bahamas and Jamaica have also expressed their willingness to provide personnel, and the Biden administration has conveyed its commitment to securing resources for this mission.

The international response represents a glimmer of hope for Haiti as nations collaborate to address the multifaceted challenges that have plunged the country into chaos. The urgency to quell gang violence, restore security, and alleviate the humanitarian crisis remains paramount. As these efforts take shape, attention turns to how this foreign force will be structured, funded, and supported to effectively contribute to restoring stability and security in the Caribbean.