After suffering for years under a reign of terror at the hands of increasingly powerful gangs, the people of Haiti are standing up and fighting back to regain control of their neighbourhoods and cities.
A movement called ‘Bwa Kale’ (literally ‘peeled wood’, and a metaphor for an act of swift justice) emerged at the end of April in response to an alarming rise in gang-related violence this year. With this movement, the people are taking matters into their own hands and have established self-defence organisations to protect their neighbourhoods from the gangs.
Surge in gang violence
Gangs have been a problem in Haiti for decades. The gangs have direct ties with the corrupt police as well as politicians and the ruling class, who have funded the gangs and used them for their own purposes: in criminal schemes, to intimidate rivals and settle scores, to collect money and votes, etc.
With the gangs, the Haitian political elites and the ruling class had a Frankenstein’s monster on their hands. As the crisis of Haitian society has deepened, the state and civil society are completely dysfunctional. The general sickness of capitalism in Haiti has allowed the gangs to grow and metastasise like an aggressive cancer.
The further the situation in Haiti declines, the more powerful the gangs become. The cancer of the gangs now threatens the very life of Haitian society itself. The gangs have slipped from the leash and are now in a powerful position. It is estimated that they currently control around 80 percent of the capital, Port-au-Prince, as well as the major roads in and out of the city.
Gang violence has been spiralling out of control for several years, especially since the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse – with brazen kidnappings, murders, and sexual violence. Gangs have engaged in open warfare for the control of territory, terrorising entire neighbourhoods and were involved in the assassination of activists and journalists.
Given the economic crisis and the political disintegration in Haiti, it was only a matter of time before the gangs became a political force on a national level. There was a crisis in September 2022 when the G9 gang, considered the most powerful gang, seized control of the country’s main fuel terminal in response to the government’s plan to cut fuel subsidies. The two-month fuel blockade resulted in a fuel shortage exacerbating an already dire economic situation and leading to the closure of hospitals, schools and businesses.
The G9 blockade was a display of the gang’s power and a direct challenge to the state. The blockade of the fuel terminal was eventually brought to an end when the Haitian National Police were able to regain control of the port in early November, but the general situation has continued to worsen since then.
According to the United Nations, in the first three months of 2023 there were 1,647 recorded incidents of gang-related violence in Haiti – murders, rapes, kidnappings and lynchings. Painting a picture of just how dire the situation is, one recent article said the following:
“It is hard to overstate the desperateness of the situation. Haitians at every level of society have been living in daily fear – of being kidnapped, killed, raped or caught in cross-fire…
“Almost everyone in Port-au-Prince knows someone who has been kidnapped. The Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, based in Haiti, counted 389 kidnappings over the first quarter of 2023, a rise of 72 percent from the same period the previous year, and of 173 percent on 2021.”
More than 600 people were then killed in a wave of gang violence that erupted in April 2023. The gangs have unleashed a reign of terror in what amounts to a very much one-sided war against the people.
But there has been a significant change in the situation. The United Nations has acknowledged that because the Haitian state “did not have the capacity to respond” to the gang violence, “people are thus taking the law into their own hands”. This has led to a rise in “mob killings and lynchings of alleged gang members.” At least 164 gang members were reportedly killed in April.
A recent article on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) noted that “Port-au-Prince is as violent as it has ever been, but for two weeks now the fear has also flowed in a different direction – thanks to a phenomenon known as ‘Bwa Kale’.
A spontaneous event in the Canapé Vert neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince seems to have sparked off a broader movement of resistance to the gangs across the country. On 24 April, around a dozen gang members were travelling through the neighbourhood to join with an allied gang in a nearby district. The gang members were not heavily armed and were stopped and detained by police. A crowd of local residents gathered at the scene of the arrests. Demanding justice the crowd attacked and killed the gang members, stoning and burning them to death.
A local activist explained that the attack on the gang members “dispelled the myth of [the gangs’] invincibility” adding that the group the killed gang members were going to meet was then also attacked by the population the following day.
Calls went out for ‘Operasyon File Manchet’ (Operation Sharpen Machete) on social media. Apparently, even some churches got involved in spreading the message. The Bwa Kale movement was born as people in neighbourhoods across the capital and the rest of the country started to take action against the gangs.
In the following days, many neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince moved onto a ‘war footing’. Where gangs would enter a neighbourhood, people would bang on pots and pans to alert residents. The people, not very heavily armed compared to the gangs, would throw rocks or use other rudimentary weapons to confront gang members, and have been able to repel incursions by the gangs.
The Bwa Kale movement has seen crowds of neighbourhood residents go on the offensive. They have used their numbers to overwhelm gang houses. There have been numerous scenes of the people dragging suspected gang members out of these houses and even from police stations to kill them in the streets.
The CBC recently published an interview with a local human rights activist, Vélina Élysée Charlier, who lives in the Turgeau neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. The residents of this neighbourhood had recently defended themselves against a gang incursion.
“The gang members,” she said, “they came to Debussy, which is on the upper hill of the Turgeau area in Port-au-Prince. And for the very first time, the population was not having it… They started shooting back. Whoever had guns and enough ammunition, they started shooting back on the gangs. And then the population came out with machetes, rocks or wooden sticks – whatever they could find to fight back… They started pursuing all the bandits and the gang members down the hill in every area that they went to hide.”
The Bwa Kale movement has since spread across the country and has already had an immediate impact on the levels of gang violence. According to some recent reports, an estimated 100 gang members have been killed and only one case of kidnapping has been recorded since Bwa Kale started.
The role of the police
The Bwa Kale movement has meant that the gangs have been forced to flee many areas in the capital. Gang members have been lynched or summarily executed when captured by the people, sometimes acting alongside the police.
Indeed, when asked about why the people were taking matters into their own hands to deal with the gangs, Charlier had said, “Many neighbourhoods were already fighting back, and brigades were already organising themselves in different neighbourhoods… so the population has been quietly organising themselves. And I think what really made the difference is the fact that the police also showed up for the people, which is a very big development, and one of the very few times that we saw [the] population going hand-in-hand with the police to fight back against the bandits.”
The people of Haiti have suffered an intolerable situation under the reign of terror of the gangs for years. The scenes of gang members being killed and burned alive are grisly, though the anger of the people and their thirst for justice are also understandable. The gangs have terrorised the people for years, with raping, pillaging, torturing and kidnapping on a massive scale. The gangs have ruthlessly attacked and extorted the poorest families in the poorest neighbourhoods. The people are now standing up to defend themselves and are taking direct action to deal with the gangs.
The people have demonstrated that they can defend themselves. They have demonstrated that they do not need the state or the police to do this. It is precisely because the state and police have been powerless in the face of gang violence that the people have been forced, inevitably, to take matters into their own hands.
The Henry regime does not have the means to deal with the gangs. The Haitian National Police are a relatively small force. They are outmanned and outgunned by the gangs and have been powerless to do anything about them for years. There are also corrupt elements in the state and the police that have close connections with the gangs.
The involvement of the police in the Bwa Kale represents a mortal danger to the movement. The police appear to be using the Bwa Kale movement of the people to reassert some control over the situation. Ultimately, while the police may be helping to attack the gangs for the moment, their main goal will be to contain the movement of the people and preserve the status quo of the failed Henry regime. Corrupt politicians and elements in the police could also attempt to use the Bwa Kale movement to settle scores with various gangs and other political and economic rivals. These are only a few ways that the movement of the people could be corrupted.
The Bwa Kale appears, at the moment, to be a broad movement that has sprung up in numerous neighbourhoods across the capital and the rest of the country. But class divisions are already visible in the movement.
The neighbourhoods of Laboule and Thomassin are wealthier suburbs of Port-au-Prince. Last September, gang members had killed three police officers and killed a prominent resident, a former presidential candidate.
The gangs then “started terrorising the population, killing, shooting, raping, kidnapping, ransoming” in the neighbourhood. The local residents asked the government for help but received none. They eventually took matters into their own hands.
Led by a local lawyer, the neighbourhood self-defence group reached a deal with the police. Residents of the neighbourhood raised around USD $32,000, a significant amount of money in Haiti, to repair a broken armoured vehicle in exchange for a police commitment to use it to defend their neighbourhood only. The group has also hired private security guards and has acquired pickup trucks to patrol the neighbourhood.
Of course, every neighbourhood in Haiti has an interest in organising its own defence against these gangs. But some of the wealthier neighbourhoods have shown an extremely narrow self-interested approach of defending their own neighbourhoods alone.
Such a narrow approach, of organising in an atomised and individual way, is shortsighted. If the movements to deal with the gangs are disunited with little or no coordination between neighbourhood and city defence committees, then the struggle against the various gangs could end up being an unnecessarily protracted and violent conflict.
Each neighbourhood may or may not be able to defend its boundaries from the gangs, but such an approach will not do anything to solve the fundamental problems that led to the growth and power of the gangs in the first place.
The Haitian masses have taken matters into their own hands to deal with the gangs. The people in many neighbourhoods have taken the significant step of organising self-defence committees. The workers and poor must be able to defend themselves from kidnappings and assassinations and the armed defence of neighbourhoods to protect from gang violence is necessary.
The struggle against the gangs is also a social struggle. Truly defeating the gangs means sweeping away all the rotten economic and social conditions that allowed the gangs to grow and become so powerful. The gangs are now a component part of capitalism itself in Haiti. The social disintegration and corruption runs so deep that the entire capitalist system, including the political framework, has become criminalised and gangsterised. Defeating the gangs ultimately demands an alternative to capitalism.
It is not clear how the self-defence committees in the various neighbourhoods are being organised. There are likely many different models. The masses must insist on democratic control of the neighbourhood committees via elected and recallable delegates. This will ensure that the committees reflect the will of the people and will prevent any attempts to corrupt or gangsterise them.
To overcome the crisis, the Haitian masses must forge their own path, fight for and create their own democracy. They must create a regime of genuine, popular, revolutionary democracy.
The neighbourhood committees should also coordinate their activities through elected and recallable delegates across neighbourhoods and on a city-wide, regional, and ultimately a national level. A national movement of united, democratic neighbourhood committees could mobilise the masses and coordinate actions to defeat and disarm the gangs quickly.
Capitalism has utterly failed in Haiti. What is needed is a total revolutionary sweeping away of all the corruption and rot of Haitian capitalism. The socialist transformation of society is the only way forward.
A movement of united neighbourhood committees could challenge the power of the capitalist state and the gangs, and form the launchpad for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in Haiti. But first, it would need to develop an economic, political and social programme that can eradicate the poverty that drives people to join gangs. It would need to take over the management of the collection and distribution of basic goods such as food, water and fuel; and the organisation of transportation, education, healthcare, and housing.
In such a way, these committees could form the starting point for a struggle for power by the workers and poor of Haiti and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, and liberating the country from the greed and corruption of the capitalists and the imperialists, and forming the basis for an economic plan that could provide jobs and decent wages. This will be the only way to truly defeat the gangs.