Haitian, gang, masked members
Former Haitian special forces policeman turned gang kingpin called Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, surrounded by masked gang members, warns of civil war and genocide as the Haitian crisis spirals out of control, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 5, 2024. Photo credit: © David Lorens Mentor/Maxppp via ZUMA Press

Haiti faces marauding gangs, failed governance, and a tragic humanitarian crisis. Violence, kidnappings, and displacement grip the nation, while international aid falls short.

What a mess! In this week’s episode of the WhoWhatWhy podcast, we’re joined by Amy Wilentz, a seasoned journalist and award-winning author who has been covering the dynamic but tragedy-ridden island of Haiti since the 1980s. We delve into the underreported and deeply troubling situation in this nation just 700 miles from US shores, now beset by tribal strife, failed governance, rapacious armed gangs, and a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis.

Wilentz explains how Haiti’s tumultuous history has been marked by a dependence on international aid and why this has impeded the development of effective self-government. The country teeters on the brink of collapse, she says, with violence, political instability, and deadly chaos unfolding at an alarming rate. 

Wilentz provides background on the UN’s condemnation of criminal gang activities and explores what action the US and other Caribbean nations could take.  

The situation remains dire, with urgent need for international support to restore law and order, neutralize the gangs, and provide urgently needed food and medicines. But Wilentz also explains why the odds of this happening appear slim.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In the complex tapestry of global conflicts, few are as deeply rooted in tribal strife, failed governance, and heartbreakingly tragic is the situation in Haiti. This nation, steeped in a turbulent history of instability, finds itself once again ensnared in a present reality where kidnapping, murders, and gang warfare are commonplace. A failed state just 700 miles from our shores, Haiti is plagued by gangs armed with a staggering cache of weapons, much of it originating from the United States.

Despite international efforts to bring stability, success remains elusive, perhaps even impossible. Haiti is a place where the quest for democracy is a recurring theme among its citizens and yet time and again, their aspirations are met with disappointment, leaving the prospects for the future increasingly bleak. Beyond the political failures, the humanitarian crisis is escalating by the day. Since the earthquake several years ago, 350,000 Haitians have been displaced. Americans have been airlifted out, and the situation continues to deteriorate.

We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Amy Wilentz. Amy’s been covering Haiti since the 1980s. She’s a contributing editor to the nation, the author of several books on Haiti, and is a recipient of the National Book Critic Circle Award and teaches literary journalism at the University of California Irvine. It is my pleasure to welcome Amy Wilentz back here to the Who What Why  podcast. Amy, thanks so much for joining us.

Amy Wilentz: Thank you.

Jeff: Much of this activity with the gang seems like it’s been going on since 2022 and maybe even a little bit earlier, what is it that sparked the current wave of violence?

Amy: Well, the gangs are, they’re independent operators in many ways. They may have bosses in government, they may have bosses in the business sector, but all of this is happening in a swirl of competing interests. And when they sense that their interests may be interrupted by political activities of actors who are beyond their control, they get more violent and they start new attacks. And right now there’s this attempt to form a political council to choose a new president to lead the country to elections.

And this is involved with the international community, including the United States, the Caribbean nations, and the UN. And when the gangs see this happening, even though they, like all of us, doubt that anything will come of it, they get nervous when they see the international community involved with it, lash out at the areas of the capital city where most of these politicians might have their residences. And that’s what we saw in the past few days, huge amounts of gunfire and many killings happening up in the hills above Port-au-Prince, where wealthier and more powerful people live.

Jeff: Given how heavily armed these gangs seem to be, even small bits of the international community seems like it wouldn’t be enough unless they were also incredibly well-armed.

Amy: Well, I think one of many reasons the United States, the Biden administration has not felt ready to go into Haiti with boots on the ground, as we say, is that these gangs are so well armed. And the United States doesn’t really feel in a position at this point to risk American soldiers’ lives against such a well-armed foe. It’s easier to go in with boots on the ground when you know you can just wave your saber and everybody will flee. But these guys, we can’t say that that would be the case because they have so much sophisticated weaponry.

And where do they get that weaponry? You might ask Jeff. They get it from the United States shipments that come through Miami from states where these weapons are bought, states which lack armed regulations like Arizona, Florida itself, and several other states. And then they come through Miami and they go on ships and they come into Haiti where people are paid off not to notice.

Jeff: To what extent can the international community do very much in this situation, short of boots on the ground at some point?

Amy: Well, one thing is that while Haitians would like their problems to be solved and would like to lead normal lives like other people on this globe, they also don’t want foreign meddling. They’re sick of it. They’re so sick of it that it’s ruined everything in Haiti. Every time they get near a democracy, the outside community feels somehow its interest might not be served by these democratic forces and worries about markets and doing business in Haiti. And things get derailed.

And the Haitians know that. So there’s a problem with outside interventions too. They’re not beloved that, the great white savior to the north is not a beloved figure in Haiti. On the other hand, what is to be done about these gangs? It’s hard to say. They’re a creation of the international community, but they’re also an impediment to fixing anything now.

Jeff: There were reports that there was some joint UN-Kenyan initiative that was going to take some action. Talk about that.

Amy: Well, it’s a UN initiative supported by the United States to bring about a thousand Kenyan police officers to Haiti. It seems like this is not going anywhere right now. The Kenyan Supreme Court itself ruled that Kenya does not have the constitutional right to send police officers on a foreign military mission. Only the army can do that, and the Kenyan government has no interest in Haiti that would call for it to send in its army. So they have put the brakes on this initiative.

It still could happen super illegally. And Kenya, of course, would appreciate the money that would be brought into Kenya from the United States and other nations to get this mission off the ground. But still a thousand Kenyan officers speaking English, coming into a place where there are maybe 15,000 gang members or 10,000 gang members, many of them heavily armed. It just doesn’t look like a pretty scene. Also, the Kenyan police force itself has a checkered record of human rights abuses. So I don’t know that that’s really going anywhere. It might though.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the police and the military in Haiti and their inability, it seems, to do anything about the gangs.

Amy: Well, remembering how heavily armed the gangs are through this funnel of arms into Haiti from the US, it’s hard for an underfunded police force, which is what Haiti really has. It has a tiny army reconstituted recently after it was abandoned by President Aristide, because it committed too many creditors against elected governments, including his own. So there is virtually no army in Haiti, and the police force is underfunded, under-armed, undermanned.

About somewhere between 500 and 900 police officers have taken advantage of president Biden’s special immigration parole recently to move to the United States because they feel so vulnerable in Haiti. So that’s not a good sign. And that in many, many of the conflicts between the gangs and the police, the police have not been able to withstand gang advances.

Jeff: Is Haiti a failed state at this point? Who’s in charge? What kind of governance exists at the moment?

Amy: Well, for two and a half years after the president was assassinated in the summer of 2021, Haiti has been ruled by a de facto prime minister who was appointed by the assassinated president, but never installed an office. So he was not yet the prime minister and the Americans said, “Eh, he should be the prime Minister for now,” because they couldn’t think of anyone else that they could put in there who had any seeming legitimacy.

So they went ahead with this guy, Ariel Henry, and then they kept him in power against the demands of the Haitian people and the Haitian civil society and political faction for two years until forcing him most recently to step aside. So he is no longer on the scene. And because he was an illegitimate and de facto prime minister, he had basically no government serving with him. So now there’s a vacuum in governance in Haiti, almost complete.

Jeff: Will it be necessary at some point to bring the gangs or the leaders of the gangs into some kind of government in order to stabilize the country?

Amy: Well, one hopes not. They’ve been grotesquely regardless of human life. They haven’t minded what they’ve now started to call collateral damage, but just injuring anyone in the way of their taking over territory in their battles with each other. They’ve emptied whole neighborhoods through arson and pillaging. I don’t think that they are what Haiti and Haitians imagine having as their leaders in the future. But some of the gang leaders seem very ambitious.

I think they’re ambitious to control more territory, more money. I don’t think that they are, as they have started to say, concerned for the welfare of the Haitian people. I don’t see the gangs running successful healthcare resources, sanitation. They’re not interested in any of that. They’re basically criminals, even though some of them are wrapping themselves in the Haitian flag, almost literally, and making claims to have revolutionary ambitions to save Haiti from the international community. But I believe that all of that is cynical posturing.

Host: Are these gangs all operating on their own or have coalitions of these gangs formed?

Amy: There have been some coalitions recently. I think the gangs are concerned that somehow what they’ve gained in terms of controlling flows of money and corruption will be taken from them by the new attempt at a government by the international community and the Haitian political class. So they have formed some coalitions recently. One of them is called Live Together, which seems a sort of Orwellian title for factions of gangs.

But, yes, they have coalesced to a degree, but how long will those coalitions last? They’re very ambitious leaders at the heads of all these factions of gangs in Haiti right now.

Host: How bad is the humanitarian crisis at this point?

Amy: It’s such a disaster. Since the earthquake, which displaced a lot of people around maybe 200,000 more people have been displaced. So it’s something like 360,000 displaced persons. Now, their houses were probably not like your house, Jeff, but they had a place to go home to. Maybe it was a shack and a shanty town. Maybe it was a little tiny house in a slum-like area. But they had their houses.

And then the gangs have swept through, taken everything these people had, and sometimes burned down their entire neighborhood. And those people are now living in schools, in former hospitals. They’re living in terrible crowded conditions where disease can sweep through at any moment in unsanitary conditions. They’re living in an old movie theater in downtown Port-au-Prince that was already falling down and now is in a terrible state.

There are 6,000 people living in a former girls school in one area of Port-au-Prince, all these displaced people. And it’s very, very serious and may lead to huge flows of migration out of Haiti.

Host: There were serious US relief efforts or so it seemed after the earthquake. To what extent was that helpful?

Amy: I don’t know how serious those relief efforts really were. There was all this build-back better business that the US was touting and the Haitian political class also to a degree. But things didn’t really get built. And especially housing for the people did not get built. There were some bigger businesses that put up buildings and hotels. There was a free trade zone built in the north that was somewhat successful for a while. But all this money supposedly came in. The Haitian government didn’t get to direct it very much.

And it seems to have not changed affairs in Haiti very much after the earthquake. The earthquake was really disastrous, so it wasn’t easy to build back better after the earthquake, and they did not manage to build back better.

Host: What can the Biden administration do to help stabilize the current situation?

Amy: This is a question on everyone’s lips, I have to say. I just finished reading an article in Le Nouvelliste newspaper in Haiti, one of the oldest newspapers in the country, where they said all this stuff is happening now. This attempted presidential council to choose a new government to lead Haiti to election, gang exacerbation of attacks all over the place. And where will it lead? And nobody really knows, because nobody knows how to defang the gangs.

And one of the best ways to defang a gang is to attract the young members of gangs away from gang activity and into the real economy of a country. But to do that, Haiti needs a huge infusion of money, and things have to be done very quickly right now. Fixing a country is not something you can do quickly, even with the best will of the Haitian people and their political class. And the political class doesn’t always have the best interests of Haiti in mind either.

So it’s a very complicated situation requiring tons of money, tons of organization, and goodwill on everybody’s part. And I’m not sure that goodwill is there. Perhaps shaming of the gangs would be a good idea, but I’m not even sure how that’s done. I’m not sure they’re capable of any kind of shame.

Host: And as we saw this week, even Congress is reluctant to put any money forth for fear of what would happen to it there.

Amy: Congress is reluctant to do it for several reasons. One is because the Republicans don’t want to do anything that Biden might want or that might make his life easier in dealing with foreign policy. As you know, the same thing is happening with Ukraine. So it’s not just what would happen to the money there. It’s like, let’s not do this because Biden is asking for it. And that’s too bad because the Haitian people are the ones who suffer in the middle of that.

However, of course, no one wants to see good money thrown at corruption. And that’s one hope of this council being established. But of course, even on the council, there are warring factions already. It’s not even a seated council, and they’re already warring factions, which makes them sound violent. But there’s a lot of dispute there. And there are turf wars that are political as well as turf wars that are gang fighting.

Host: What are the dangers to other Caribbean nations at this point, and to what extent can they be at all helpful?

Amy: They’re supposedly trying to help right now, these talks about the presidential council that I’ve been talking about. The Transitional Council has been run by CARICOM, which is a coalition of Caribbean nations. I think they’re worried that the migration that the US steers from Haiti will end up largely on their shores also because they’re nearer. And that does happen often when Haitians have to flee Haiti they end up in Caribbean countries.

So that’s one of the worries they have. It’ll destabilize them. It will drain their coffers in helping to deal with these people. So they would, of course, like to get it solved themselves. But it’s unclear that they can really help. They’re trying in their way. The Haitians aren’t always happy with what they do either, so there’s a lot of infighting going on.

Host: How much danger is there of the gangs spreading to other Caribbean nations?

Amy: Well, these gangs, and let’s not forget that some of them are financed by drug traffickers. So these gangs have an interest in countries that have no governments. That’s their favorite kind of thing, where governments are divided or weak. Police forces are lame. That’s what they like. My fear is that Haiti is becoming simply a transshipment site for drug dealers. And that drug dealers are always at war with each other, and that’s what these gangs really are.

And so I don’t know that it can spread, but if countries are destabilized by migration and then governments fall in the Caribbean, of course, it could spread to other countries too.

Host: Talk a little bit about the people of Haiti and how they view all of this?

Amy: Obviously, I’m not Haitian. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I think just like people anywhere, they’re so tired of it. They’re hungry, their kids can’t go to school. There’s no future for anyone in Haiti right now. They’re dispirited and horrified and feel powerless and impotent in the face of the people who’ve always controlled Haiti, the elites. And now in the face of these terrible gangs who rape and pillage at will with impunity. And the situation where there’s no system of justice either.

Most recently, the two largest prisons in the country were opened up by the gangs, and all of the people within  were released. Now, many of those people were petty criminals, if that, or victims of schemes to get rid of them and had never been brought before a judge. But some of them were gang members and major criminals. So all those people now have been released into the streets, and that’s not a good situation for the average Haitian person either. So they’d like to get it solved, but they feel powerless to work to get it solved.

Jeff: Is there any up-and-coming political leadership at all that has shown itself in Haiti?

Amy: Well, that’s why your earlier question about the gangs is so scary. Obviously, these people who have become heads of gangs and are criminals and are in the service of various interests in Haiti could have been valuable people. There are many valuable people in the younger generation in Haiti but they’re being corrupted by the social and political situation in Haiti into gangs. I mean, we’ve seen the same things in our city. People of great value are destroyed by not having any future other than in criminality.

And it breaks families and it destroys neighborhoods. And that’s what we’re seeing in Haiti, so that it’s hard for a younger generation who might have great care for their families and the people of Haiti to make that happen in any significant way.

Jeff: What is your sense of what happens if the current situation remains unstable and continues as it is today?

Amy: Well, obviously, nothing good. Haitian culture is being destroyed by the gangs, the way people behave with each other is being destroyed by this violence. And so if it is ongoing, I guess, you just spiral into the abyss and people die of disease and hunger, and everybody looks on unperturbed throughout the world. I noticed that you can show a picture of Haitians in almost any condition, and people look and say, “Oh yes, well, that’s Haiti. It’s too bad for those people, isn’t it?”

And they go on. Whereas you see one Ukrainian mother with her rolly bag in the street being under attack by the Russians, and everybody throws up their hands and starts sending money to Ukraine. So there’s an element of racialized uncaring, I would say, in the global community about this particular thing that is disturbing and that probably functions to allow it to worsen also.

Jeff: Does it have to become a much bigger danger to the global community, whether it’s migration to the US as you mentioned before, or other potential dangers from a failed state? Is that what it’s ultimately going to take to get the global community to act more aggressively?

Amy: Well, that’s happened right now. In fact, that’s why we’re even having this conversation. It’s been horrible for the Haitian people for two and a half years and more, but now it’s worsened that the gangs are more arrogant, they’re more violent, and they’re threatening to basically take over the country, if not by establishing some kind of governance, but just through the rule of the gun.

So I think that’s why you’re seeing the push to force the de facto prime minister to resign, the push to have this transitional council to select a government that will take Haiti to elections, supposedly. And that’s why you’re seeing all of this, is the idea that a wave of migration like no other is about to start from Haiti. And that will destabilize the Caribbean, maybe some Latin American states, and also cause problems for various political actors in the United States, notably the Biden administration, as it faces an election year.

Jeff: Amy Wilentz, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Amy: Thanks a lot, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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