UN says armed gangs have spread to rural Haiti, calls for sanctions and an armed force

Murders, kidnappings, rapes and other attacks are increasingly becoming part of the daily reality for thousands of Haitians in the country’s once peaceful countryside, the United Nations said Tuesday, as a new harrowing report details how violent gangs are expanding out of the capital and into rural areas.

The gangs and those who support them, the report says, have made farmers and the properties they work on prime targets, with heavily armed men rampaging through “rival” villages executing locals and gang raping women and children.

“Ransom payments, theft of crops and livestock and destruction of irrigation canals have forced over 22,000 people to flee their villages and seek refuge in the region’s urban centers,” the U.N. said. “The aggravating effects of this situation are already being felt in Lower Artibonite, where by September 2023 over 45% of the population was living in a situation of acute food insecurity.”

The Lower Artibonite Valley is located 62 miles north of metropolitan Port-au-Prince; since July 2022 the violence in the once peaceful enclave “has accelerated sharply,” with at least 20 criminal groups active, said the U.N. Human Rights Office and the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti, which authored the report.

“Extremely violent, they do not hesitate to execute members of the local population during attacks on villages considered to be ‘rivals,’ and to burn abductees to force their families to pay ransoms. In addition, sexual violence is used as a weapon against women and even young children,” the report said.

Last week, one of the leaders of Kokorat San Ras, one of the most violent gangs in the region, was extradited to Miami. Jhon Peter Fleronvil was the subject of an FBI warrant after he was charged in the kidnappings of three U.S. citizens. He was previously arrested by Haitian police as he attempted to flee to the Dominican Republic. But such arrests are rare.

“Magistrates have opened investigations and arrested a few gang members, but this has not led to any judgments or to a weakening of the gangs’ capacities. On the contrary, symptomatically, one of the best-known gang leaders, Kokorat San Ras, was illegally released in March 2023 by the former Government Commissioner of Gonaïves. Both have been on the run ever since,” the U.N. report said.

With the response of judges and the police inadequate in the face of the rising violence and human rights abuses, increased efforts are needed to strengthen the country’s judiciary, police and prisons, the U.N. said. The two offices are urging the Security Council to update the list of individuals and entities who should be subject to U.N. sanctions, and calling for the deployment of a multinational security support mission to Haiti.

“With terrible violence against the population expanding — within and outside Port-au-Prince — and the inability of the police to stop them, the much-needed Multinational Security Support mission needs to be deployed to Haiti as soon as possible,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said.

“There needs to be continued emphasis on the implementation of the arms embargo and sanctions targeting those behind this untenable situation,” Turk added

In October, a panel of experts issued a 156-page report to the Security Council detailing how armed groups and their supporters have turned the countryi into a cauldron of violence. The report highlighted several Haitian personalities, including politicians, gang leaders and three politically active men in the Artibonite Valley region accused of supporting armed groups.

The Security Council, which asked a committee on Haiti to review the report and designate new names to be added to a sanctions list, also authorized in October a security mission for Haiti to be led by Kenya. The measure has been met with resistance in Kenya where, despite an approval by the East African nation’s lawmakers for the deployment of 1,000 police officers, the High Court in Nairobi maintains a block on deployment after a former presidential candidate challenged its constitutionality.

The court has set a hearing on the case for Jan. 26. While it remains unclear what this means for deployment, sources say the planning and training of officers has continued. Earlier this month, while addressing the European Parliament, Kenya President William Ruto appealed for Europe’s assistance.

Ruto said “the Haiti mission will need some 5,000 men and women to address the challenge posed by armed gangs.... The support from the EU will be instrumental in bolstering the initiative, providing the necessary resources and legitimacy.”

While the U.N. report focuses on the Lower Artibonite Valley, it is just one region in Haiti where armed gangs are increasingly forcing people to live in fear.

On Sunday, armed bandits launched an attack in the coastal community of “Ça-Ira” in Léogâne, south of the capital. During the invasion, bandits seized several properties including two boats from a fishing village belonging to Food for the Poor, a spokesperson with the Coconut Creek charity confirmed to the Miami Herald.

Léogâne, a quiet community known for its plantain fields, has increasingly become a target of gangs after they successfully invaded nearby Mariani and took control of Carrefour, a sprawling suburb on the edge of Port-au-Prince. On Monday, during a gun battle involving police and armed gang members, at least six people were injured by bullets, according to a statement by the Sainte-Croix hospital in Léogâne.

The U.N. says one reason behind the increased expansion is that gangs in the capital are forging alliances that are enabling them to move into rural communities south and north of the capital.

“The largest and most violent criminal groups are supported by gangs belonging to the G-Pèp coalition, in particular Village de Dieu. Thanks to these alliances, the G-Pèp coalition has succeeded not only in isolating National Highway #1 and the main waterfront towns over a distance of more than [50 miles] north of the metropolitan area, but also in controlling the crossing points to and from the northern regions,” the report said. “This territorial hold undoubtedly favors the illicit circulation of arms and drugs.”

Over the last two years, the Lower Artibonite, known as the Bas-Artibonite region, has seen a significant rise in gang violence, with at least 1,694 people killed, injured or kidnapped, the U.N. said.

“The situation in Haiti is cataclysmic,” Turk, the high commissioner, said. “We are continuing to receive reports of killings, sexual violence, displacement and other violence — including in hospitals.”