A delicate dilemma haunts the governing elites and civil society in Haiti: how to confront a newly discovered phenomenon: gangs. Though the emergence of criminal groups predates Haiti’s disastrous earthquake on 11 January 2010 – and has been there for years – their strength is only increasing.
Numerous experts argue that most of these “collection offices” are linked to the Haitian gangs operating in the vicinity of Gonaives, Port-au-Prince and the neighbouring Dominican Republic, and that they could be one of the major obstacles to reconciliation and democracy in Haiti. This is because they operate beyond the capacity of the Haitian police to control. The police are far too stretched in other areas, and they are limited by corruption and high levels of impunity. Without them, these gangs quickly escape their control. Even their lands become semi-fictitious, and sometimes there is no one to take over the territory. The gangs establish control over their territories by collecting extortionate fees from anyone they need to for things like electrical appliances or water. Members of these gangs or those who try to pass themselves off as part of the gang are often beaten or threatened by the gangs or their associates.
Human rights organisations and members of the opposition have expressed fears that for the first time there are some form of rivalries between the various gangs, and that rival groups could spring up in different parts of the country. The Maoist splinter group, Comandante Annenale de l’Anoumie (Coalition of Free and Democratic Forces) released a statement recently calling for an end to all forms of extortion as well as an end to alleged acts of violence by members of the gangs. Meanwhile, Oscar Haby Pah, a top leader of the rival Parti Haitienne pour la Securite (HOPS), called for a ban on the gangs’ music, which – even if it doesn’t start fights – has given many ears to the message of violence. The head of the country’s police force is planning to attend a conference about the gangs in September.
Haiti is a nation at the end of its tether. Its past, current and present political leaders have failed Haiti, and the vast majority of Haitians want nothing to do with them. This is why the accusation of “extortion” has become the new code for everyone from humanitarian organisations to political opposition leaders. But this is why the attempt to shut down the “collective boxes” seems so idiotic. Many Haitians don’t even know what they are. They see them as a kind of safety net in the absence of any real economic investment in their own communities. In 2017, 17 government ministries announced that they had lost $11m in extortion and taxes. It seems that better knowledge and awareness would not help.
Sometimes, people try to put together their lives with what they know. The government must do all it can to help families who earn little money but have many people depending on them – including many children with special needs – to live. Without the free and constant meals provided by members of this group, many would likely starve. Of course, other people will continue to have to pay taxes for these benefits – and of course some will avoid them, putting others at risk. But if things improve, there’s still going to be money in that collection box.