I know someone who was once the leader of the Grand Ravine gang in the south of Port-au-Prince.

Around the time he became the gang’s leader, a United Nations mission in Haiti was moving to confront and dismantle gangs. In 2006, Haitian officials, with support from a U.N. disarmament program, brokered a truce among gangs, and he handed over his best weapons, though not all. His rivals kept all their guns. 

So he made a phone call to a government official, a person he knew would help them rearm.

He told me that. a few nights later, a white SUV pulled up to their meeting place. It was an official car, with government plates, to head off any checks by the police. He had brought four or five armed men with him to protect the delivery. In the duffel bag he collected that night — such handoffs occurred in increments — he found a Beretta 9 mm handgun, a 12-gauge shotgun, and an M-14 assault rifle. In return, the government official gained the gang leader’s capacity for organizing the community to vote in his favor. 

Such deals occur constantly. The efforts of international officials to curb gang violence rarely succeed, because there are always some Haitian political and business leaders ready to resupply gangs they support with weapons. This is how neighborhood control has long worked in Haiti, and what has passed for democracy.

Every Haitian I know is aware that, over the past 20 years, government ministers and senators and parliamentary delegates have delivered money and weapons to gangs. Most people who are directly involved don’t want to discuss this in a public forum for fear of retaliation. But this unwillingness to engage the problem directly has allowed this system to take over public life.

Over decades, in exchange for money and arms, gangs have organized communities and delivered votes. The more area they controlled, the more votes they could deliver, and the more money and weapons they stood to gain. Gangs have gained power in this system — today, they are more numerous and better-armed than ever and control most of Port-au-Prince. 

As international powers consider sending armed forces to Haiti to stop gang violence and reestablish government control, they must bear in mind that many Haitian leaders have been arming poor Haitian young men for generations in order to gain and hold onto power. Confronting gangs with military force will not work without also supporting Haitians seeking to break the cycle of violence and establish true democracy and stability.

What will really end gang violence and strengthen government authority is systemic reform by leaders who do not traffic in weapons, arm gangs, or use violence to circumvent democracy. These people exist — they need space to be able to express their leadership. Haitians must develop structures to discuss and confront this problem openly in order to shatter these systems and start somewhere different. Without patrons in politics and business, gangs will lose steam. Then, and only then, international and local plans to subdue and disarm them have a chance. The best approach for Haiti would be for the international community to support the Haitian police force to combat gangs and simultaneously support major, Haitian-led political and economic change.

It will be critical, as true disarmament moves forward, to develop processes of transitional justice and reconciliation, strong and sustainable job creation, and social programs. We need investments in basic local services such as electricity, clean water, schools, police, and courts in the huge swaths of Haiti that have been abandoned by the state for generations. When people have alternatives to gangs, they take them.

In my work in disadvantaged communities over 15 years, I have seen that, every time a gang member dies or rejects gang life, he is immediately replaced — the next day. This system, in which gangs bolster politics, is strong and durable because the Haitian state and society have done so little for so many neglected neighborhoods, and many young people are desperate.

Over the past few years, my organization has analyzed the root causes of Haitian conflict through dialogue processes that bring together people from poor neighborhoods with civil society, private sector, media, and political leaders. We know that a large part of the conflict in poor neighborhoods such as the Port-au-Prince shantytown of Cité Soleil comes down to the use of violence to control votes.

The international community should build its Haiti policy with a focus on supporting systemic political change, and shift from longtime failed tactics to confront gangs. The U.N., for instance, has long tried to subdue and confront Haitian gangs, including through various U.N. programs to disarm gangs in collaboration with the Haitian government.

My colleague who once led the Grand Ravine gang participated in a U.N. program in 2005, only to rearm because the gang war didn’t stop, and again in 2006, with the same result, largely because there was no clear break with the previous government and system, and no new, clean, functional leadership that could offer better solutions. He only finally disarmed when he became a Christian and gave up the gang altogether. He has since been engaged as a community organizer and brokers conversations between gangs and community members to resolve local conflicts. Others are looking for a different kind of answer than religion, but they have few other alternatives to the gangs, which have only gained power after decades of local and international failures to confront them.

Today, shantytowns still lack sufficient electricity, water, food, medical care, schools, and jobs. Children as young as 8 or 9 hang out with gang members and bring home money that helps buy food and pay rent.

And all over Haiti, too many politicians still come around handing out money and guns to gain power.

IMAGE: A person carries a child past Haitian National Police attempting to repel gangs in a neighborhood near the Presidential Palace in the center of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on March 3, 2023. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)