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Haiti scores a rare win against its powerful gangs, while the U.S. sanctions their alleged sponsors

Odelyn Joseph
Haitian gang members wave machetes in protest against interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry last month in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti looks to have scored a rare win in its battle against the gangs that control much of the country — and which are driving thousands of Haitian migrants to the U.S. and South Florida.

But some Haitians caution the victory may also reflect more business as usual.

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Government security sources tell Haitian media the National Police have regained control of the country’s main fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince. Gangs — led by ex-police officer Jimmy Cherizier, aka "Barbecue" — have held the Varreux facility for two months, all but paralyzing Haiti’s already wrecked economy.

A U.S. State Department official told WLRN new tactical police units led the operation. They were trained and equipped largely as a result of the almost $90 million the Biden Administration allocated to Haiti’s feeble security forces this past fiscal year, which provided hardware like armored vehicles reportedly used in the Varreux offensive.

The news is welcome relief for Haitians, who in recent years have watched violent gangs terrorize the country and seize half the territory of Port-au-Prince.

The gangs are demanding the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Their brutality, including a wave of ransom kidnappings and the hijacking of food and other desperately needed goods, has prompted thousands of Haitian migrants to leave Haiti, often in dangerously unseaworthy boats.

But sources in Haiti who often use the Varreux terminal and asked not to be identified for security reasons, also tell WLRN it so far does not appear any gang arrests were made in the police operation. They say that raises fears that rather than subdue the criminals, the Henry government simply made a deal with them that won’t do much to improve Haiti’s security.

"We find it strange that no gangsters seem to have been killed or captured," one Haitian export business owner in Port-au-Prince said. "We just hope this doesn't mean something under the table was done."

Perhaps because of those concerns, the U.S. announced it’s issued sanctions against two high-ranking Haitian politicians — Senate President Joseph Lambert and former Senator Youri Latortue — for their alleged ties to the gangs.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.