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Latin America Report

As gang atrocities and gun smuggling become commonplace, Haitians tell PM to resign

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Josette Fils Desanclos (second from left) and her daughters, Sondjie (left) and Sardjie (right). The three were allegedly murdered by Haitian gang members outside Port-au-Prince last week. Jean Simson Desanclos (second from right), Josette's husband and the sisters' father, was not with them at the time.

Haiti's violence crisis continues to drive thousands of Haitian migrants to the United States. Interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry looks unable to reign in the criminal gangs that now control much of the country. So last week, thousands of Haitians took to the streets to demand that Henry step down. But if he does, what then?

WLRN’s Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett about what, if any, solutions Haiti, the U.S. and the international community have right now — and about the arms trafficking to Haiti that's taken a strange turn lately, with guns that are often coming from Florida.

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Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity:

Tim, what prompted so many Haitians to go out and protest last week?

If I had to pick one catalyst, it would be the murder of a 56-year-old mother, Josette Fils Desanclos, and her two daughters, Sardjie and Sondjie Desanclos, a week ago.

They were driving in Croix-des-Bouquets, outside Port-au-Prince when, according to police, they were stopped by members of one of Haiti's most violent gangs, known as 400 Mawazo, which controls that area. They were robbed, shot and killed - and then their bodies were burned inside their car. According to Haitian media, the daughters were both law students.

They were just three of at least eight Haitians killed by gangs that day in that vicinity. This sort of thing is happening in Haiti now on a regular basis.

READ MORE: Croix-des-Bouquets Crisis: a Caribbean arts center is Haiti's gang violence epicenter

Why does the situation in Haiti keep getting worse?

Because rule of law has all but collapsed there. Things were already bad in that regard before last summer's assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But since then, most Haitians will tell you the gangs are now a more powerful authority than Ariel Henry's interim government.

Gangs control an estimated half of the capital, Port-au-Prince — including the Palace of Justice. I spoke with Haitian attorney Samuel Madistin, who heads the human rights nonprofit Fondasyon Je Klere in Port-au-Prince, and his view is pretty widely held in Haiti:

“The government doesn’t take any initiative, no political strategy to stop violent gangs. So I think we will continue to ask this government to resign.”

But Prime Minister Henry isn't likely to step down, not unless the U.S. and the international community pressure him to — and that's unlikely because they fear it would just invite more chaos.

Most Haitians will tell you the gangs are now a more powerful authority in the country than Ariel Henry's interim government.

So is there any solution left for Haiti at this point — or for the U.S. or any other country or organization in a position to help?

Some people say the U.S. and the U.N. will have to put troops in Haiti again, but there's very little appetite for that in Washington.

So you're hearing more talk now about whether the Biden Administration and the international community should be dealing with a commission of Haitian civic leaders called the Montana Group. It has proposed a plan to create a transitional government that it claims would be more effective at creating public security conditions for new presidential and parliamentary elections. But that's far from certain.

ARMS TRAFFICKING PRIEST?

Tim, you've said that the smuggling of guns to Haitian gangs, especially from Florida, is the key problem here. Is getting that under control looking more possible now?

I think so, largely because the U.S. is getting more serious now about stopping it. Homeland Security investigations, for example, is ramping up its efforts to intercept the really heavy weapons getting into Haiti these days — the military assault rifles, the 9mm pistols, the belt-fed machine guns.

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Odelyn Joseph
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AP
Haitians in Port-au-Prince last week protesting gang violence and economic hardship and calling on Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign.

We're told a big problem, though, is that Haitian political and business figures are often the ones importing these guns because they use these gangs as their enforcers. So it will be interesting to see if the U.S. starts indicting and prosecuting people like them.

But U.S. and Haitian authorities are dealing with a bizarre new arms trafficking case right now, aren't they?

They are. Last week, the accountant for the Episcopal Church in Haiti became the most recent person arrested in an alleged plot to bring high-powered guns into the country last month. They came in a shipping container sent to the Episcopal Church there that originated at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

Two weeks ago, a high ranking Episcopal priest in Haiti was arrested in that case. He and the accountant deny the charge. the Haitian Episcopal Church denies it knew anything about this. But, yeah, this is bizarre. Stay tuned.

What does this case tell us about the state of things in Haiti right now?

It just underscores the scary chaos Haitians are living under today — and that the U.S. and the international community may have no choice at this point but to get more involved.

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