In a city cut off from the world, guns and drugs keep flowing

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Port-au-PrinceCNN — 

On the rare days that the hills surrounding Port-au-Prince fall silent, people notice.

“If you can’t hear shooting somewhere, the gangs are probably running low on ammunition,” a police source in the Haitian capital told CNN. “But when there’s a lot of shooting, they’ve definitely received a fresh shipment.”

For over two months, Port-au-Prince has been cut off from the world, its international seaport and airport shuttered following an explosion of gang attacks in late February. All major roads are blocked by gang checkpoints. For most people living here, there is no way out – and no way to bring in desperately needed food and medicine.

Encircling the Caribbean nation is another closed perimeter, this one created by Haiti’s neighbors. The Dominican Republic has sealed the island’s shared border and airspace. The Bahamas has launched a naval blockade to keep Haitians from fleeing the crisis by boat; the UK has sent a warship to ward off anyone seeking refuge in Turks and Caicos, a British overseas territory; and the US state of Florida has increased marine and aviation patrols.

And yet guns, bullets and drugs keep pouring in, crossing international waters and airspace to reach the embattled country – most of the firepower originating from the US.

“Haiti doesn’t produce guns and ammunition, yet the gang members don’t seem to have any trouble accessing those things,” says Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

Since the start of the year, thousands of people have been killed in gang-related violence and hundreds kidnapped, including at least 21 children, UN figures show. Stopping the flow of guns to Haiti would likely have an immediate impact on the bloodshed, according to police and human rights experts.

“We have to cut the gangs’ weapons supply lines. This is absolutely the most important thing now,” the police source told CNN. “Because when they don’t have bullets, their machine guns become nothing more than clubs.”

And as a Kenyan-led multinational security support force (MSS) prepares to deploy to Haiti, starving the gangs of ammunition should be a top priority for the US, says William O’Neill, the UN Designated Expert of the High Commissioner on the situation of Human Rights in Haiti.

“All of these countries that are contributing their young men and women (to the MSS), how can we make it safer for them to do their job? One way the US could help immediately and directly would be to really seriously crack down on the flow of illegal weapons,” he said.

“The gangs have literally nothing else; their only currency is intimidation and fear.”

Defying a global arms embargo

Eighteen months ago, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Haiti, which bans the export of weapons to anyone in the country other than the government. The US has also taken independent steps to crack down on illicit exports, appointing a regional coordinator for firearms prosecution in the Caribbean and a special unit to investigate transnational crimes in Haiti.

Yet the guns keep coming. In January, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned that Haiti-bound firearms and ammunition were being “routinely incorporated into outbound shipments at warehouses near seaports and airports” in Florida, citing interviews with US customs officials.

The following month, Haiti’s gangs put their weapons to devastating use, taking the country hostage in an explosion of coordinated violence that forced then-Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign, and led to the creation of a transitional governing council that has so far been mired in disagreement.

“The planes have not stopped flying. There continue to be exchanges of both ammunition and arms across the border,” Sylvie Bertrand, the UNODC regional representative, told CNN recently, urging the global community to enforce the arms embargo.

But amid today’s chaos, experts say it is likely becoming easier than ever for the gangs to resupply, as they now control major routes and infrastructure to bypass official controls.

“There are always weapons coming in. There are always bullets,” Vitel’homme Innocent, leader of the Kraze Baryé gang, told CNN in April, his masked entourage bristling with a globally manufactured assortment of firepower.

Weapons experts who later analyzed some of CNN’s images from the encounter said they could spot weapons and accessory parts originating from Israel, Turkey, the Czech Republic, probably Brazil – and, overwhelmingly, from the United States.

An ‘iron river’ from the United States

The guns Haiti’s gangs wield are a mix of stolen and smuggled, and the United States is by far the main source of the latter, according to UN experts.

From 2020 to 2022, over 80% of the weapons seized in Haiti and submitted to US authorities for tracing were manufactured in or imported from the United States, UNODC reported in January, citing the most-recent available tracing data.  They are typically purchased in the US from federally licensed retail outlets, gun shows or pawn shops through “straw man” intermediaries, the agency also found.

It’s all part of a phenomenon that experts in Latin America and the Caribbean call the “iron river” – a flood of guns bought in US states with lax gun laws, and then shipped across the region to criminal groups. The Mexican government, which has been outspoken about the issue, currently has a $10 billion lawsuit pending against several US gun manufacturers whose products, it says, arm powerful cartels.

A senior agent at the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which investigates the diversion of lawfully purchased guns to illegal ends, told CNN that Miami is a significant source of weapons sent to Haiti, which have historically been trafficked in small freighters by family networks.

“Those are difficult to enforce because they’re not your typical commercial freighter… it’s relatively easy to conceal a small number of firearms in those shipments,” he said. Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia are also sources of weapons trafficked to the Caribbean, where the ATF has a specialized gun intelligence unit to track and stop such flows, he added.

Asked whether the US was doing enough, he emphasized that combatting gun trafficking was a top priority. “It is a very high priority of the United States government and ATF’s role in that, to stem the flow of illegal firearms, whether domestic or international, and particularly places like Haiti where the rule of law is under extreme threat.”

In January, Joly Germine – leader of the gang 400 Mawozo – pleaded guilty to US charges over a gunrunning scheme that saw dozens of rifles, handguns and a shotgun purchased legally in Florida under false pretenses, and smuggled into Haiti.

Land of mountains

From above, traces of Haiti’s extensive smuggling networks come into focus: the scars of a clandestine airstrip in its sun-bleached Central Plateau, a dock jutting from gang-held territory into the still waters of the Gulf of Gonave.

Sea and air are the main means of transport for the guns and the drugs trans-shipments that fund more weapons purchases, experts say. And while Haitian authorities have seen some successes in seizing illicit cargo over the years, the dramatic peaks and plains of this “land of mountains” add difficulty for an already understaffed police force and customs agency.

Haiti’s secluded and sparsely populated rural areas are ideal for landings and take-offs by small planes aiming to avoid observation. There are at least 11 known informal or clandestine airstrips in the country, according to UNODC, many originally built for humanitarian purposes following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

“Here, you don’t have anything around you. So, you just go, probably in the middle of the night, with a couple vehicles parked on each side of the improvised runway so the pilot can identify the area. They land, drop off or pick up stuff, and take off again all outside of Haitian jurisdiction,” a security expert in Port-au-Prince told CNN.

The sea is the preferred option for arms smugglers given the weight of their cargo. Haiti’s roughly horseshoe shape offers over 1,100 miles of coastline, a challenging distance to comprehensively patrol for Haiti’s coast guard.

Haiti’s south in particular has emerged as a strategic location for smugglers, the UNODC reported in April, offering entry points for cocaine from South America, cannabis from Jamaica and firearms from across the region.

“One popular method of moving illegal products involves “banana boats,” go-fast vessels that arrive at night, beach on coastal banana plantations, and are subsequently destroyed after unloading their cargo,” the UNODC report details.

Guns and ammunition that arrive in the south are frequently sent onward to Port-au-Prince via the gang-controlled Route National 3, it also said, identifying the Mariani gang, Grand Ravine gang, and 5 Segond gang as “major players in the organization and distribution of arms, munitions and drugs.”

In 2022, 5 Segond group attacked Haiti’s largest flour mill. It would have been an incongruous target if not for its location, positioned right next to Port-au-Prince Bay with a large jetty to accept deliveries. Just about a mile inland lies a major highway, and in between the two is a massive warehouse; a perfect distribution set-up for any import entrepreneur.

Today, the entire area is controlled by 5 Segond, with security sources telling CNN that they believe the mill has been taken over and no longer functions.

“Izo has the jetty, so he has access to the sea. And boats keep coming in and out of that area, which again is completely controlled by his gang… and is kept under tight control, with barricades in the surroundings,” the same security expert said, referring to 5 Segond’s rapper frontman Andre Johnson, who often posts videos of gang members flashing guns and paramilitary gear set to music on social media.

Containers and corruption

Contraband arriving via secretive small boats and planes is just part of the picture. Last month, Haitian National Police and Customs agents seized more than two dozen firearms, including 12 assault rifles, and nearly a thousand cartridges from a shipping container that had arrived in Haiti’s northern city of Cap Haitien.

Drugs and arms smuggling has a long history in Haiti, much of it facilitated through official channels by government agents and even, in one 2022 case, by a rogue Episcopal church staffer who allegedly hid guns and thousands of rounds in a shipping container reportedly labeled as church donations, before it was seized by customs agents in Port-au-Prince.

Customs officials trying to do their job on the front lines in Haiti can face threats to their lives. In 2018, local press reported that several customs agents at the Malpasse border crossing between the Dominican Republic and Haiti were burned alive after an argument erupted in the course of a cargo inspection.

Allegations of smuggling and gang affiliations have also been made at the highest levels of Haiti’s government. Four former Haitian senators have been sanctioned by the US for alleged drug trafficking, as have multiple past presidents and prime ministers of Haiti for allegedly financing the country’s gangs. They’re part of what gang leader Innocent refers to as the country’s “oligarchs,” who historically created and armed local gangs to become their enforcers-for-hire as they profited from white-collar crime schemes.

“As a Haitian human rights defender, I can’t say that all the responsibility for these guns is on the US – I think it’s the Haitian government too. They need to regain control of the port, they need to control customs. The problem is corruption,” says Esperance, the human rights advocate.

That’s why, he says, the planned deployment of an international police force to restore calm to Haiti is destined to fail unless the US and global community also commit to fighting corruption, building frameworks for good governance, and closing legal loopholes abused by the country’s elite.

“Now, of course, the government is completely destabilized, it’s easy for the gangs to smuggle weapons themselves. But how did they begin? Just two years ago, smuggling was going through official channels, and it happened that way because everyone was corrupt,” Esperance said.

Bertrand, the UNODC representative, also emphasized the importance of building up Haiti’s institutions as its new government takes shape. Her agency is working to strengthen the country’s customs authority and coast guard, for example, including providing much-needed equipment from protective gear to cargo scanners.

“It’s time for people in Haiti to live peacefully – for their kids to go back to school, for them to be able to eat every day.” And that means, she says, ensuring that “national authorities are well-trained, well-equipped, and ready to face and curb down the level of violence.”

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