Oct 6, 2022 - World

Haiti's gangs run the streets as fuel and water run low

Demonstrations against the government devolve into chaos in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

The blockade of Haiti’s main fuel terminal by a federation of gangs has made it nearly impossible for millions of Haitians to obtain fuel and increasingly difficult to find drinking water or food.

The big picture: Three-quarters of Haiti’s hospitals have closed due to “the fuel crisis, insecurity and looting,” the UN says, just as cholera is beginning to spread around the country.

  • Gang leaders and protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, backed by demonstrations that have at times turned violent.

Driving the news: Henry appealed last night for international assistance, though he didn't specifically request a military intervention.

  • While past international peacekeeping missions in Haiti have ended disastrously, Haiti’s national police are outgunned by the gangs and exhausted after weeks of continuous unrest.
  • The UN is calling for a “humanitarian corridor” to allow for fuel distribution, though it's unclear how that would work in practice.
  • Schools are closed, and UNICEF warned Wednesday that 50,000 children and newborns will go without medical care in the coming weeks. Thursday, a UNICEF warehouse was looted for supplies.

On the ground: Judes Jonathas, a senior program manager in Haiti for the humanitarian group Mercy Corps, tells Axios he starts his day with phone calls — ”what do you see in the street?” — to assess whether it’s safe to travel to the office or into the field. “We know we’re taking risks,” he says, but their aid is needed now more than ever.

  • Gangs have long been present in certain areas, but now no matter where you live you’re likely to see “adolescents with big guns” walk past your window, Jonathas says. In the climate of impunity, gang members feel no need to hide their identities.
  • The shortages are growing dire. Jonathas visited four grocery stores on Wednesday but found no water and no bread. “For more than two weeks, we don’t have fuel,” he says. The black market price for a single gallon is around $30.
  • Four million Haitians already faced food insecurity before the current crisis, Jonathas notes. Now prices are rising, shelves are bare, and many people can't work due to the fuel shortage and insecurity.

Flashback: Henry won a power struggle following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July last year. He’s been accused of having links to suspects in the assassination, though he denies any role.

  • While he's officially the interim leader, elections are a remote prospect.
  • The gangs' power play of blocking fuel distribution began after Henry announced an end to fuel subsidies, which he said were unaffordable.

The current crisis is not as simple as government vs. gangs, because the two are inextricably linked, says Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network.

  • “People in power make alliances with the gangs to attack the citizens, and then we cannot talk about anything but security," Esperance alleges.
  • The U.S. has also been the target of protests for its perceived support of Henry's government.
  • Civil society organizations and the U.S. are calling on Henry to agree to share or transfer power. "Because Ariel [Henry] feels he has the full support of the Biden administration, he doesn't want to sign any agreement with other actors to move on,” Esperance contends.
  • A National Security Council spokesperson told Axios: “We strongly condemn the acts of violence, looting and destruction that have recently occurred in Haiti and the actions of those who instigated these events for their own ends," and are calling on Haiti's political leadership to reach "an accord that will allow elections to take place as soon as conditions permit.”
  • Haiti’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The bottom line: "We can survive for one or two weeks," Jonathas says. "If this situation stays the same, it will be a catastrophe."

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