Haiti: US guns pour into Port-au-Prince, fuelling surge in violence

A man sits with a machine gun in Port-au-Prince
Gangs in Haiti have easy access to weapons [Getty Images]

Haiti is a state out of action.

More than two weeks after the country's prime minister resigned, following a surge of violence in Port-au-Prince, details of a presidential transitional council have still not been revealed.

One of the challenges this council will have to face is the illegal trafficking of guns, which has powered the gangs which have taken over.

The escalation in violence has sparked an exodus from the capital.

Among those leaving is 14-year-old David Charles whose father Israel is nervous with excitement as he waits for his son's bus to arrive in Cap-Haitien.

A coach with boarded-up windows pulls up to the side of the road. He smiles in anticipation. His 14-year-old son David soon walks down the stairs with his luggage. They embrace tightly.

Israel Charles embraces his son David
Israel Charles was reunited with his son, who had been living in Port-au-Prince [BBC]

David has managed to escape Port-au-Prince - a city now torn apart by armed gangs and political chaos. Most of the violence gripping Haiti is centred in the capital: the UN estimates 80% of it is now controlled by gangs.

He had been living there for two years without his parents, in order to finish his education, but Israel did not want him "to become a victim".

This month's torrent of violence spurred him to get his son out to Cap-Haitien, a city in the north of the country which is safer.

"The journey was very long, more than six hours. I was praying the whole way," says David. "The bus driver later told us there were a lot of gunshots in one area, our bus just missed them."

David Charles
David Charles, 14, managed to get to Cap-Haitien safely, much to his father's relief [BBC]

Other passengers on the bus look exhausted, relieved but also upset. One man in a dark T-shirt and sunglasses speaks quietly as we ask him how he is. But becomes visibly angry as he tells us he has a message for the United States.

"All the guns here are from the US, everybody knows it. If the US wants to stop this, they could easily do it one month!" He pleads: "We are asking the US to give us a chance to live, just give us a chance."

For a country that does not manufacture weapons, a UN report in January found every type of gun was flooding Port-au-Prince: high-powered rifles such as AK-47s, 9mm pistols, sniper rifles and machine guns.

The weapons are fuelling the staggering surge in Haiti's gang-related violence.

There is no exact number for how many trafficked firearms are currently in Haiti.

The UN report said some estimates put it at half a million legal and illegal weapons here as of 2020.

It reported that guns and ammunition were being smuggled in from land, air and sea from US states such as Florida, Texas and Georgia.

There have been seizures in the country's main ports in Port-au-Prince, Port-de-Paix and in Cap-Haitien. Illegal weapons are hidden in shipping containers among toy and clothes donations.

In July 2022, Haitian authorities seized a huge haul of dozens of weapons with 15,000 rounds of ammunition. They were stuffed in a shipment from Florida heading to an Episcopal church in Haiti.

Gang Leader Jimmy 'Barbecue' Cherizier patrolling the streets with G-9 federation gang members in the Delmas 3 area on February 22, 2024, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There has a been fresh wave of violence in Port-au-Prince where, according to UN estimates, gangs control 80% of the city.
Gangs now control 80% of Port-au-Prince, according to UN estimates [Getty Images]

The UN also identified the use of several clandestine airstrips built for humanitarian purposes after the devastating earthquake in 2010, which are now hardly monitored.

Earlier this month, a UN spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told journalists the UN Secretary-General's message to gangs in Haiti was to "silence the guns".

In the corner of his office, Cap-Haitien's chief prosecutor, Charles-Edward Durant, keeps a semi-automatic weapon.

He says he needs security whenever he travels. For him, things have never been so bad in Haiti. "This is a nightmare, a horrible dream. I would like Haitians to wake up and work to have a better country."

Is he worried that with guns being so prolific, the violence could make its way into Cap-Haitien?

At this, he smiles with more confidence: "We are resisting, we have our ways: informants, checkpoints. Are they afraid of us? Of course. We are not playing. Anything can happen. If a gangster comes, he's not here to play, and so we aren't playing with them either."

The US says it will throw its weight at the problem of guns and gangs, too.

Last year, the State Department indicated it had plans to help establish a new policing unit in Haiti to address weapons being trafficked into the country.

Barbara Feinstein, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Caribbean Affairs and Haiti, said at the time it was only "one piece of the equation".

Juliette
Juliette left Port-au-Prince after surviving a shooting [BBC]

However, with no head of state, and effectively no government, Haiti's people are trapped in yet another vicious circle of violence powered by illegal guns.

One of them is Juliette Dorson. The 50-year-old fled Port-au-Prince after surviving a shooting.

The party planner still bears the scars from the bullets which hit her when she was ambushed at an event she was catering for.

"I said run, run, run because they are shooting. At that moment, I was shot twice: once in my feet and the other in the arm."

Ten people were killed, including her 22-year-old business partner, Luc.

She sobs as she speaks about him. The memory of it all is too traumatic to talk about at length.

Juliette shows us the small space she currently lives in, sharing a bed with a friend.

It is a world away from the home she once owned in the capital. The gangs have claimed that. She cannot return.

"When the gangs and the violence started in Port-au-Prince, the government didn't do anything to stop it. And they let this grow and grow. It's now too complicated to stop."

Additional reporting by Morgan Gisholt Minard.

Correction 27 March: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggested that a UN report had said that some estimates put the number of legal and illegal weapons in Haiti at half a billion. In fact, the UN report said that some estimates put the number at half a million and so we have amended this section of the article to make that clear.