Urban Gangs Make Comeback as Political Goons in Haiti By: Moritz Schuberth | Haiti | Aug 3, 2015

It is commonly perceived that the motivation of Haiti’s urban gangs has changed from political to criminal – falsely so as my research has found. Rather, the function gangs fulfill for their sponsors is constantly shifting between political and criminal, as evidenced by the current re-emergence of political violence ahead of elections later this year.


CCSD_11_05_cover.qxpThis article is the seventh contribution in our new Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes research originally published here:

Moritz Schuberth (2015) ‘A transformation from political to criminal violence? Politics, organised crime and the shifting functions of Haiti’s urban armed groups’, Conflict, Security & Development, 15:2, 169-196.

As part of the partnership between the Conflict, Security & Development Journal and the Centre for Security Governance, this journal article will be available for six months free and open access exclusively through this link:



In a recent post for this Academic Spotlight blog series, Timothy Donais and Geoff Burt asked whether Haiti’s urban gangs will re-emerge as political actors now that the country has finally entered the election period, following years of delay. In this response, I will argue that their fear has already come true. I have come to this conclusion based on the findings of six months of fieldwork carried out in Haiti in the second half of 2013, which have recently been published in Conflict, Security & Development, in an article titled “A Transformation from Political to Criminal Violence? Politics, Organised Crime and the Shifting Functions of Haiti’s Urban Armed Groups.”

My article challenges the dominant view that Haiti’s gangs underwent a substantive shift from politically motivated groups that fought on the side of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide before his ouster in 2004, to purely criminal gangs today. This prevailing interpretation is in line with most academic literature in the Latin American context, where it is a common perception that political violence has been replaced by criminal or socio-economic violence in the period of democratization following the end of the Cold War. It is also the central argument of the new wars thesis that violent conflicts are increasingly depoliticized and instead more and more driven by economic incentives. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that the narrative of a shift from criminal to political violence is equally widespread among policy analysts on Haiti and practitioners on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

The problem with this perspective is that it often implies that the motivation of gang members themselves has changed; that they made the deliberate choice to engage in violence for purely profit-oriented reasons rather than to continue pursuing political ends. Yet, my research reveals that the motivation of the perpetrators does not necessarily change even when the function of violence shifts from political to criminal. Rather, I argue that the motivation of those committing acts of armed violence remains the same, whereas the priorities of those commissioning these acts are constantly shifting. Hence, it is suggested to utilize a functional perspective that shifts the focus of analysis from the producers to the sponsors of violence. From this point of view, gangs are seen as profit-oriented entrepreneurs who are seeking to improve their limited life chances by trading in violence, regardless of whether they serve the political or the criminal interests of their patrons.

Seen in this light, the perceived shift from political to criminal violence committed by Haiti’s gangs can be explained by the decreasing impact of political sponsors after a period of political turmoil surrounding the second coup d’état against former President Aristide in 2004. This prompted gangs to seek alternative revenue by preying upon neighboring communities or by working for organised crime groups. During election periods, however, the political function of urban armed groups can be reactivated by political sponsors, a scenario which occurred during my fieldwork in Haiti against the background of the long-delayed elections.

What I found is that Lavalas, Aristide’s party and the historical ally of urban gangs, is trying to regain its influence in the slums of Port-au-Prince. At the same time, President Martelly is trying to buy the support of the gangs, with whom he has no historical ties and which he cannot control solely by force. Hence, competing political forces are exploiting the long-standing rivalry between the upper and lower parts of the infamous seaside slum of Cité Soleil, which leads to violent attacks between the neighborhoods. Towards the end of 2013, this proxy fighting for political influence culminated in the burning and decapitation of rival gang members, and violence has only worsened since then.

The main implication of this for policy makers and practitioners is that efforts to reduce violence committed by urban armed groups require an integrated strategy which addresses the structural causes for the formation of gangs, while at the same time mitigating the influence patrons exert on such groups. In accordance with the findings of my research, a number of recommendations can be given to international agencies working in Haiti and comparable urban contexts plagued by a mixture of political and criminal violence:

  • Before deciding to intervene in areas with a high presence of armed groups, it is essential to understand the nature of these groups and the local power dynamics.
  • Development activities should focus on the generation of job opportunities for slum dwellers in order to improve their life chances and to limit the attractiveness of joining urban gangs.
  • Instead of simply containing the urban poor, the security and judicial sectors should refocus their efforts on combating high-scale organized crime, which requires ending the impunity enjoyed by the political elite and powerful families in control of the business sector.
  • The Haitian state must retake control of gang-ruled areas and fulfill its primary function as the exclusive provider of security. In this respect, it is of paramount importance that law enforcement agencies abide by human rights standards and instill trust, rather than fear, across all sections of the population.
  • Most importantly, the use of gangs as goon squads by political actors must be thwarted through the promotion of the core principles of democracy, which include respect for the rule of law and good governance.

Moritz Schuberth is a PhD candidate in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. His research focuses on non-state armed groups, peacebuilding, statebuilding, and urban violence. He is the author of recent articles in Africa Spectrum, Conflict, Security & Development, and Contemporary Security Policy.


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