The leaders of four armed gangs in Haiti, including one who is the target of a $2 million FBI bounty and forced the evacuation of personnel from the U.S. Embassy this summer, have been hit with economic sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The sanctions by the Biden administration were announced Friday shortly before a United Nations sanctions committee also designated the same individuals. They will now join the only other person on the U.N. sanctions list: Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former police officer who became a gang leader.
The four gang leaders named by Treasury and the U.N. are Vitel’homme Innocent, head of the Kraze Baryé gang and subject of a $2 million reward by the FBI for information leading to his arrest; Johnson “Izo” André, who leads the 5 Segonn/5 Segond gang and is wanted by the Haiti National Police for various crimes including assassination and has been identified by survivors as being responsible for 1,035 documented cases of sexual violence in 2022.; Renel “Ti Lapli” Destina, a key ally of André who has been indicted on charges of hostage taking by the U.S. Justice Department, and Wilson Joseph, also known as Lanmo Sanjou, who heads the 400 Mawozo gang and has also been indicted in the U.S. for his role role in the armed kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Haiti, including 16 missionaries.
“André, Destina, Innocent, and Joseph are each being designated for being a foreign person who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse and for being a foreign person who is or has been a leader or official of an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse relating to the leader’s or official’s tenure in their roles as leaders of criminal gangs in Haiti,” the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said.
With gangs controlling at least 80% of the Haitian capital, the four gang leaders are behind much of the spiraling violence, which is now spreading into the countryside, according to a new U.N. report.
The gang leaders are among 15 people, including politicians, who were recently cited in a recent report by a U.N. panel of experts tasked with unearthing the role of the country’s politicians, business sector and gangs in the ongoing violence that escalated after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse more than two years ago. The slaying created a power vacuum and left a weakened Haitian state unable to control its own territory.
Soon after Treasury made its announcement on Friday, a U.N. sanctions committee also announced its designations, which were the same individuals being hit by the Biden administration. This is not the first time gang leaders in Haiti have been designated with economic sanctions, which bans them from making financial transactions. and prevents others from doing business with them. However, critics have questioned their effectiveness given that gang members often don’t have bank accounts or property in foreign countries, much less travel visas.
“When you sanction gang leaders, there is an effect you are not going to get.... It doesn’t mean that they are going to stop doing what they are doing,” said Gédéon Jean, the founder of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights., which monitors kidnappings. “What the population is looking from from the international community are actions with a direct impact.”
With the individuals designated for U.N. sanctions being only gang members who everyone already knows, Jean said, the public “will not take the international community seriously.”
Since last fall, both the U.S. and Canada have come to rely on economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool in Haiti, where elections haven’t been held since 2016. Efforts to schedule them hit another roadblock this week when a civil society coalition known as the Montana Group rejected a proposal by the 15-member Caribbean Community that would have them and others share power with Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
“The Secretary-General is concerned over the limited progress in the inter-Haitian dialogue towards a lasting and inclusive political solution to restore the country’s democratic institutions,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. chief António Guterres, said Thursday.
Where Canada has imposed sanctions against 28 Haitian citizens, including two former presidents and two former prime ministers, to try to respond to the political crisis and spreading gang violence, the U.S. process has been slower and more laborious.
Diplomatic sources familiar with U.N.. negotiations said the four gang leaders were decided on after weeks of intense negotiations at the U.N. Security Council where at least one country, China, opposed the sanctioning of political figures despite the report by the U.N. panel of experts.
Last year, the U.N. made its first designation, Chérizier.
The leader of one of Haiti’s most powerful gang alliances, “G9 Family and Allies,” Chérizier is accused of multiple human-rights abuses, including a 2019 massacre in La Saline neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. His nearly six-week-long blockade of Haiti’s main fuel terminal, Varreux, in 2022, led the United States to author a resolution setting the foundation for a Haiti sanctions regime at the U.N. It also prompted the U.S. to support the request by the Haitian government for the deployment of an international armed force to help police combat gangs.
The objections by China as well as Russia, which has publicly criticized Canada and the United States for issuing their own sanctions ahead of the U.N., is less about Haiti and more about the challenge facing U.S. diplomacy.
“It may be convenient for its own reasons for China to object to a broadening of Haiti sanctions policy, but thematically it alludes to a broader challenge facing U.S. diplomacy —an extraordinary wide universe of U.S. sanctions (some very long term) that includes Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, China, etc and behind it an increasingly complicated bureaucracy in Washington to make sense of all of it,” said Georges Fauriol, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.N. political affairs chief and expert on U.S.-China relations, said China and Russia take great satisfaction from the catastrophic situation in Haiti, since it does not affect them directly but is a seemingly insolvable dilemma for Washington.
“Why would China and Russia readily sign onto any initiative, such as sanctions, that reduces the pressure on the United States?” Feltman said.
He noted how during discussions about authorizing a U.S.-supported multinational security support mission to Haiti led by Kenya, China hinted at that it would veto the Security Council resolution because it was respecting the sovereign right of the Haitian government to request external support. It then allowed the resolution to pass by abstaining, along with Russia.
“In reality, China enjoyed watching the United States stuck with the Haiti problem and resorting to the diplomatic equivalent of begging for help,” Feltman said.
Haiti observers have mixed views on sanctions.
U.S. sanctions have “become something of a default response in the absence of the hard work of creative and engaged diplomacy,” said Fauriol. “U.S. policy toward Haiti over the past 18-plus months fits that general profile.”
Fauriol said that while sanctioning Haitian gang leaders provides the appearance of a response, in practice it has limited impact on the character and scope of gang violence in Haiti. But he’s not sure that broadening U.S. sanctions to a wider universe of Haitians will produce the desired effect.
“It strikes me as well-intentioned but lacking a longer term purpose,” Fauriol said. “It sends the message that Washington can make their lives difficult and addresses what many critics of US policy like to point to — the role of the ‘oligarchs.’ Sanctioning strictly political actors has its logic, but in Haiti that overlaps with a wider business and civil society community.”
The public disclosures behind individual sanctions are often rather opaque, he notes, a repeated criticism also of Canada’s designations, which have even less detail that the ones by the United States. This leads “to social media speculations... and the uneasy feeling that much of this has little meaningful impact as far as the overall situation in Haiti is concerned,” he added.
But Fauriol isn’t ready to completely dismiss sanctions, at least coming from the United Nations, which effectively bans individuals from visiting most nations around the world..
“If the U.N. sanctions regime is limited only to gang members, that may still be valuable to the degree that it hopefully tightens the layers of multilateral restrictions on criminal networks tied to the Haitian environment,” he said. “It might also force U.S. policymakers and the U.S. Congress to come more directly to grips with one factor of the Haitian crisis that is energized by U.S. inaction — flow of guns and ammunition from the U.S. to the entire Caribbean Basin.”