Small Wars Journal

Perspective: The Caribbean's metastasizing gang threat needs coordinated regional responses

Mon, 04/15/2024 - 5:42pm

Perspective: The Caribbean's metastasizing gang threat needs coordinated regional responses

Robert Muggah and Rajeev Gundur

Gangs Haiti

Gangs in Haiti Challenge Stability. (Public Domain; CC 1.0  Deed)

After years of escalating criminal violence, heavily armed criminal gangs finally pushed Haiti over the edge. Rival gang factions joined forces to force Haiti’s beleaguered Prime Minister from office while he was visiting Kenya to speed-up the deployment of a UN-sanctioned multinational security force. Throughout February and March 2024, they targeted the country’s international airport, prison facilities, national palace, general hospital, police stations, customs offices, and a rash of other sites. The gangs are not operating alone. They are powered by elite backers and criminal markets in everything from narcotics and firearms trafficking to extortion, kidnapping and the smuggling of people. 

Gangs are typically viewed as a local phenomenon linked to the legacies of weak state institutions, corruption, unemployment, and poverty. Yet in Haiti, and indeed across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, gangs are fundamentally connected to transnational markets in narcotics, arms, and illicit financial flows. Nor are the impacts of gangs confined to Haiti which is why coordinated regional and international responses are needed to address them. As Haiti's grim situation worsens, Caribbean nations have pledged more police and security assistance. There is also a growing chorus for the US to intervene militarily as it has in decades and centuries past. 

The proliferation of Haitian gangs has pushed the country's humanitarian situation from the catastrophic to apocalyptic. Western governments are reluctant to send troops and police to tamp down gang violence and the UN-sanctioned security mission has stalled while Haitian opposition and civil society leaders form an interim council to select a new president. Describing the situation as “cataclysmic,” the United Nations reported that at least 1,554 Haitians have been killed since the start of 2024. Another 15,000 Haitians fled violence in recent weeks, adding to the more than 360,000 civilians already internally displaced. Deepening insecurity has sent food prices skyrocketing: half of Haiti’s population now depends on relief assistance and more than one million children are out of school. 

Absent a credible deterrent, the gangs and criminal networks holding Haiti hostage are demanding an amnesty before a new government is installed. The crisis unfolding in the western hemisphere's poorest country not only threatens instability among its Caribbean neighbors, but also surging migration to Florida and the border with Mexico. And while facing an extreme situation, Haiti is not the only Caribbean nation affected by metastasizing gang violence. Many of the region’s 33 political jurisdictions are registering record-levels of homicide and violence crime linked to a rising tide of drugs, guns, and gangs. 

The Caribbean is currently home to five of the ten most homicidal countries in the world. For example, in 2022, the homicide rate of Turks and Caicos climbed above 77 per 100,000 people, a doubling of the previous year. Jamaica’s murder rate also climbed to 52.9 per 100,000, with 70 percent of all documented homicides connected to criminal organizations. Saint Lucia’s homicide rate climbed to 42.3 per 100,000 in 2022, shattering the previous year’s record. And in 2022 Trinidad and Tobago’s homicide rate rose to 39.4 per 100,000, up over 22 percent from the year before. 
Several external factors are behind the region's soaring gang violence. For one, the Caribbean is geographically located between the world’s three cocaine suppliers in South America and the planet’s largest drug consumer and firearm exporter in North America. Coca production is surging which helps explain surging narcotics shipments through the Caribbean en route to consumers in the US, Europe and beyond. Also, ex-felons deported from the US after serving their sentences are sharing their tradecraft with local gangsters. What is more, the US’s inability to reign-in the proliferation of guns and ammunition sold from registered dealers means that violent criminals easily procure the tools of the trade to intimidate rivals and local communities. 

There are also a host of home-grown drivers of the Caribbean crime wave. The toxic combination of corruption and impunity, ineffective police and criminal justice, porous borders, and deficits in jobs, employment and education for young people are all well documented factors influencing gang recruitment. Complicating matters, anti-gang measures have likewise accelerated the fragmentation and splintering of gangs into bitter rival factions. And because of an absence of sustained social programs to rehabilitate and reintegrate gang members, there are today literally hundreds of gangs and criminal groups across the region led by young, and violent, leaders. 

A worrisome symptom of gang proliferation is the explosion of gun-related violence throughout the Caribbean. Countries such as the Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago have declared national emergencies. Highly dependent on tourism and trade, they face increasingly routine shootouts. Most of those killed and doing the killing are males between 18 to 30. And while the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has launched various declarations and roadmaps to crackdown on illicit firearms and ammunition trafficking, these efforts often lack teeth.

As the case of Haiti shows, once gang violence escalates it can threaten regional stability. The US will need to play an expanded role in restoring order in this immediate sphere of influence. Given the uneven history of US military responses, including in Haiti during the 20th and 21st centuries, the deployment of troops could be disruptive and counterproductive. Rather, regional responses should be co-developed with CARICOM and other partners to prevent and reduce gun violence, lower the demand for drugs, and stem the dark money funneled to political and business elite that back gangs. These responses begin on US territory and end with the development of robust public, private, and non-governmental institutions in the Caribbean.

The US could start by assuming greater responsibility for reducing the flow of firearms and ammunition to criminal groups in the Caribbean. Based on eTrace requests submitted to the Bureau for Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), most gun violence committed in the region is perpetrated with firearms purchased by “straw men” in states with lax laws, including Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Florida. Firearms are then trafficked illegally from Florida via small places and cargo vessels to Caribbean countries. The US stepped-up its interdiction efforts since 2021, including partnerships between Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the US Customs and Border Protection, ATF the Department of Commerce, and various Attorneys General. At the regional level, the US has also led a series of operations with CARICOM, involving joint intelligence, police cooperation and cargo screening. Yet with the iron pipeline still feeding gang violence in the Caribbean, more investment is required. 

US lawmakers also need to explicitly acknowledge the relationships between gun violence and forced migration. Indeed, thousands of Caribbean, Central American and South American nationals are moving to the US not just in search of economic opportunity, but due to fear of personal insecurity. Commonsense firearms legislation such as closing loopholes related to untraced gun sales, gun components, and ammunition could be more straightforward if linked to patterns of involuntary migration. For now, firearm and ammunition interdiction efforts are paramount. So is support for violence interruption programs that, despite having generated important improvements in safety, are routinely closed prematurely due to a lack of ongoing financial support. Further support to organizations that help train and keep young people employed in meaningfully-paying jobs is critical in reducing the allure of criminal activity.

In the medium-term, the US should step-up measures to reduce persistent demand for illegal drugs. The long-standing supply-side interdiction policies have consistently failed to generate results. While politicians point to drug seizure statistics as evidence of success, there remains a steady, largely unimpeded supply of drugs available to US consumers. So long as billions of profit in drug trafficking persist, organized crime groups and gangs will be there to service demand. Far more cost-effective responses include harm reduction measures that treat (rather than incarcerate) drug users and provide support to mitigate the push factors driving drug use. By focusing on reducing demand rather than punishing drug users, countries get more bang for their buck. These kinds of measures could be scaled-up with US and Caribbean public health officials who can work together, learn from one another and expand targeted activities across the region.

Lost in the discussion of drug and gun crime is detailed analysis of the role of illicit finance, in particular the way it nourishes organized crime in the Caribbean. Notwithstanding political attention to the issue of illicit financial flows between criminal organizations, there is still insufficient political support to go after more than petty retail dealers and the occasional big fish. Despite occasional wins, many state actors, economic elites, and shrewd mid-level drug traffickers continue with business as usual. The transfer of bulk cash out of the US and into the hands of drug and weapons traffickers goes largely undetected. These illicit cash transfers allow criminal business people to create financial buffers that allow them to weather the losses from any successful government interdiction efforts.  

Ultimately, efforts to disrupt the outsized influence of criminal gangs in Haiti and across the Caribbean requires a multidimensional and multinational approach. In addition to reducing the supply of guns and diminishing demand for drugs, the US needs to go after the money, prioritizing the investigation, and interdiction of illicit financial flows. Sanctions are just the start. Improvements in identifying and seizing the cash and liquid assets of mid- and high-level criminal organizations are essential to stem the illicit activities that empower them. The US Congress can prioritize measures that improve the physical detection of cash and liquid assets, reform independent auditing rules, improve the forensic capacity of tax auditors—rather than undermine these resources—and that increase US authorities’ active cooperation with financial investigations that involve criminal actors with connections in the Caribbean.

About the Author(s)

R. V. Gundur, PhD is a criminologist based in Scotland. He holds a doctorate in criminology from Cardiff University, where he was an ESRC scholar; an MSc in Criminology Research Methods from the University of Oxford; an MA in International Relations from the Australian National University, where he was a Hedley Bull Scholar; and a BA in Spanish and Latin American Studies from Tulane University. His areas of expertise include illicit enterprise, gangs, and cybercrime. His work has appeared in reports published by the European Union and the City of London Corporation, and he has been published in several academic journals including Urban Affairs Review; Deviant Behavior; Crime, Law and Social Change; Trends in Organized Crime; Global Crime, and International Criminal Justice Review. He is the author of Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of the American Drug Trade, on Cornell University Press.

Robert Muggah is a Principal at SecDev, a digital risk group that works with governments, companies and international organizations. He also co-founded the Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank working at the interface of public, digital and climate security. He is a non-resident fellow or faculty at Princeton University, Singularity University, the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the University of British Columbia and the University of San Diego. In the past, he directed research at the Small Arms Survey (2000-2011). Robert has consulted with McKinsey´s, Google and Uber as well as the United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank, and World Bank, among others, in over 30 countries. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other media outlets. Robert is the author of eight books, including most recently (with Ian Goldin), Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years (Penguin/Random House, 2020). He delivered talks at TED in 2021, 2017, and 2015, the Web Summit, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Dubai, Medellín, and Geneva. He is the founder and executive editor of Stability Journal and serves on the editorial board of several academic journals. Robert is also affiliated with the WEF Global Risk Report, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Bosch Academy, and other international networks. He earned his Dphil from the University of Oxford. He can be contacted at