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Exclusive: Biden administration pushing for tough U.N. sanctions against Haiti gang leaders

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The United States is preparing to circulate a resolution at the United Nations Security Council on Monday that would establish a new framework for sanctioning Haiti’s gang leaders, and is not taking international intervention off the table as the country spirals into lawlessness, a senior State Department official told McClatchy.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols said in an interview that gang leaders fueling Haiti’s worst security crisis in decades “are in the crosshairs, and their actions to destabilize Haiti will be met with international travel and financial sanctions.”

The Biden administration is hoping for swift passage of the resolution “in the coming days,” Nichols said.

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“The resolution will create a United Nations framework to place sanctions on gang leaders, and those who support and facilitate and fund their activities,” he said. “Those sanctions would target their financial resources and ability to travel.”

The Haitian government has all but lost control over security in the Caribbean nation, and U.S. officials say the country reached a crisis not seen since the early 1990s.

On Friday, specialized teams of the Haiti National Police from Port-au-Prince were still trying to access a women’s prison just north of the capital after dozens of women escaped. Gangs blocked the police response by setting fire to a police substation and firing on cops. At the same time, a powerful gang leader — a former cop named Jimmy Cherizier, who goes by the moniker “Barbecue” — was holding over 188,000 barrels of fuel hostage, blocking access in and out of the country’s largest fuel terminal.

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READ MORE: Haiti verges on anarchy amid fuel hike, power grab. ‘They want us to hit rock bottom.’

“You will get access to the terminal when we die,” Cherizier said, directing comments to interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry while holding up an M-4 automatic weapon and standing amid the flaming barricade his gang coalition had erected in front of the Varreux fuel terminal.

Haiti’s neighbors have called for robust action from the United States and other permanent members of the Security Council. At least one, the Dominican Republic, has publicly requested a return of a multinational peacekeeping force, arguing that Haiti’s instability and rampant gang violence are increasingly becoming a threat to the region.

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Such a move would require Haiti to once more go under what is known as Chapter 7, which is an article of the U.N. charter that enables the Security Council to deploy international forces in a peacekeeping mission. After 13 years, it was ended in Haiti in 2017 when the U.N. Security Council, pushed by the United States and others, finally withdrew its military and peacekeeping operations in Haiti.

If Haiti’s government asks for that assistance, “the international community would certainly consider such a request,” Nichols added.

But “Haitian authorities have not asked for boots on the ground,” he said, “and there isn’t currently any discussion of a Chapter 7 response to the situation in Haiti.”

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In lieu of a return of blue-helmet peacekeepers, the United States has been focused on bolstering the country’s beleaguered 12,000-plus Haiti National Police force.

The Biden administration has been vetting members for a new SWAT team for the Haiti National Police, as part of an effort with France to train members of a new anti-gang unit in Port-au-Prince. Canada and the United Nations have been pushing for support for a $28 million security basket fund, where donors can put their money, to help fund the ill-equipped force.

READ MORE: President Biden acknowledges chaotic Haiti at the United Nations, but he still fell short | Editorial

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RESOLUTION MAY TARGET ILLICIT ARMS

This is not the first time sanctions have come up with respect to Haitian gangs. In January 2021, the United States Department of Treasury sanctioned Cherizier and two former members of then-President Jovenel Moïse’s government for their involvement in a 2018 massacre in Port-au-Prince’s La Saline neighborhood that left scores dead.

Despite the sanctions, and despite massacres being widely condemned by the United Nations Security Council, Cherizier continues to roam freely, tightening his grip on the capital through his heavily armed coalition known as G-9 Families and Allies.

Over the summer, China had pushed for an end to weapons supply to Haiti’s gangs and tried to push an embargo as the U.N. Security Council considered extending its political mission in the country. Though Beijing voted for the extension, it was disappointed that the final resolution did not have tougher language on a gang arms embargo.

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READ MORE: Haiti’s civil unrest is being financed by economic interests, top Biden aide says

Haiti observers point out that any sanctions will need to come with heft, given the ability of powerful and corrupt figures in the country to create chaos when their interests are threatened. Though the recent protests flared up after the government announced a hike in fuel prices, the government and others have blamed the violence and pillaging on arms traffickers, smugglers and oligarchs opposed to recent efforts at the seaports to crackdown on $600 million in uncollected duties and the shipment of illegal arms and weapons.

At the same time, they would like for the United States to play a more active role in sanctioning and arresting Haitians, especially in light of recent comments by both a top Biden aide and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week that oligarchs and the elite are contributing “to the instability in Haiti” and influencing the dynamics in the region.

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Nichols said that the United States would like to see the resolution include sanctions against “those who would provide illicit weapons to the gangs in Haiti,” but noted that the resolution had yet to be circulated among Security Council members.

“I think that’s also a very important step. However, nothing in the resolution should prevent the legitimate transfer of weapons to Haiti’s governmental security forces,” he said. “We carefully control the licensing of weapons sales to Haiti already. The challenge is tracking the illicit smuggling of weapons to gangs and other illicit persons.”

The assistant secretary said the threat of sanctions “in the last few days has had a calming effect on the situation on the ground in Haiti,” although details of the potential resolution have not previously been made public.

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In his address to the U.N. General Assembly this week, President Joe Biden called on the world to take action on Haiti and said the country is facing an “enormous human crisis.”

“I think that the passage of a resolution and creation of a framework will continue that calming effect,” Nichols said. “Until specific individuals are referred to a sanctions committee, and then sanctioned internationally, that’s when you’ll see the transformative nature of this. So I don’t think just having the framework is sufficient. We have to designate specific people.”

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