US, Canada sanction Haitian politicians over ties to armed gangs

US and Canada accuse current and former presidents of Haiti’s Senate of corruption, aiding illegal activities of gangs.

Protests in Haiti
Haiti is facing a dire humanitarian and security crisis, as gang violence in the capital, Port-au-Prince, has led to fuel and water shortages [File: Richard Pierrin/AFP]

The United States and Canada have imposed coordinated sanctions against two Haitian politicians, accusing Joseph Lambert and Youri Latortue of using their posts “to protect and enable the illegal activities of armed criminal gangs”.

In a statement on Friday, the Canadian foreign affairs department accused Lambert and Latortue – the current and former presidents of Haiti’s Senate, respectively – of backing Haitian gangs “through money laundering and other acts of corruption”.

The US Department of the Treasury also said the pair was targeted for “having engaged in, or attempted to engage in, activities or transactions that have materially contributed to, or pose a significant risk of materially contributing to, the international proliferation of illicit drugs”.

“Joseph Lambert and Youri Latortue have abused their official positions to traffic drugs and collaborated with criminal and gang networks to undermine the rule of law in Haiti,” Treasury official Brian E Nelson said in a statement.

“The United States and our international partners will continue to take action against those who facilitate drug trafficking, enable corruption, and seek to profit from instability in Haiti.”

Haiti is facing a dire humanitarian and security crisis, as gangs have blockaded a key petrol terminal in the capital, Port-au-Prince, leading to fuel and water shortages. That, coupled with soaring violence, has complicated the nation’s response to an outbreak of cholera.

Haiti’s acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry last month asked the international community to help set up a “specialised armed force” to restore security – a call backed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Haitian civil society groups, however, have raised staunch opposition to the prospect of a foreign force coming into the country, saying such interventions have historically brought more harm than good.

But the situation on the streets of Port-au-Prince has continued to deteriorate and the international community is mulling potential actions to help stabilise the country.

Both Lambert and Latortue have been accused of long histories of corruption, with a classified 2010 US diplomatic cable released via Wikileaks saying Latortue “may well be the most brazenly corrupt of leading Haitian politicians”.

On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was “credible information” that Lambert, who also was placed on a Department of State blacklist, had been involved in an extrajudicial killing during his time in government.

“Haitian Senator Joseph Lambert is ineligible to enter the United States for his corrupt activities and gross violation of human rights,” Blinken said in a statement. “The United States will continue to hold accountable anyone who foments instability and undermines democracy in Haiti.”

Washington’s sanctions also froze any US-based assets held by the targeted individuals, and banned US citizens from dealing with them.

The Treasury said Lambert and Latortue were involved in the trafficking of cocaine from Colombia to Haiti. It also said the men directed others to engage in violence on their behalf.

Lambert and the office of Henry, Haiti’s prime minister, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Reuters news agency.

Latortue in an interview with Haitian broadcaster Radio Television Caraibes denied the accusations against him and said US officials had ignored his advice on police training and strategies to confront gangs. “They trained the police and today, they’ve inherited what they had trained,” he said. “I had said ‘Here is how we have to fight in Haiti.’ Ever since they were not happy.”

Canada and the US did not identify which Haitian gangs they believed were tied to the officials.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions against one of Haiti’s top gang leaders, Jimmy Cherizier, better known as “Barbecue”.

The council resolution established a mechanism to punish individuals and groups that “threaten the peace, security or stability of Haiti” – and Cherizier was the first person to be sanctioned under the scheme.

Meanwhile, sources on Thursday told Reuters that Haitian police had taken control of the fuel terminal that had been blockaded by armed gangs since September.

In a voicemail shared with The Associated Press news agency on Friday, Police Chief Frantz Elbe congratulated officers involved in an operation to oust members of the G9 gang federation, led by Cherizier.

It wasn’t immediately clear if anyone was killed during the gunfire that echoed across the capital on Thursday or whether the gang had been completely cleared from the area. “We won a fight, but it is not over,” Elbe said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies