Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Chérizier: from cop to drug boss

Drug war denialism

Marx called for the toleration of the opium trade. Certainly only the legalisation of drugs can end the sort of ongoing tragedy we are seeing in Haiti, argues Daniel Lazare

The drug violence that is capsizing one Latin American state after another is leading to a new form of denialism. Unable to look reality square in the face, self-proclaimed socialists are blaming greedy local elites or international bodies like the World Bank or International Monetary Fund - anyone and everyone, that is, except the drug war itself.

The result is a blank space, where a diagnosis ought to be. In Left Voice, Haitian followers of the late Argentine Trotskyist, Nahuel Moreno, recently issued a statement denouncing the “social chaos that has been marked for years by armed gangs fighting for control of the country,” but without mentioning the international drug trade that fuels Haitian gang violence in the first place.1

In Defense of Marxism, a site maintained by followers of the late Ted Grant, recently posted an article accusing Haiti’s ultra-violent gangs of ravaging not only Port-au-Prince, but “spreading their reign of terror throughout the rest of the country” as well. Yet the Grantites refuse to mention what is driving the gangs or what business they are in.

“There is no solution to the problem of the gangs under capitalism,” the article went on. “The general sickness of capitalism in Haiti has allowed the gangs to grow and metastasize like a cancer.” Quite true. But it is like telling a heart-attack victim that he or she suffers from general sickness and leaving it at that. In Defense of Marxism also called for an “insurrectionary mass movement ... [to] develop an economic, political and social program that can eradicate the poverty and misery that leads many to join the gangs”. But it made no mention of an international drug war, which, unless confronted head on, is sure to destroy any such movement before it gets off the ground.2

Over at the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, a March 18 article urged Haitians “to come together and take up the new communism brought forward by [RCP chair] Bob Avakian.” Yet ‘RevCom’ also steered clear of the D-word.3 So did the World Socialist Web Site, run by David North and his ‘International Committee for the Fourth International’. On March 13, it declared:

Haiti’s misery can only be ended through the adoption by the working class throughout the region of the program of permanent revolution in alliance with their class brothers and sisters in the imperialist centers.4

But what does that programme have to do with the drug war and its ravages? The article did not say.

Finally, there are the social democrats at Jacobin magazine - the people counting on Joe Biden to prevent a Trump takeover and thus ‘save the world’. Last week, Jacobin ran an article lauding Colombia’s left-of-centre president, Gustavo Petro, and his plan to demilitarise the drug war by persuading Andean farmers to switch from coca to legal crops instead.

But there is a problem: such crops are far less profitable, which is why growers switch back to coca the moment government inspectors go home. This is why Colombia coca cultivation has increased fivefold over the last decade, why global markets are booming, and why black-market violence is surging as well - because crop-substitution schemes do not work.5

A Jacobin interview a few days earlier with Jake Johnston - a Haiti expert at the vaguely-leftish Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington - was even worse. It covered everything from the US military occupation in 1915 to the 2010 earthquake, yet managed not to mention the drug war even once.6

Why are self-proclaimed Marxists determined to bury their heads in the sand? If Haiti were suffering from plague or invasion, outlets like Left Voice would have no trouble telling it like it is. Yet they turn evasive whenever the subject turns to drugs. Why?

Celestial Empire

The reasons are many - staleness, timidity, conservatism, etc. Avakian and co are Stalinists who celebrate Mao for executing drug traffickers en masse.7 Gerry Healy, the ideological forerunner of the WSWS, banned even marijuana, while Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency has been described as “austere and self-consciously proletarian: short hair, ties, hard work and early bedtimes, football and table tennis for relaxation rather than sex and drugs”.8 Such forces were not likely to participate in a drug legalisation movement that might provide workers with an “idealist escape”, to use the Healyite term, in the form of pot or other substances. They have maintained a policy of discreet silence ever since.

Yet, if self-proclaimed Marxists get it wrong, Marx himself did not. Writing during the Second Opium War of 1856-60, he advised the Chinese imperial government not to fight the opium imports that the East India Company was forcing on the country, but to legalise them instead.

He wrote in Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune:

In 1837, the Chinese government had at last arrived at a point where decisive action could no longer be delayed. The continuous drain of silver, caused by the opium importations, had begun to derange the exchequer, as well as the moneyed circulation of the Celestial Empire. Heu Nailzi, one of the most distinguished Chinese statesmen, proposed to legalise the opium trade and make money out of it ... As early as 1830, a duty of 25% would have yielded a revenue of $3,850,000. In 1837, it would have yielded double that sum ...

Yet the emperor refused. Marx went on:

The Indian finances of the British government have, in fact, been made to depend not only on the opium trade with China, but on the contraband character of that trade. Were the Chinese government to legalise the opium trade simultaneously with tolerating the cultivation of the poppy in China, the Anglo-Indian exchequer would experience a serious catastrophe.9

By choosing prohibition over legalisation, the empire saved the Anglo-Indians’ neck, while cutting its own throat. What goes for the mid-19th century, meanwhile, goes double or triple for the early 21st. The problem is not that drug warriors are not trying hard enough: on the contrary, they are trying too hard to enforce a programme that costs trillions, yet is all but designed to make matters worse.

Instead of reducing production, it is loaded with perverse incentives that cause it to grow by leaps and bounds. Instead of discouraging violence, it causes it to skyrocket by creating a vast underground economy, in which there is no way to settle a business dispute other than at the point of a gun. Rather than encouraging more benign substances, it all but forces narcotraficantes to shift to high-potency drugs like cocaine, heroin or fentanyl - which are super-dense, ultra-profitable, and all but impossible to interdict.

The upshot is more gangs, more chaos and more social collapse - problems that will not go away merely because outlets like Left Voice and In Defense of Marxism prefer to change the subject. The more they cover up, they more they make matters worse.

Indeed, 2024 is shaping up as the year the drug crisis went from the merely horrendous to the absolutely inconceivable. The process began in Ecuador where traffickers have been battling for years for control of Guayaquil, a city of 2.6 million people located just 500 miles from leading coca production centres in southwest Colombia. With police able to inspect only 20% of the 300,000 or so shipping containers exiting the port each month, it is an invaluable resource for traffickers seeking an outlet to the Pacific and beyond.10

The result was a near civil war that caused homicides to double in 2022 and then double again in 2023. But violence reached a new level in early January when one of the country’s top gang leaders broke out of prison and president Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency. Gangs responded by staging more prison revolts and then taking over a Guayaquil TV station to broadcast additional threats live. The aim was “to generate chaos, violence, fear and terror”, according to Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, who has made his name chronicling organised crime. He said that “the approach is simple: shoot anyone, litter the streets with bombs, make the prisons riot, make ordinary life impossible”.11 Formerly a low-crime haven, Ecuador suddenly became one of the Latin America’s three most violent states, alongside Venezuela and Honduras.12

Yet Ecuador was merely a prelude for violence in Haiti that would prove even worse. Three years earlier, the drug-war assassination of president Jovenel Moïse had triggered a vertiginous downward spiral, as rival gangs battled for supremacy. But the process accelerated when Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Chérizier, an ex-cop turned gang lord, declared war on the government itself last September. When prime minister Ariel Henry flew to Africa on February 29 to approve a plan to use 1,100 Kenyan police officers to quell violence back home, Chérizier’s forces seized the opportunity by storming two of the country’s largest prisons and attacking Haiti’s heavily fortified international airport. Blocked from returning, Henry resigned on March 12.

With food and water increasingly scarce and medical care all but collapsed, government in Haiti had ceased to exist. Since then, American, Canadian and French diplomats have been meeting with Caribbean leaders in Georgetown, Guyana, some 1,200 miles to the south-east, in an attempt to figure out what to do. But, considering how disastrous their interventions have been in the past, it is difficult to imagine them coming up with anything that will not make matters worse. Calling off the war on drugs would help. So would curtailing the flow of guns from the United States, which add to the instability and give traffickers even freer rein than before. But such reforms are the last thing on the Americans’ minds. So the disaster will continue.

Kicks and blows

Haiti has been on the receiving end of history’s kicks and blows since its slave population rose in revolt in 1791. Thomas Jefferson imposed a trade embargo in 1805, which remained in place until Abraham Lincoln restored diplomatic relations in 1862.

France forced it to pay 150 million francs in gold as reparations for the human property it dared liberate. After ending its military occupation in 1934, the US backed the good anti-communist, François Duvalier, when he became president in 1957. The result was a nightmare that turned ‘Papa Doc’, as Duvalier was known, into a synonym for terror and repression.

Weak state

Since 1963, the UN has counted more than 40 major disasters - floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, etc - affecting 10,000 or more people at a time. Finally, in 2010, came a cholera epidemic started by UN ‘peacekeepers’ from Nepal that killed 10,000 more. A year earlier, ex-president Bill Clinton, by then a UN special envoy, had come up with the bright idea of using Haiti’s super-low wages to lure garment manufacturers into setting up shop in special tax-free export zones. But, other than winning Clinton good press back home, the plan went nowhere. As Canadian anthropologist Greg Beckett observed,

It was the same plan that had brought hundreds of thousands of people to the slums of Port-au-Prince ... And it was the same plan that had kept wages so low in the factories that workers could barely afford to live on them. The same plan that had required violence and terror to enforce it, that had gone hand-in-hand with the suppression of democracy ... It was the same plan that had made the disaster in the first place.13

This is why Haiti emerged as a major drug transshipment centre in the 1980s and 90s: because it is a weak state, in which officials are easily bribed, underpaid police officers are easily intimidated, and thousands of desperate slum dwellers are easily recruited to work as enforcers and labourers.

But don’t tell the Grantites, Northites, or other self-proclaimed Marxists. Rather than facing up to reality, they prefer to take refuge in timeworn formulas and clichés.

  1. www.leftvoice.org/end-imperialist-intervention-in-haiti-solidarity-with-the-haitian-people.↩︎

  2. www.marxist.com/haiti-prime-minister-henry-resigns-as-regime-collapses.htm.↩︎

  3. revcom.us/en/crisis-haiti-cries-out-real-revolution.↩︎

  4. www.wsws.org/en/articles/2024/03/14/agpq-m14.html.↩︎

  5. insightcrime.org/news/gamechangers-2023-cocaine-flash-to-bang-2024.↩︎

  6. jacobin.com/2024/03/us-foreign-aid-destabilize-haiti.↩︎

  7. revcom.us/a/china/opium.htm.↩︎

  8. www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/28/militant-michael-crick-review-jeremy-corbyn-labour-party.↩︎

  9. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1858/09/25.htm.↩︎

  10. www.nytimes.com/2023/07/12/world/americas/ecuador-drug-cartels.html.↩︎

  11. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/feb/09/cocaine-ravaged-countries-ecuador-drug-coup-complicit.↩︎

  12. www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/ecuador.↩︎

  13. G Beckett There is no more Haiti: between life and death in Port-au-Prince Berkeley 2019, pp232-33.↩︎