There’s a great deal of misunderstanding, especially among foreigners, about the difference between #gangs and #krews in Jamaica and the difference between gangs and #baz in Haiti. The two groups, in both countries, involve young #unattached_urban_males but the krews and baz are different phenomena.
It may be fair to say that in both countries these two types of groups involve young men but are at two extremities of a continuum. In both countries the term “gang” refers to a criminal group, whereas the “baz” or “krew” are social, not criminal, groups. In both countries, though, baz and krew are generally found in economically disadvantaged urban communities and -because of the unfortunate economies of their communities- comprise unemployed or underemployed young males.
Because of this, they both suffer from political and social class connotations. Both baz and krew members tend to be socially very conscious about their community conditions and realities, and can play important and useful roles in community improvement programs if given the chance. Many have dropped out of school, usually for economic reasons or because the school programs were not addressing their aspirations, or because of antiquated educational methodologies that simply didn’t reach them. But a number of innovative programs such as the Basic Life Employability Skills (#BLES) program have shown that with appropriate methods and soft skills training, these youths quickly become economically and socially very successful. Unfortunately, though, because many baz and krew members are unemployed they are often bullied or exploited by gang members and some of their members end up joining gangs, playing into the disdain with which they are viewed by their detractors.
There is however a major difference between baz and krews. In its pure and idealistic sense, the Haitian baz is a group of youths in a community that came together to advance democracy, social and political discussion in the community or neighborhood, and to motivate positive civic action. This kind of group appeared during the democracy movement in the late seventies and eighties and was encouraged and promoted by #Jean-Bertrand_Aristide during the period between the downfall of the #Duvalier dynasty (1986) and Aristide’s first election to the Presidency (1990). Because of the elite social class disdain of Aristide and his strong popularity in “popular” (poor) neighborhoods and the high visibility of the baz in such neighborhoods, the baz came to be seen in pejorative terms among the elite social classes that were against Aristide. Though some civil society leaders and intellectuals tried to build social linkages between influencers of the baz movement and the elite, they were not able to overcome Haiti’s class divisions in time to withstand the socio-political dislocations caused by the military coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, followed by his return to power to complete his term during 1996-1996, then his second presidency during 2001-2004, which was followed by his second exile in 2004.
During the #military_coup that caused Aristide’s first exile, the military junta violently pursued Aristide supporters in the popular neighborhoods. Those who couldn’t hide or escape were captured, tortured and killed. In response, many of the baz became cells of neighborhood resistance and armed themselves. The relationship between the baz and their communities, and their dependence on urban tactics to respond to persecution by authorities and extrajudicial killings of their local community leaders set many of them on a path toward gang structure. To make things worse, while running for the presidency the second time, Aristide manipulated the baz to provide security and to intimidate his adversaries. The military-vs-bas history and Aristide’s use of the baz created a baz-gang continuum. In most countries, gangs are criminal groups that come together to commit crimes. Any anti-government or political posture assumed by gangs usually arise from their conflicts with government that they incur during their criminal activities. In contrast to this, the genesis of Haiti’s gangs and the anti-government posture of many of Haiti’s gangs today derive from the transformation, in the nineties, of baz into gangs and the antagonistic relationship that developed during the military coup between the power elite of the government and the street resisters in the popular neighborhoods. In fact, in a democracy assessment conducted in 2016 by the US Agency for International Development residents reported that they were less concerned with gangs than they had been in 2012. This explains the difference between baz, krews, and gangs and why they should be seen not as the same phenomenon but rather different structures in a continuum.
By Bertrand Laurent
The author is an anthropologist who works on governance and workforce development and crime reduction in the Caribbean. He is Executive Chair of The Caribbean Institute for Sustainable Development.