For the most part, the youths that are part of Haiti’s gangs are only nominal members. These youths are driven to support or join gangs because of the gangs’ ability to coerce them, and because of their frustrated need, -as young people- for social validation in their communities. Above all, they are also driven by economic desperation.
Many of the boisterous populist statements made by gang leaders are nothing more than well-nuanced strategies, usually full of disinformation and conspiracies, carefully calibrated to build youth resentment into supporting the gang’s crimes against rule of law. The numbers of these youths, and their frenetic and risky behavior, are highly valuable to the gangs. This behavior, though, is a function of their youth, not their commitment.
This behavior is an important but easily overlooked similarity between Haiti’s gangs and West Africa’s violent extremist and child soldiers phenomena. But it makes the young gang members, some as young as nine years old, the achilles heel of many of Haiti’s gangs: Their youthful recklessness and risk taking makes them valuable to the gangs but at the same time keep them from being committed to the gangs’ purpose other than immediate gratification. When youthful gang members feel they are being cheated from ill-gained benefits, they are known to join competing gangs or even become informers for law enforcement.
This makes youth members a valuable part of gangs, but also a source of weakness. Co-opting youth gang membership is a necessary part of the array of strategies needed to control any country’s gang problem, -including Haiti’s- with the considerable advantage that these youths can be redirected to community building and social and economic inclusion. This is not a surprise, as those are the governance shortcomings that are at the original root of the youth gang problem.