Former Haitian Gang Leader Convicted in Miami Court

Trent Barr
Trent Barr
Trent has years of experience and training in open source intelligence gathering and journalism. He specializes in Latin American, German, and Vatican affairs, with a broader interest in European politics. Trent serves as the Latin America Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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A former leader of the Haitian 400 Mawozo gang was sentenced to 35 years in prison by a Miami court on Monday on four dozen charges related to the laundering of kidnapping ransoms and illegally trafficking US firearms to Haiti. The gang leader, Germine “Yonyon” Joly who often described himself as the “king” of the gang, previously admitted in a plea deal to partaking in a gunrunning plot and a in the transfer of proceeds from the ransoming of US citizens in Haiti.

Arming Conflict in Haiti

The gang is responsible for a plethora of crimes, including the kidnapping of five Catholic priests, two nuns, and 17 US and Canadian missionaries. Twelve of the missionaries escaped captivity, while those who remained were released following negotiations. Members of the Catholic Church were also released under similar circumstances. However, sources close to the gang stated that after paying a ransom, the gang chose to make the release look like an escape, according to the Miami Herald.

The gang’s current leader, Joseph Wilson, also known as Lanmo Sanjou, is one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals with a reward of one million dollars for information leading to his arrest.

Joly was previously imprisoned in Haiti in 2018 following his arrest four years prior. Despite his imprisonment, Joly reportedly continued directing the gang’s operations from his cell, a common strategy in prisons across Latin America. The gang leader was extradited to the United States in 2022, leading to his subsequent conviction.

Undisclosed gang members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Photo from Collin Mayfield).

Prosecutors have stated they hope Joly’s sentencing will deter Haitian criminals from conducting illegal operations, especially in regards to those targeting US citizens in Haiti.

“The leaders of violent gangs in Haiti that terrorize American citizens in order to fuel their criminal activity will be met with the full force of the Justice Department,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland stated after the sentencing.

“All too often, Americans in Haiti have been targets of gang violence,” Garland continued. “These two defendants not only helped lead a prominent violent gang in Haiti, but they were also intimately involved in arming the gang and laundering ransom proceeds the gang obtained from kidnapping Americans. These sentences send a message that those who engage in such violence against Americans, and who arm and launder money on behalf of these violent gangs, will pay a heavy price.”

Joly is believed to have trafficked a minimum of 24 firearms worth an estimated $28,000, including AK-47s, AR-15s, an M4 Carbine rifle, an M1A rifle, and a .50 caliber rifle. The firearms were smuggled into Haiti from Florida, a key route for arms trafficking into Haiti alongside Mexico.

Alongside Joly, three others faced conviction for assisting in the gang leader’s criminal operations including Joly’s girlfriend who often referred to herself as the “queen” of the criminal organization, Eliande Tunis, Jocelyn Dor, and Joly’s cousin, Walder St. Louis. The three acted as key suppliers for Joly’s weapons smuggling, purchasing firearms at gun stores across Florida before shipping them to Haiti in crates supposedly holding clothes and food.

Haitian gang members watching an alleyway (Photo – AP).

The convicted gang leader previously asked the judge presiding over his case, John D. Bates, in a letter for “forgiveness and leniency” in his case, with the defense requesting only 17 and a half years in prison for Joly. Joly argued that his crimes were connected to an allegedly corrupt Haitian Senator, Jean Renel Senatus, who was revealed to have held 24 phone calls with another gang leader in 2019.

Senatus denied colluding with Joly, describing the gang leader’s claims as “imaginary, fanciful and false allegations.” Amid the court case, Senatus requested Judge Bates to grant “this dangerous criminal what he deserves, because if it wasn’t for his extradition to the United States of America, he would have been free today thanks to the recent escape recorded at the civil prison of Port-au-Prince.”

A Worsening Crisis

Haiti has been struggling with a massive wave of violent crime following the assassination of the nation’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in 2021. Following the death of the president, various gangs in Haiti took to the streets, wrestling nearly complete control from authorities in a series of struggles that resulted in nearly 80 percent of the nation falling under the control of gangs, according to the nonprofit Assessment Capacities Project.

Following the spike in crime, Haitian citizens formed several vigilante groups in response to massacres against various villages in the country.

One such group is “Bwa Kale,” meaning “peeled wood” in Haitian Creole. The group was founded sometime in April 2023 following the lynching of at least a dozen gang members after the group seized the gang members from police custody.

Supporters of Bwa Kale, a Haitian vigilante movement, pose with their machetes in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince (Photo – AP).

“This party didn’t have any long guns with them,” Louis-Henri Mars, director of the Haitian peacebuilding non-profit Lakou Lape, told CBC in a segment about the formation of Bwa Kale in May. “They only had pistols in their rucksacks, and when they were stopped, the police disarmed them.”

A crowd quickly gathered at the scene. “The police felt the pressure, or they felt threatened by the crowd, and they basically released those guys to die,” Mars continued. “And the crowd stoned them and burned them to death, and this was the start of it.”

Following the formation of Bwa Kale, Haiti saw a “dramatic reduction of kidnappings from April 24 to May 24, 2023 … and other manifestations of gangs’ violence,” CARDH, a non-profit Haitian civil society organization that reports on human rights in Haiti, stated. CARDH reported further that an estimated 160 alleged bandits were lynched or burned alive across the country following the group’s formation.

CARDH suspended its operations in November following attacks against those affiliated with the organization, later announcing that the organization would “partially resume its activities” in January 31, 2024. However, the organization has not released any publications since this announcement.

Gangs enjoy full control over the streets of the nation’s capital city of Port-au-Prince (Photo – Dominican Today)

This decrease in violent crime did not last long, as 362 kidnappings were reported in CARDH’s third quarter report, an increase of 141.33 percent compared to the second quarter which consisted of 150 kidnappings. It is unclear what provoked the increase in abductions following the formation of Bwa Kale; some theorize that the Haitian gangs launched counterattacks following the lynchings by Bwa Kale, while others believe the group’s numbers decreased.

Critics have raised concerns regarding the group’s vigilante methods, claiming that members of the group lynched rivals before passing them off as criminals.

In an effort to address Haiti’s growing gang violence, former Prime Minister Ariel Henry called for an international intervention force. This call was ultimately answered by Kenya alongside Jamaica, Bangladesh, Barbados, the Bahamas, Benin, Chad, and has received a large portion of its funding from the United States. The international force consists of 2,500 police officers from the participating states, with Kenya itself pledging 1,000 of those shipping off to Haiti and leading the international force.