Dossier: Fragile Borders

The security crisis in Haiti and its impact on Customs

14th June 2023
By the General Customs Administration of Haiti

In Haiti, the political instability that followed the departure of President Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 was compounded by a security crisis caused by the military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. This culminated in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 and led to the emergence of armed groups, which are now responsible for an almost permanent climate of terror. This article will explain the impact of this extremely fragile situation on the functioning of the Customs Administration and set out some possible lines of approach.

The General Customs Administration of Haiti

The General Customs Administration of Haiti (Administration Générale des Douanes d’Haiti – AGD) is a decentralized technical service within the Ministry of the Economy and Finance. It is led by a Director General who is assisted by a Deputy Director General.[1] Its role is to oversee the movement of goods in order to collect revenue, create a trading environment favourable to economic development, and protect the country from threats linked to or generated by international trade.

In 2012, the AGD had 1,353 employees, of whom 971 were men and 382 women.[2] In May 2023, it had 2,256 employees, of whom 1,592 were men and 664 women.[3] The land border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is 360 km long, and the sea border extends along the 1,771 km of coastline.

In terms of its organizational structure, the AGD has a general management and technical and administrative departments. It also has 17 field Customs offices responsible for Customs clearance operations and formalities, 12 of which are based in ports and airports and four along the land border. The AGD also has nine on-site Customs offices in special Customs areas commonly referred to as industrial parks or free zones.

In addition, six road checkpoints monitor the movement of goods, people and means of transport in order to combat fraud and trafficking.

In the period from October 2022 to April 2023, the AGD dealt with 35,171 containers of goods, representing a weight of 1,880,513 tonnes.[4] As part of its tax role, it collects Customs duties and import taxes on goods, although export duties have been abolished. On behalf of the Treasury, it collects around 8 billion gourdes per month (over 50 million US dollars[5]), i.e. 56% of the taxes and duties collected by the State.

An increased security role

With the rise in organized crime, the security role played by the Customs service has significantly increased. Customs officials must systematically inspect imported goods, in particular to prevent gangs from being supplied with weapons and ammunition. Some economic operators conceal illegal products in legitimate cargoes, and criminal networks sometimes operate under the guise of institutions benefitting from exemptions. In July 2022, for example, 17 assault rifles and ammunition were discovered in the port of Port-au-Prince in an import destined for a religious institution. During the same period, the Customs office in Port-de-Paix has seized 14 firearms and 434 items of ammunition. In July 2022 alone, police and Customs carried out five operations during which weapons and ammunition were confiscated. The importers, as well as others involved in the fraud, were arrested and brought before the courts.

The current crisis and the violent criminals involved

Every State is responsible for ensuring the security and well-being of its citizens. Unfortunately, in Haiti, the organization of elections and the taking and exercise of power do not always occur under transparent and lawful conditions. Since 2005, in the run-up to elections, certain politicians have distributed weapons among their supporters to prevent their opponents from fulfilling their civic duty on election day. Once the elections are over, the weapons are not retrieved by the police.

© Haiti Customs
© Haiti Customs

Consequently, many people are now in illegal possession of weapons. According to the online newspaper Ayibopost, “some 500,000 illegal firearms are in circulation in the country”. Armed groups have been formed, some of which have turned into gangs responsible for kidnappings, rapes and ransom demands. They also organize all kinds of racketeering and hijack lorries carrying imported goods. Some groups are also used by businessmen to provide security for goods convoys. The situation has become so serious that, at the request of the UN,[6] countries such as the United States, Canada and the Dominican Republic have adopted sanctions against politicians and businessmen who allegedly have links with the gangs.

At least five gangs have set up along the coastline of Port-au-Prince Bay where the port, its terminals, the Customs office, warehouses, Customs clearance areas and gas stores are located. Two more control the road leading to the Malpasse border Customs office, which is situated on the border between the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, 50.4 km from Haiti’s capital.

Abductions

The current security situation in Haiti is also having an impact on the working conditions of the AGD and its officials. According to a press release by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “[t]his [violence] follows the killing of at least 846 people in the first three months of 2023, in addition to 393 injured and 395 kidnapped during that period – a 28% increase in violence on the previous quarter”.[7] Customs officials are also being targeted, as, “in the space of two months, armed bandits have abducted around 15 Customs employees in Port-au-Prince”.[8]

Adaptation

When the gangs took control of the port area of Port-au-Prince, the AGD transferred all its staff to the Customs office at the airport. Shortly after this, gang members stormed the building housing the port office and stole everything. Although this looting represents a huge loss, some equipment had fortunately already been moved to the Customs office at the airport.

While this security crisis persists, the Haitian Customs service has taken various other steps in order to adapt, including:

  • remote working for those using the automated Customs system who cannot return to their workplace; and
  • physical checks at operators’ homes when they can provide armoured vehicles for the transport of officials.

A psychological impact that cannot be ignored

It is difficult to imagine the emotional burden that Customs officials are bearing. Those working at the port have lost their office and been forced to achieve the impossible in limited space. They are also having to go to the port in armoured vehicles. According to Alis David et al., this kind of situation results in “inconvenience, hardship and discomfort, which can become, more or less directly, risk factors for work-related accidents or occupational diseases”.[9] In Haiti, the crisis is affecting the work capacity of Customs officials. At least five cases of emotional problems have been logged by the AGD’s Human Resources Department.

Slower operations

The Customs officials affected at the port are having to make numerous return journeys between the terminals and their new office at the airport. The fact that they are no longer constantly on site is considerably slowing down Customs clearance operations, even though the volume of trade has reduced.

Smaller impact on revenue

As paradoxical as this may seem, revenue in recent months has significantly increased. According to the AGD’s Research and Statistics Department, when the Customs service passed the symbolic threshold of 8 billion gourdes (55 million US dollars) in February 2023, it marked a record performance in terms of revenue collection. The total revenue is 91.2% higher than in February 2022 and has therefore virtually doubled.

The explanation lies in the fact that the problems encountered by Customs offices such as those in Port-au-Prince and Malpasse have led many importers to use other Customs offices. Trade flows through ports other than those in Port-au-Prince Bay have therefore significantly increased. Inspection activities at those ports have been expanded, resulting in notable cases which, in the period between October 2022 and February 2023, led to additional revenue.

Four key measures should be mentioned:

  • creation of a strategic Customs valuation committee responsible for supporting the teams fighting commercial fraud;
  • creation of a team of inspectors of the Customs value of goods;
  • recruitment of new managers for the inspection department; and
  • communications on the ethics code to remind officials of the rules of good behaviour and to combat corruption.

Other lines of approach

Several other measures are planned to help respond to the crisis.

Strengthening the Customs Supervision Department

The Supervision Department checks that international trade operations comply with the Customs legislation, monitors the borders and ensures the security of Customs staff and buildings. It consists of several mobile units. The AGD is studying the possibility of increasing the number of units and providing them with weapons and other equipment (drones, monocular telescopes and non-intrusive inspection equipment).

A new Customs Code

A new Customs Code was published by decree in the Official Journal Le Moniteur, in its special edition of 21 March 2023. This will help to modernize the Customs service and implement a range of improvements for economic operators.

Cooperation

To improve the targeting of inspections, it is vital to facilitate the exchange of information and technical assistance between Customs services in neighbouring countries. Agreements in this respect may be concluded between the Haitian Customs service and other Customs services in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which is the intergovernmental organization that brings together 15 states in the Caribbean. It should be noted that agreements have already been signed with the Dominican Republic. One of these concerns strengthening Customs cooperation, in particular by connecting the computer systems of the two Customs administrations.

Conclusion

Although they are continuing to carry out their work, Haitian Customs officials are facing ever increasing risks on a daily basis. The AGD hopes that the Government will soon find a solution to the current crisis, which will allow it to resume its normal operations and continue modernizing.

More information
https://www.douane.gouv.ht
reginaldtimmer@gmail.com

[1] Customs Code 1987, Article 301.

[2] Source: AGD “Rapport sur le personnel” [Staff Report], Human Resource Department.

[3] Source: AGD “Rapport sur le personnel” [Staff Report], Human Resource Department.

[4] Source: AGD, Information Technologies Department.

[5] Exchange rate of 156 gourdes to 1 US dollar.

[6] Resolution 2653 adopted by the UN Security Council on 21 October 2022.

[7] https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/1336887/violences-plus-de-600-personnes-tuees-pour-le-seul-mois-davril.html

[8] https://lefacteurhaiti.com/haiti-kidnapping-dau-moins-15-employes-de-la-douane-en-lespace-de-2-mois/

[9] Alis David et al., “GRH Une approche internationale”, Brussels, Groupe De Boeck s.a., 2011, p. 649.