Meet the State Dept official curbing US money flow to Haitian gangs

A U.N. resolution takes measures against Haitian businessmen and former government officials with visas to be in the U.S. who supported gang violence in Haiti.

Some of the issues in Haiti spill over into the United States. Haitian businessmen and former government officials with visas to be here were supporting the gang violence in Haiti. Our next guest worked from the State Department to get a U.N. resolution freezing their assets, renewing an arms embargo and other measures. She’s an economic and commercial officer stationed in Haiti … and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Sammie Tafoya joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin earlier to discuss her work.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin
So, this is a complicated kind of story, working through the U.N. from the United States, about the Haitian people here, dealing with Haiti there. Tell us exactly what you did here.

Sammie Tafoya
So, essentially, in September 2022, Haitian gangs had blockaded the port and major fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And at the time, I was working at the embassy there, and we had learned from contacts that political and economic elites had been paying gangs to foment violence in Port-au-Prince and block those ports. And so, I led a team to create a Haiti 3C, like, visa revocation policy from State Department authorities to be able to revoke the visas of those that were paying gangs for that activity. Within a week or so, we saw the gangs unblock Haiti’s fuel and cargo terminals. There was a reopening of those terminals for commercial use. We had seen the political transition council at that time start to establish a plan for elections and the private sector was starting to engage in that process in a positive way. And, at that time, the U.S. had been looking at a Haiti U.N. sanctions resolution. And then, after seeing this, they’ve been working on a draft co-penned with Mexico, after seeing the success of the visa revocation policy, that target class for targeting those who had facilitated or supported gangs and criminal networks in Haiti. It just became a very successful kind of target. And so, that language from the 3C visa revocation policy kind of became a large part of the U.N. Security Resolution in Haiti that led to the first Haiti-specific U.N. sanctions policy. And since then, the U.N. panel of experts has been researching everything that’s happening with gangs in Haiti. They have recommended seven for sanctions, and it’s just become a much larger kind of sanctions project for Haiti.

Tom Temin
Well, let me ask you this. In your estimation, what is the advantage to these Haitian expatriates here in fomenting the gang violence, if it shuts down the economy? Why would they do this?

Sammie Tafoya
What we have seen in a lot of our research on kind of this target class, those who are supporting gangs and criminal network in Haiti to really disrupt the government political operations, the economy there, is that they keep all of their their assets or their family, their money, outside of Haiti. So, they’re willing to kind of allow the Haitian economy to be in freefall because of the type of activities that they are funding, because everything that is important, near and dear to them, is located outside of Haiti, and oftentimes, that’s in the U.S. And so they are majorly impacted by the financial sanctions, but also by the visa revocations. I think we flipped the visa revocation within 72 hours from the concept to actually having it ready to go. And so it was over a weekend Haitian elites that had been funding some of this violence come Monday, all of a sudden, they can’t get on the plane to Miami, or come Saturday, they can’t get on the plane to get back to their homes or to their families and stuff. And so now they are actually stuck in a situation that they have created.

Tom Temin
Right.

Sammie Tafoya
And that’s terrifying to them.

Tom Temin
Well, yes. Probably the moment they stop paying the gangs is the moment they become a target of the gangs.

Sammie Tafoya
That, too. That, too.

Tom Temin
Yeah, but not your problem. We’re speaking with Sammie Tafoya. She’s the State Department’s economic and commercial officer for Haiti, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. And you were in Haiti at that time. What was it like being a State Department employee there? It still must have been kind of nervewracking. What was it like working kind of for Haiti, against some Haitians, while in Haiti?

Sammie Tafoya
In fall 2022, the fuel blockade by the gangs, it sparked a resurgence of cholera because the National Water Authority was unable to clean water. And so we had a large cholera resurgence while the entire country is really running out of fuel. And the embassy is not exempt from that. You know, we have staff, we have all of our procedures that we have to take care of to make sure that we don’t end up with cholera cases within our community, as well as keeping a good, I guess, status of our water and our fuel supplies, because Haiti has one primary fuel terminal and the gangs had blockaded it. So we were all struggling together to get through that until we could find a way to shake the gangs loose and get that fuel terminal unblocked. And I know, I’m sure there are many things at play. I know that the Haitian national police had engaged the gang several times in September and October of 2022. But I know several have also said that the sanctions against the elites that had been paying their gangs had a big impact and getting the ports reopened again. It was definitely difficult living there at that time, and I I am still working for Embassy Port-au-Prince. I’m currently on evacuation status. I go back and forth every two to three weeks as my colleagues need relief. So, it’s a very dire situation living in Haiti now.

Tom Temin
Yeah, I can imagine. How did you come to this particular work?

Sammie Tafoya
In college, I was very interested in being a war correspondent. And then I had a few small jobs in being a journalist, and I basically wanted to have more direct policy impact. Instead of writing for a larger readership, I changed my journalist creds in to become a State Department reporter. And so now I write for a much smaller readership, but with direct policy implications, the sanctions policy included.

Tom Temin
Wow, and what kind of collaboration did this require to get the work done, the visa revocations and so forth? And did it require other agencies to engage with you to make that happen?

Sammie Tafoya
Yes, of course. So for the visa revocation policy, a lot of that, because it is a lot of specific bio data and the visa portion of someone being able to travel to the U.S. The Embassy’s consular team helped pull together all of that from the legal language of what it takes to revoke a visa to the bio data on these individuals so that we know that we are revoking the visa of the right individual, and then DHS from the state side to make sure that those individuals aren’t entering the country. And then for a U.N. sanctions resolution, there are probably hundreds of people involved in that. I have the small, small portion of identifying who the problem set and the target class are in Haiti. Anything that happens at the U.N. has 100 or more hands that touch it.

Tom Temin
And your Service to America citation notes the fact that when you first joined the State Department, you were assigned to the Iran desk. What is it about you that they give you the most horrible places to meet to be doing your work?

Sammie Tafoya
I’m a Pickering fellow, and so as part of that fellowship, they have us intern on a desk before going to our first assignment, so we can get an idea of how the State Department works. And mine was on the Iran desk under the Trump administration. And essentially, I actually tried to stay away from sanctions. There was a lot of work to be done in sanctions, but I tried to stay away from that portfolio and my supervisor at the time was like, ‘You’re gonna need to know this in the future, so we’re gonna get you on sanctions and you’re gonna learn the ropes.’ And then as fate would have it, here I am, the Haiti sanctions person at Embassy Port-au-Prince.

Eric White
Sammie Tafoya is the State Department’s economic and commercial officer in Haiti and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. We’ll post this interview along with all of our Sammies interviews at federalnewsnetwork.com/federaldrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive wherever you get your podcasts.

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