Just a few months ago, Haiti’s notorious gangs in Port-au-Prince gained a well-deserved reputation for grisly violence and gruesome cruelty as they staked out their turf in the city’s sprawling neighborhoods. Despite the best efforts of an outgunned, outmanned police force, kidnapping, extortion, killing, and rapes continued. But in a new twist, the gangs have also begun to gain a measure of popular support by providing security, food, and medical treatment to residents within their territories.

In other words, gangs, sufficiently financed from an array of illicit enterprises, have morphed into quasi governing bodies that have partially replaced the mayhem that once reined–a mayhem that also displaced hundreds of thousands of people to towns in other parts of Haiti. One might call it a bargain with the devil to survive, but the consolidation of local support follows a not-so-unusual pattern in other cities around the world where the local mafia often provide social services that the government once did in a bid to gain local support. It’s really a modern-day feudal arrangement where gang leaders exchange benefits in return for letting them rule unhindered.

Now, the extent of popular support for gangs varies widely among the scores of gangs in Port-au-Prince. But the emergence in some gang controlled neighborhoods of something akin to an alternative authority brings relative stability (I emphasize the word “relative”) will likely strengthen their position and make it more difficult to eradicate them. This change aligns with the establishment of a loose accord among gangs called Vivre Ensemble or “Living Together.” This informal understanding has reduced inter-gang fighting and allowed them to focus more on dealing with bigger external threats. At the same time, the consolidation of power by gang leaders has boosted the egos of gang leaders who have come to enjoy the limelight, including courting the foreign press.

These changing gang dynamics present a much greater challenge for foreign troops, notably the UN peacekeeping Kenyan troops that arrived two weeks ago. Indeed, the Kenyans have restricted their patrols largely to “safe zones” around the US Embassy and have not sought confrontation with the gangs. The Kenyans are no-doubt keenly aware of the formidable gang capabilities in the areas they control, which is about 80% of the city. And they may well have decided to mitigate their risks of taking casualties and losing a firefight against a gang foe that can match them in weapons capabilities while enjoying home turf advantage.

Gangs have learned from mistakes in battles with police and refined their tactics while gaining more local support. Notably, gangs have recruited (or coerced) young teens or even pre-teens to act as spotters on the edges of the neighborhoods to be on the lookout for a potential incursions by police or foreign troops as a sort of early warning system. The gang leaders have seemingly managed to frame the struggle as “us” against “them.” In this sense they have cast themselves as akin to “freedom fighters” in the battle between Haitian autonomy and foreigners seeking to dominate–even if those foreigners have been invited by the recently established government led by Interim Prime Minister Garry Conille.

These and other “force multipliers” all work in favor of gangs and could result in a longterm standoff where the Kenyan and other peacekeeping troops have next to zero impact on the gang control of most of Port-au-Prince. In short, the gangs aren’t going anywhere soon.