2024 Emerging Leaders

Sammie Tafoya  

Led the drafting of a visa revocation policy for Haitians involved in criminal activity and human rights abuses while contributing to sanctions packages and a U.N. resolution that impose penalties against those undermining peace and stability in the Caribbean nation.

In 2022, a State Department team drafted a detailed U.S. visa revocation policy and sanctions package targeting more than 60 current and former Haitian officials and businessmen who were supporting gangs and criminal organizations involved in corruption and human rights abuses in the Caribbean nation. 

This ambitious effort was led by Samantha (Sammie) Tafoya, a new foreign service officer who arrived in Haiti in July 2022 and immediately got to work with her embassy colleagues as well as State Department officials in Washington, D.C., to target those contributing to the havoc in Haiti. 

In addition, Tafoya worked with the National Security Council, the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau and the U.S. mission to the United Nations on wording for a U.N. Security Council resolution that renewed an arms embargo, a targeted asset freeze and a travel ban against individuals who undermine peace and stability in Haiti. 

“Samantha Tafoya’s leadership helped strengthen our national security by preventing malign actors from entering the United States and engaging in nefarious activities here or using American banks to launder illicit gains from weapons and drug trafficking or gang-related activity,” said Christopher McCabe, a foreign service officer. 

Following the escalation of violence and lawlessness in Haiti by criminal gangs in 2024, Tafoya shifted her efforts to work with Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department to disrupt the flow of support and weapons to gangs and criminal networks in Haiti.  

She also worked with U.S. authorities to identify and prevent human rights violators, gang leaders, and drug and weapons traffickers fleeing Haiti from circumventing normal visa checks at commercial airports, and she played a role in helping evacuate U.S. citizens from the country. 

“A U.S. visa not only allows individuals to travel to the United States, but those traveling on these visas can engage in activities that escalate the violence and worsen the humanitarian situation,” McCabe said. “Preventing bad actors from traveling to the United States is not just a blow to their ego, it directly stops them from harming U.S. and Haitian interests.”  

Haiti was Tafoya’s first State Department posting abroad. When she arrived at the agency, she was assigned to the Iran desk, where she picked up sanctions expertise. “Sanctions were everything and the answer to everything on the Iran desk,” she said. 

Once in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, she explored sanctions and quickly recognized that such a program would touch issues such as arms and drug trafficking. She started a working group made up of experts across agencies to share information and identify who should be targeted for restrictions and penalties. 

With the ports often blocked by gangs, she proposed targeting those who were funding groups and individuals involved in arms and drug trafficking. 

“I couldn’t have imagined getting our sanction packages for Haiti done without Sammie’s expertise and solid knowledge of targets in the country,” said Nicholas Hilgert, the economic counselor at U.S. embassy in Haiti. “The U.S. had never engaged in these types of efforts with the scale, scope and coordination that Sammie spearheaded.” 

Deterrence through the U.N. 

As the work on the sanctions was unfolding, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations asked the embassy in Haiti to help put together a broader U.N. Security Council resolution establishing an arms embargo and imposing a travel ban and asset freeze against individuals who undermine peace and stability in Haiti.  

“[Sammie’s] participation in the drafting of the resolution is very important since it’s the backbone of the U.N. sanction regime itself,” said Savannah De Tessieres, the U.N. Panel of Experts coordinator. “Her sanctions work had a deterrent effect on other criminal elites and organizations who feared being sanctioned.”  

Eric Stromayer, who served as acting head of the embassy in Haiti, said, “Washington offices across the interagency repeatedly praised Sammie’s leadership and superb work on this critical portfolio, as did the U.N. Panel of Experts.”   

Haiti is dealing with many serious issues involving political instability and gang violence that Tafoya’s work alone cannot fix, but her tireless effort on sanctions and her subsequent work has helped deter certain criminal activity and curb the exportation of drugs from Haiti to the U.S.  

“In public service, the concept of a 9-to-5 job is alien to me,” said Tafoya, who worked extraordinarily long hours on the sanctions program. “I represent the U.S. abroad on issues with serious national security implications—I can’t fathom not giving it my all.”