‘Rapists, killers, kidnappers’: Haiti’s gangs tighten violent grip in lethal insurrection

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As gang fighters and police battled outside his home near Haiti’s beleaguered capital late last month, Nielsen Daily Fierrier hurled himself to the ground.

“From six in the morning until six in the evening, the gunfire hardly stopped,” said the 25-year-old electrician from Pétion-Ville, a middle-class suburb in the hills south of Port-au-Prince.

“In the morning, you could have short breaks of three or four minutes before the gunfire resumed. But all afternoon, there was non-stop shooting,” Fierrier said of the clashes, in which several neighbours were wounded and one local man killed.

“He had left his home without identification papers and was reportedly shot by mistake,” the electrician said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He was someone from the area, who was just on his way home.”

Not far away, a British aid worker was also hunkered down awaiting evacuation. During past outbreaks of violence and natural disasters, the area had been considered a relatively safe sanctuary, said Matt Knight from the humanitarian group Goal, as shots went off outside. “Now the battle has come to Pétion-Ville.”

A month after a coalition of criminal groups called “Viv Ansanm” (Live Together) plunged Haiti’s capital into chaos with an audacious offensive against the state, the fighting continues – and in recent days has begun shifting to places long considered oases of calm.

The reason for that migration into areas such as Pétion-Ville, Laboule and Thomasin is unclear.

Embed showing places in Port-au-Prince where violence is increasing

Amy Wilentz, an American journalist who has covered Haiti for nearly four decades, suspected the highly unusual attacks were designed to intimidate members of Haiti’s political and economic elite who lived in such enclaves and might be part of a future government after Ariel Henry, the prime minister, was forced to resign by the gang insurrection. “It’s very calculated … and it’s very frightening,” she said.

Emmanuela Douyon, a Haitian activist and writer, suspected sowing terror in wealthier districts was partly about projecting power and gaining territory, but fundamentally part of a gang ploy to pose as revolutionaries, challenging the rich on behalf of Haiti’s downtrodden masses.

Speaking to Sky News – one of the few foreign news organizations to reach Port-au-Prince since the revolt began on 29 February – the man acting as the main gang mouthpiece lambasted Haiti’s corrupt elites and the “indecent” chasm between rich and poor.

“We have weapons in our hand and it’s with the weapons that we must liberate this country,” Jimmy Chérizier, a notorious gang boss nicknamed Barbecue, told the British channel.

Douyon and many other Haitians spurn such posturing.

“They are just adopting this discourse and this narrative to try to gain sympathy and have people forgive them for what they have done,” the activist said of the gangs, who many suspect are using violence to strong-arm Haiti’s future leaders into granting them an amnesty.

“No one in Haiti believes any gang member is a revolutionary,” Douyon added. “They are rapists, killers, kidnappers.”

Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics professor from the University of Virginia, agreed the gangs were “trying to present a revolutionary face – [even though] there’s nothing revolutionary about them. Most of those groups were financed and created by politicians and by business elites – and now they have great autonomy from those forces and they’re enjoying that power,” Fatton said, adding:“This is not something that, in my mind at least, represents any type of popular uprising, let alone a revolution.”

Revolution or not, Haiti’s capital has been indisputably upended by the insurrection, which has seen police stations and government offices ransacked and torched, airport shut down and thousands of prisoners released from jail.

A woman carrying a child runs after gunshots were heard in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 20 March 2024. Photograph: Clarens Siffroy/AFP/Getty Images

A UN report released last Thursday said Haiti faced a “cataclysmic situation” with state institutions “close to collapse”, violence out of control, and 1.4 million people “a step away from famine”. Haiti’s already fragile health system is also teetering on the brink, with 18 health institutions no longer functioning in the capital region, including the country’s largest public hospital, the State University hospital. More than 1,500 people were killed in the first three months of this year, compared with 4,451 in the whole of 2023.

“The vacuum of governance in Haiti has left everybody scrambling for power and domination. I think that’s what we’re seeing right now … It’s a free-for-all,” said Wilentz, comparing the turmoil to the ‘dechoukaj’ (uprooting) looting and violence that followed the 1986 downfall of the dictator François ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

“This is like a giant dechoukaj[only that] was machetes and stones. It was grotesque – but no one had a gun.”

The 2024 uprising, in contrast, is being waged with the help of a large and sophisticated arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, mostly smuggled into Haiti from the US thanks to its lax firearm laws.

“It is shocking that despite the horrific situation on the ground, arms keep still pouring in. I appeal for a more effective implementation of the arms embargo,” the UN human rights commissioner, Volker Türk, said last week.

Some believe the key to a possible solution lies with a presidential transitional council which is being set up in the hope of steering the rudderless Caribbean country towards fresh elections. Haiti currently has no elected officials and has lacked an elected president since 2021 when the incumbent, Jovenel Moïse, was murdered in his home.

A policeman patrols the streets of Port-au-Prince on 20 March 2024. Photograph: Mentor David Lorens/EPA

The council is also tasked with paving the way for the deployment of a controversial Kenya-led multinational “security support mission”, supposedly designed to help Haiti’s police force fight back against gangs now said to control 90% of the capital.

In its first declaration last week, eight of the council’s nine members vowed to work together to restore “public and democratic order” and “relieve the suffering of the Haitian people, trapped for too long between bad governance, multi-faceted violence and disregard for their opinions and needs.

“We are at a crucial turning point,” said the group, which includes representatives of political parties such as the Fanmi Lavalas and Pitit Desalin, civil society and the private sector. “It is imperative that the entire nation comes together to overcome this crisis.”

Holy Week saw tentative signs of a lull in the violence but, for now, there is little hint of lasting peace. Bodies reportedly appear in Port-au-Prince’s streets most mornings and, with its airport and seaport still surrounded by the gangs and closed, Haiti’s capital remains largely cut off from the world.

Aid workers say more than 30,000 Haitians have been displaced by the recent fighting, while the US, Canada and France have begun airlifting hundreds of citizens to safety in helicopters.

“To me the message that’s being sent [with these evacuations] is that nothing is going to be done and everybody’s too scared of the gangs to leave their citizens in this maelstrom,” said Wilentz, warning of the disastrous humanitarian consequences for the millions left behind.

“It’s a siege, it’s a war,” Wilentz added.

“And when people are in that kind of desperate situation, they tend to pick themselves up and go to the nearest coastline. And then they get on boats and they die in great numbers in the water.”

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