News In Haiti, as democracy dies, gangs take control
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Jimmy Cherizier rode a motorcycle through the Haitian capital, flanked by young men armed with black and leopard-print masks and automatic weapons.
Roadside street vendors selling vegetables, meat and used clothes cast their eyes at the ground or stare curiously as bike packs fly past Creole “mafia boss” graffiti.
Cherizeknown by his childhood nickname Barbecue, has become the most recognizable name in Haiti.
In his territory, surrounded by tin-roofed houses and the bustling streets of the informal settlement of La Saline, he is the law.
Internationally, he is known as Haiti’s most powerful and feared gang leader, sanctioned by the United Nations for “gross human rights violations” and behind the fuel blockade That brought the Caribbean nation to its knees late last year.
But if you ask the former police officer with a gun tattoo on his arm, he’s a “revolutionary,” advocating against a corrupt government that has left a country of 12 million in dust.
“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in a kidnapping. I’m not a rapist.” I’m just waging a social struggle, in the shadows of houses, G9 Family and Allies leader Cherizier told The Associated Press from a chair in the middle of an empty road. Down, the windows shattered by bullets. “I am a threat to the system. “
As Haiti’s democracy falters and gang violence spirals out of control, militants like Cherizele are filling the power vacuum left by a crumbling government. In December, the United Nations estimated that gangs controlled 60 percent of Haiti’s capitalBut most people on the streets of Port-au-Prince now say that number is closer to 100%.
“From a democratic standpoint, the Haitian government has very little legitimacy,” said Jeremy McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a research center focused on organized crime. “This gives gangs a stronger political voice and a stronger case to claim to be the true representatives of the community.”
Victims of the conflict, politicians, analysts, aid groups, security forces and international observers fear the situation will only get worse. Civilians, they fear, will bear the brunt of it.
Haiti has a long and tragic history. Home to the largest slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere, the country gained independence from France in 1804, ahead of other countries in the region.
But it has long been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and in the 20th century Haiti endured a bloody dictatorship that lasted until 1986 and led to the mass executions of tens of thousands of Haitians.
Since then, the country has been plagued by political unrest, along with waves of devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera outbreaks.
The latest crisis is in full swing following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021. In his absence, incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Henry emerged as the nation’s leader in a power struggle.
Nearly 200 gangs in Haiti Take advantage of the chaos and fight for control.
Tensions continue in Port-au-Prince. Police checkpoints dotted busy intersections and graffiti signs reading “Down with Henry” could be seen everywhere in the city. Haitians are uneasy walking down the street because they know that anything can happen at any time.
An ambulance driver who returned from transporting patients told The Associated Press that he had been kidnapped, held for days and ordered to pay $1 million to be released.
Such ransoms are now commonplace, used by gangs to fund their wars.
An average of four people are kidnapped every day in Haiti, according to UN estimates.
The United Nations recorded nearly 2,200 murders in 2022, double the number from the previous year. Women in the country have described brutal gang rapes in gang-controlled areas. Trauma patients were caught in the crossfire, ravaged by gang or police gunfire.
“No one is safe,” said Peterson Pean, a man who was shot in the face by officers when he failed to stop at a police checkpoint on his way home from get off work .
At the same time, a wave of gang killings of police officers has sparked outrage and Haitian protests.
After six police officers were killed, a video – most likely filmed by a gang – circulated on social media showing six naked bodies lying on the ground with guns stuck to their chests. Another photo showed two masked men holding a cigarette with the officer’s dismembered body while smoking.
“Gang-related violence has reached levels not seen in years … touching every level of society,” Helen La Lime, the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, told a Security Council meeting in late January.
Prime Minister Henry has asked the United Nations to lead military intervention, but many Haitians insist this is not the solution, citing the consequences of past foreign intervention in Haiti. So far, no country has been willing to put its boots on the ground.
war is over Areas historically ravaged by violence now consume mansion-lined streets previously considered relatively safe.
La Lime highlighted a turf war between Cherizier’s group G9 and another group, G-Pep, as one of the key drivers.
In October, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Cherizierincluding an arms embargo, asset freeze and travel ban.
The agency accused him of carrying out a bloodbath in La Saline, crippling the country’s economy, and using armed violence and rape to threaten “the peace, security and stability of Haiti.”
Meanwhile, although Henry was not elected and his term has expired, his government declined to comment and he continues to lead a skeleton government. For a year and a half, he has been promising a general election, which has never been delivered.
The country lost its last democratically elected body in early January when the terms of 10 symbolically-serving senators came to an end.
One of the senators, Patrice Dumont, said it had turned Haiti into a de facto “dictatorship.”
He said that even if the current government were willing to hold elections, he did not know if they would be possible due to the gangster’s firm grip on the city.
“Citizens are losing trust in their country. (Haiti) is facing social degradation,” Dumont said. “We’re already a poor country, and because of this political crisis, we’ve become poorer.”
Meanwhile, gang leaders like Cherizil increasingly used political language, using the end of the senator’s term to question Henry’s power.
“Ariel Henry’s government is the de facto government. It’s a government without legitimacy,” Cherizier said.
Tucking his pistol in the back of his jeans, Cherizier took The Associated Press on a tour of his La Saline territory, explaining the harsh conditions of life in the community. He denies the charges against him, saying the sanctions imposed on him were based on lies.
Cherizier would not tell The Associated Press where his money came from, saying he only wanted to provide security and improve conditions in areas he controlled.
Cherizier made his way through piles of trash, past malnourished children hawking iPhones with a photo of his face on the back. A drone belonging to his team keeps tabs on his safety as he walks through rows of crowded houses made of sheet metal and wood.
He did not allow The Associated Press to film or photograph his guards and their weapons, trailed by a group of heavily armed and masked men.
“We’re bad people, but we’re not bad people,” one of the men told an Associated Press video reporter as she led her through the crowded market.
While some have speculated that Cherizier would run for office if an election were held, Cherizier insists he will not.
InSight Crime’s McDermott said it was clear that criminal gangs were profiting from political chaos.
InSight Crime Estimator Before the president was killed, Cherizil’s gang federation G9 received half of the money from the government, 30 percent from kidnapping and 20 percent from extortion. Government funding fell sharply after the killings, according to the group.
However, his gang has grown significantly two months after the group blocked fuel distribution at Port-au-Prince’s main fuel terminal late last year.
The blockade crippled the country during a cholera outbreak and gave other gangs a foothold to expand. Cherizier claimed the blockade was a protest against rising inflation, government corruption and growing inequality in Haiti.
Today, the G9 controls much of central Port-au-Prince and vie for power elsewhere.
“Political Science Frankenstein lost control of the gang monsters a long time ago,” McDermott said. “They are now sweeping across the country with impunity, trying to make money, the most important thing is kidnapping.”
Civilians like 9-year-old Christina Julian are also paying the price.
The smiling girl who dreams of being a doctor wakes up curled up on the floor of her aunt’s porch next to her parents and two sisters.
She is one of at least 155,000 people forced to flee their homes by violence in Port-au-Prince alone. She hasn’t slept in her own bed for four months.
Their neighborhoods on the northern edge of the city used to be safe. But things began to change last year, she and her mother, Sandra Sainteluz, 48, said.
The once bustling streets were deserted. At night, gunshots would sound outside the window, and when the neighbors set off fireworks, Christina would ask her mother if it was a bullet.
“When the shooting happened, I couldn’t go out in the yard, I couldn’t see my friends, I had to stay home,” Christina said. “I had to lie on the floor with my mum, dad, sister and brother all the time.”
Due to the high pressure, Christina began to have heart palpitations. As a teacher, Santruz was also worried about her daughter’s health. Meanwhile, Sainteluz and her husband fear their children will be kidnapped on their way to school.
Armed men belonging to the mighty 400 Mawozo during the blockade of Cherizier in October The gang stormed their block.The same gang is behind the kidnapping of 17 missionaries 2021.
Christina saw a group of men with guns at a friend’s house and ran home. She told Sainteluz, “Mom, we have to go, we have to go. I just saw gangsters passing by with weapons, we have to go!”
They packed everything they could and took refuge in a small two-bedroom house owned by another family member in the city.
Living here is not easy, said Sainteluz, who is her family’s main breadwinner.
“I was desperate to live in someone else’s home with so many children. I left everything behind except two bags,” she said.
Sainteluz scrambled to scrub the laundry, cook soup for the family in the grimy kitchen and help Christina meticulously do her math homework while sitting on an empty petrol container.
The rusted metal roof of the house they share with 10 others shudders every time a gust of wind blows across the nearby hills.
The mother was a primary school teacher earning 6,000 Haitian gourdes ($41) a month. She had to stop teaching two years ago because of violence. Now she sells mud on the side of the road for a fraction of what she used to make.
A young Christina said she missed her friends and her Barbie doll.
But the sacrifice was worth it, Sainteluz said. Over the past few months, she’s heard horror stories of her daughter’s classmates being kidnapped, neighbors having to pay a $40,000 ransom, and killings happening right outside their home.
At least they feel safer here. Currently, she added.
Associated Press reporters Evens Sanon and Fernanda Pesce in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.