Gangs advance on the seat of the government of Haiti: “Haitians are hostages”

Gangs are tightening their stranglehold in the Haitian capital, using bulldozers to raze entire neighborhoods, overwhelm poorly armed police, and use violence within blocks of the seat of government.

While Haitians have endured relentless bloodshed and tragedy for years, the escalation of lawlessness in recent weeks and the government’s failure to enforce control terrifies the nation.

In just nine days in July, more than 470 people were killed, injured or missing in gang violence in Cité Soleil, the country’s largest slum, according to the UN, according to the UN.

Government agencies and ministries have urged employees to stay at home as the gangs expand their territory and are now close to the presidential palace, the interior ministry, the central bank and the national prison, where hungry prisoners threaten to riot, officials warn.

In Cité Soleil, home to about 300,000 people, gangs fighting for control use bulldozers to destroy houses, gang rape women and girls, and random killings, according to surveys of local residents.

One woman, Wiesland Pierre, said she lost almost everything in one day, she was one of more than 3,000 people who fled Cité Soleil in July, according to the UN. Pierre area before spreading to the center of the capital Port-au-Prince.

Mrs. Pierre was at home around 5 a.m. when she said that she was awakened by someone shouting: “Leave this place! You’ll all die! They are coming!”

Soon there was the distant sound of metal crunching under metal, gunshots and the roar of flames. Mrs. Pierre threw everything she could into a backpack and fled when three bulldozers broke through and razed her neighborhood to the ground, with gang members setting fire to what was left. Details are confirmed by interviews with other escapees and video footage.

But miss. Pierre’s sister Yona was less fortunate.

In the early hours of the morning, Yona left her one-month-old daughter in her bed while she emptied the family’s chamber pots on a nearby beach. The husband was at work. Like many in Cité Soleil, Yona lives in a sheet metal house with no running water, the family defecates in buckets.

For two days, Yona took refuge on the beach, worried about the fate of her child, but unable to return home while gang wars raged.

Eventually the fighting died down and Jonah threw herself back, her hopes fading as she passed the ruined houses. She was miraculously left standing.

But here her daughter lay on the bed where Yonah had left her, the child’s little body riddled with seven bullets, the sheet metal walls of her house offering no resistance to gang ammunition.

By that time, the fighting had migrated to a nearby cemetery. Unable to properly bury her daughter, Yona placed the body in an empty cracker box, went down to the shore of the Cité Soleil and buried her in the sand.

“We are still alive, but I cannot say that we are alive,” said the lady. Pierre, Jonah’s sister. “If this is life, then what is hell?”

One gang, the G-9 Family and Allies, run by a former cop named Jimmy Cherisier, known as Barbecue, has gained control of a larger area in the Cité Soleil by wresting it from a rival gang, the G-pèp.

In many ways, Mr. Cherisier epitomizes the reasons Haiti is where it is today: the country’s political and business elite supported rival gangs to achieve their own agendas, destroying any semblance of a functioning nation.

mr. Chérisier is believed to be backed by politicians seeking to quell protests or force people to vote in a certain way. The families of Haiti’s big businessmen pay his gang to advance their economic interests, including the safe passage of their goods, which are docked in the ports of Port-au-Prince.

Ports are on the outskirts of the Cité Soleil, and since Haiti imports most of its food, fuel, and other necessities, the G-9 can effectively hold the entire country hostage by preventing goods arriving at the port from being distributed by trucks.

The use of gangs by Haitian political tycoons is not new. It was an instrument made popular by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during his second term beginning in 2001. Then the gangs were used mainly to suppress the rebellion against Mr. Aristide’s rule, which had spread to Haiti.

Wiesland Pierre grew up in Cite Soleil and remembers what life was like when the first gangs appeared. When she was young, she could go buy ice cream, go to school, play outside until dark. The gangs alerted residents if they needed to operate in their area, even urging her school principal to evacuate the students and ensure they had a safe passage home.

“Now the bandits don’t care, they will just open fire and shoot at you,” said the lady. Pierre said that this opinion was shared by two other Cité Soleil residents who were interviewed after they fled. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do.”

After mr. Aristide fled Haiti in 2004 amid mounting chaos as a UN peacekeeping mission was set up to patrol the Cité Soleil, holding back the gangs.

But over the years, the resources of the peacekeeping mission dwindled, and it became embroiled in scandals, including deadly cholera outbreak and widespread sexual harassment who tarnished peacekeepers before their mandate expired in 2019.

Since then, according to several Western diplomats and Haitian officials, the number of gangs has been on the rise as their political and business backers step up their support for the power struggle. The gangs smuggle large quantities of weapons and ammunition through the country’s seaports, with shipments aided by government officials.

Two senior State Department officials said Washington is pressuring Haitian customs and ports to screen incoming shipments, which likely contributed to several seizures of large-caliber weapons and ammunition in recent weeks. But these shipments often originate from Florida, which suggests that US customs officials also need to conduct more thorough checks.

“In the days of Aristide, gangs were not everywhere, they were not well equipped, they could not resist the police, they did not kidnap anyone they saw,” said Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Organization for Human Rights. Defense Network, a Haitian organization that testified before the US Congress about the deteriorating situation. “They exist to keep Aristides in power.”

“Today there is a total banditization of the country,” he said. Esperance added. “Haitian big families support the gangs to get what they want. They do not need a stable situation, accountability or the ability of citizens to organize against them. The Haitians are hostages.”

Due to human rights violations, the Haitian police cannot directly obtain weapons and ammunition from the US government.

Gangs, on the other hand, receive a constant stream of illegal weapons. State Department officials admit that the Haitian police are better armed, often much older than the large-caliber weapons widely used by gangs.

Now the gangs have become almost impossible to contain. In the spring, as a result of gang warfare in some areas of the capital, about 100 people died, created 16,000 refugees as Haitians fled violenceaccording to the UN

By tightening control over the Cité Soleil, Mr. The Cherisier G-9 gang targeted downtown Port-au-Prince on 24 July, engaging in heavy firefights with the Haitian police, often overpowering them.

Now the gang is located near the city center, where the presidential palace, the Ministry of the Interior, the national prison, the central bank and other important public infrastructure are located.

The National Prison – overcrowded and struggling to feed its prisoners – houses some of Haiti’s most dangerous criminals, including gang leaders and some suspects involved in the crime. assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise last year.

“Young people, women and men have been armed by political structures and private sector organizations as the government turns a blind eye or is implicated at some of the highest official levels,” said Fritz Alphonse Jean, opposition leader and former central bank governor. . “The police are clearly overwhelmed and disoriented, lacking leadership from the government.”

“It will only get worse,” he warned.

Maria Abi-Habib reported from Mexico City, and André Poltre Port-au-Prince, Haiti.