Murder of Haitian president risks sparking new gang violence in Caribbean country

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the days following the shooting death of the Haitian president, Jimmy Cherizier, leader of a powerful gang alliance here calling himself the G9, posted an exhortation on YouTube, calling for his supporters to rise up against the country’s oligarchs and seek justice for the murdered leader.

“We are ready for war,” said Mr. Cherizier, a former policeman dressed in a drab olive military-style uniform and a camouflage baseball cap. “We’re just warming up.”

Mr. Cherizier’s call to arms highlights a defining feature of modern Haitian politics: the links between the Caribbean nation’s politicians and the often violent gangs that the United Nations says are human rights groups. man and residents, effectively control entire swathes of the country.

UN officials warn that the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse threatens to escalate what they say is already the worst wave of gang violence in years, making shootings and kidnappings part of the story. everyday life. The United Nations children’s agency, Unicef, says at least 18,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, most since early June.

“The situation was bad before the pandemic but has worsened during the pandemic and is now getting worse due to the political situation and the rise in violence,” said Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative in Haiti. “We are only at the tip of the iceberg. This situation is getting worse and worse. “

Haitian police were on guard in Port-au-Prince last week.

A camp for people with disabilities outside of Port-au-Prince.

Gangs have long been a reality in Haiti, but their influence grew sharply in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, with gang leaders presenting themselves as more effective at serving people’s needs than government institutions.

“The government had no recourse but to try to exploit them,” said Eduardo Gamarra, an academic at Florida International University who studies Caribbean countries. “If you wanted to do something in any neighborhood, you really had to work with the gang structure. You didn’t have an efficient police force capable of going into the neighborhoods.

In December, the US Treasury sanctioned two senior officials in the Moïse administration for providing arms and funding to armed groups accused of killing 25 people in the capital’s La Saline slum to quell protests against the government. Also sanctioned Mr. Cherizier, who calls himself Barbecue, and whom the Americans have also said was involved. Haitian and US officials accuse Cherizier of homicide, but rights groups say he continues to operate unhindered.

Mr. Cherizier did not answer calls on his cell phone or text messages sent over WhatsApp.

Jimmy Cherizier, leader of the powerful G9 gang alliance, calls on his supporters to rise up against the country’s oligarchs.


raynald k. little brother / Reuters

Mr. Cherizier, who identifies as a leader and spokesperson for the G9, describes his organization as part of a revolutionary movement against the wealthy Haitian elite, which he described as a “stinking bourgeoisie”.

G9, the gang group he leads, reigns over some 1.2 million inhabitants, or more than 10% of the national population, in the overcrowded slums south of Port-au-Prince, according to Louis-Henri Mars. , director of the Lakou Lape association. . The G9 is blocking roads and choking fuel and humanitarian aid supplies in a lingering territorial conflict, said Mars, whose organization has tried to negotiate peace talks between gangs, society groups. civilians and business leaders.

Their territorial control sometimes also makes them attractive partners for politicians. “Having military control over a neighborhood means they can control how people vote,” Mars said.

The scars of the conflict can be found around this city. The window at the entrance to the Port-au-Prince courthouse is riddled with bullets, with the word “justice” spray painted on top. It sits in a neighborhood dominated by a gang that calls itself “Five Seconds”, the time its members say it takes to kill their enemies.

Jovenel Moïse’s supporters made a memorial for the Haitian leader killed in Port-au-Prince.

Port-au-Prince was rocked by protests last week.

Gangs mainly earn their money from kidnappings and extortion, charging communities and street vendors commissions in return for leaving them alone, people who know the gangs say. The more territory they hold, the more they earn.

A manufacturing company owner explained how gang members armed with assault rifles fired bullets into his office and threw barrels of excrement on his doorstep, demanding that he make monthly payments for run his business. As a resolution, the businessman said he had to install portable toilets in the armed group’s slum, which lacked plumbing.

“You have to enter into a symbiotic relationship,” the businessman said.

But many poor Haitians, caught between gangs and the police, have had no choice but to flee to refugee centers where they lack food and medicine.

Jucelene Jean, 57, said gang members killed her two sons after she failed to pay the protection money they asked for to allow her to run a small grocery store in Cap-Haitien, a port city in northern Haiti. She declined to identify the gang involved. Then last month, she said, police set her slum area on fire because they said he had been infiltrated by gangsters.

“There is no hope, no future,” said Jucelene Jean, a resident of a burnt down slum.

“There is no hope, no future. Only God can save us now, ”said Ms. Jean, who now sleeps on the floor of a school turned into a shelter with her seven grandchildren and 500 others. She spoke to a reporter last week while feeding her 2-year-old grandson watery mashed beans in a wash bucket. “My life is tears all day long.”

Another inhabitant of the center, Guerlens Dieu, who sold motor oil in the street, lost his prosthetic leg when he, his pregnant wife and their 5-year-old daughter had to cross a ravine to flee the gunfire as their neighborhood was on fire. torched by police in their battle against gangs.

“Everything we had is gone,” said Mr. Dieu, standing on a crutch. “If you are a state government, you should go after the criminals, not burn the whole village. “

A spokeswoman for Haiti’s national police did not respond to requests for comment.

Street vendors outside of Port-au-Prince. UN officials warn of escalating gang violence in Haiti.

Write to Kejal Vyas at [email protected]

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