Port-au-Prince Following the murder of President Jovenel Moïse, armed gangs are destabilizing Haiti and could ruin the elections planned for the autumn. Thousands are on the run in their own country.
Haiti's gangs have long been funded by powerful politicians and their allies - now many Haitians fear that donors will lose control of the growing armed groups. In the past few weeks, gangs have displaced thousands of Haitians from their homes through turf wars, murders and looting.
The escalation of gang violence threatens to further destabilize the Caribbean republic following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last week. The government is falling into chaos: there is no longer a parliament, no president, a controversial head of government and a weak police force. But the gangs seem more organized and powerful than ever.
Although the violence was concentrated in the capital Port-au-Prince, it had repercussions across Haiti: it paralyzed the fragile economy, closed schools, overwhelmed the police and disrupted the fight against the corona pandemic. "The country has turned into a huge desert in which wild animals devour us," said a statement by the Haitian Conference of Religious (CHR). "We are refugees and exiles in our own country."
Recently, gangs stole tens of thousands of bags of sugar, rice and flour, and looted and set fire to houses in the capital. Thousands of people then sought refuge in churches, in open fields and in a large sports hall, where the government and international donors are trying to provide them with food and find long-term housing. Among them are dozens of victims of the 2010 earthquake who had to flee their camp in June after gangs set it on fire.
“I ran for my life on these crutches,” says 44-year-old Obas Woylky, who lost a leg in the earthquake. "Bullets flew from different directions ... All I could see were fires in the accommodations." He was one of more than 350 people who stayed in a school that had been converted into an emergency shelter. Hardly anyone wore face masks there.
According to experts, the outbreaks of violence are the worst in two decades - 2004 was followed by a second United Nations peacekeeping mission Haiti posted. Gang curb programs and an influx of aid after the 2010 earthquake helped, but when money ran out and aid programs expired, gangs began kidnapping and extorting protection rackets from stores and neighborhoods they controlled.
The gangs are partially funded by influential politicians - a practice that even recently denounced one of its alleged beneficiaries: Jimmy Cherizier is an ex-police officer and leader of the G9 Family and Allies coalition of gangs. He complained that the country was being taken hostage by certain people: "They rule everywhere, distribute weapons in the densely populated areas and play the card of division in order to expand their supremacy."
Cherizier is implicated in several massacres and is considered an ally of the right-wing party of Moïse. He criticized the “bourgeois” and “exploiters”: “We will use our weapons against them, for the benefit of the Haitian people. We are ready for war! ”At a press conference on Saturday, Cherizier called the murder of Moïse“ cowardly and vile ”.
At the same time, he warned: "We recommend everyone who is trying to take advantage of this coup to think carefully about whether they have the appropriate solution to the country's problems." Together with others, he will demand justice for Moïse: "We are warming up right now. “The G9 is one of at least 30 gangs that the authorities believe control almost half of Port-au-Prince. Another is called “5 Seconds” - that's how long the members supposedly need to commit a crime, another “400 Mawozo” - which can be translated as “400 lame men”.
The epicenter of the recent gang violence is Martissant, a neighborhood in the south of Port-au-Prince, the main street of which connects the capital with southern Haiti. Drivers' fear of getting caught up in an exchange of fire or worse, according to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, almost paralyzed trade links between the regions, driving up prices and delaying the transport of food and fuel and forcing international organizations to cancel programs, including distributing cash to more than 30 people.
According to the information, more than a million residents need protection and immediate humanitarian aid. "Every day, newly displaced people seek refuge in emergency shelters with appalling hygienic conditions," it says. Authorities fear an increase in Covid-19 cases in the country.
The state of the economy is no better: According to the UN, the consumer index rose by 13 percent from February to May, while foreign direct investment fell by more than 2018 percent from 2020 to 70 - from 105 million dollars (88 million euros) to 30 million dollars . This leads to fewer jobs and increasing poverty in a country where 60 percent of the population earn less than two dollars a day and 25 percent less than a dollar a day.
Many also fear that the gangs could ruin the elections planned for September and November, which are crucial for restoring a functioning legislature and executive.
The country's electoral minister, Mathias Pierre, said on Saturday that the gangs' backers could aim to disrupt the elections. However, this will not work, after all, countries have held elections even during wars: “We have to organize elections. You have to withdraw. "
Haiti's Bureau for the Protection of Citizens urged the international community to support the national police, which are unable to "effectively counter the gangsterization of the country". For lack of money, the government asked the US and the UN to send troops to maintain public order, Pierre emphasized: "We have a responsibility to prevent chaos." According to the authorities, the Haitian police have around 9000 operational officers in a country with more than eleven million people. According to experts, at least 30 police officers are needed.
At the same time, the authorities are looking for solutions for the people who fled their homes before the violence of the gangs, such as Marjorie Benoit with her husband and three children. The 43-year-old lost an arm in the earthquake eleven years ago and has now fled her neighborhood from shootings. The family is left with nothing: "We have been uprooted," says Benoit. "And we don't know where to start."