Reportage. In the center of Port-au-Prince, the violence is continuous. The gangs make the law. They’re attacking, looting and setting fire to police stations, killing officers and also civilians.

Haitian gangs rule the country and nobody is safe

According to the U.N. report on the situation in Haiti, in the first three months of the year, more than 1,500 people were killed and more than 800 injured by the criminal gangs that control more than 80 percent of the metropolitan area of the capital and appear to have more power than the police and army.

On the night of March 2, 2024, the “Viv Ansanm” gang coalition, led by Jimmy Chérisier, nicknamed Barbecue, broke into the country’s two largest prisons (the Pénitencier National and the Prison Civile de la Croix-des Bouquets), freeing about 5,000 inmates, accused of crimes such as illegal possession of firearms, kidnapping, murder, rape and theft.

In the center of Port-au-Prince, the violence is continuous. The gangs make the law. They’re attacking, looting and setting fire to police stations, killing officers and also civilians. By now, in the capital, only the municipalities of Pétion-Ville and Delmas, particularly Haut Delmas, seem to have maintained a semblance of normalcy for their residents, while shrouded in fear.

On March 12, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who had gone on a mission to Kenya to sign the agreement between the Haitian and Kenyan governments regarding the deployment of a military contingent in Haiti, was forced to resign as he was unable to return home due to the closure of airports attacked by armed gangs; he was also urged to leave his post by the international community.

His entry into office had been “ratified” by a message on X from the representatives of the U.S. in Haiti; similarly, it was a message on X that announced his resignation. Since then, the country has been like a ship adrift without a captain and without steering. A few weeks ago, with the support of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a presidential council was put together, but it has not managed to take office due to power struggles between political parties and the fact that the paramilitary gangs, excluded from the arrangement, are vowing to continue their looting and destruction.

The country is adrift. Entire families have been forced from their homes, which were then looted and burned. In the last two weeks of March, more than 33,000 people fled the metropolitan area. No one is safe. The home of the director general of the national police force has been burned down. The life expectancy of citizens is hanging by a thread. Hospitals, pharmacies, universities, public and religious schools – everything has been closed, looted, burned down. Parents are keeping their children at home. Some institutions are trying to offer online classes, but this doesn’t solve the problem: many families don’t have the means to obtain electricity on their own, and there is never or rarely any electricity from the public network. Furthermore, Internet access is expensive and of poor quality.

Families have no access to food, in a country that has already been a net food importer for decades. According to UNICEF, more than 1.6 million Haitians are on the brink of famine. In a report from March 2023, Food Security Cluster claimed that about 4.9 million people, nearly half the population, were in a state of acute food insecurity.

From February 29 to March 27, the country was totally isolated from the rest of the world: all airports were either occupied by gangs or closed so they wouldn’t be raided by them. The international roads were unusable, controlled by gunmen, as well as the ports best suited to receive ships, which are located in Port-au-Prince. To date, the capital’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport remains closed. Businesses whose stock has not been stolen or destroyed are raising prices for basic necessities. Even worse, the population has to spend hours and even days queuing up at banks to withdraw some money, because the retail banks, victims of gang violence, have shut down a number of branches, slowing their activities and limiting transactions with customers.

Neighborhoods that are not yet under gang control are barricaded and their residents are hunting down all unknown individuals, resorting to the methods of Bwa Kalé. They go as far as to burn alive those who are suspected of belonging to criminal gangs. This extreme violence is also the result of the weakness of the judicial system, which commonly releases people accused of working with the gangs, for money or because of political influence. The country has gone so far down the spiral of violence that the population has come to approve of the lynching of alleged gang members.

The current situation is unprecedented in Haiti’s history. But it is the result of geopolitical, political, endemic, structural, and phenomenological forms of violence that have spanned its over 500 years of history, from colonization to the present day – not forgetting, of course, the long U.S. occupation. On top of that, corruption and impunity have made everything worse. Not all the country is experiencing the same level of violence today, but its consequences are widespread everywhere, because everything is focused on and dependent on the “Republic of Port-au-Prince.” The current crisis must prompt a rethinking of the political, territorial and patrimonial organization of the country. It is perhaps time to reflect on the need to decentralize public and private services, because reality shows us that the paralysis of the West District leads to that of the entire country.

There is talk of the intervention of a foreign military force in Haiti. This solution may be feasible in the short term, but it isn’t for the long term, because this would be the third time in 30 years that foreign military personnel have been sent to Haiti to maintain law and order, and the results have always been highly disappointing. This is also a time when countries claiming to be Haiti’s friends need to be transparent about their intentions.

The unprecedented situation raises some pertinent questions that we are unable to answer. Haiti does not manufacture firearms and is subject to an embargo on war material: so where are all the automatic weapons and ammunitions of all calibers that we’re hearing day and night in the streets of Port-au-Prince coming from? What are the hidden interests that lie behind this violence? Who benefits from it? Will we wait until a full-blown civil war breaks out before finding a solution to the crisis?

Jean Robert Déry is a Jesuit priest. Translated to Italian by Marinella Correggia.

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