Gangs take control as democracy withers
Jimmy Cherizier zips through Haiti’s capital on the back of a motorcycle, flanked by young men wielding black and leopard print masks and automatic weapons.
As the pack of bikes flies by graffiti reading ‘Mafia boss’ in Creole, street vendors selling vegetables, meats and old clothes on the curb cast their eyes to the ground or peer curiously.
Cherizier, best known by his childhood nickname Barbecue, has become the most recognised name in Haiti.
And here in his territory, enveloped by the tin-roofed homes and bustling streets of the informal settlement La Saline, he is the law.
Internationally, he’s known as Haiti’s most powerful and feared gang leader, sanctioned by the United Nations for “serious human rights abuses”, and the man behind a fuel blockade that brought the Caribbean nation to its knees late last year.
But if you ask the former police officer with gun tattoos running up his arm, he’s a “revolutionary”, advocating against a corrupt government that has left a nation of 12 million people in the dust.
“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight,” Cherizier, leader of ‘G9 Family and Allies’, told AP while sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty road in the shadow of a home with windows shattered by bullets. “I’m a threat to the system.”
At a time when democracy has withered in Haiti and gang violence has spiralled out of control, it’s armed men like Cherizier that are filling the power vacuum left by a crumbling government. In December, the UN estimated that gangs controlled 60 per cent of Haiti’s capital, but nowadays most on the streets of Port-au-Prince say that number is closer to 100 per cent.
“There is, democratically speaking, little-to-no legitimacy” for Haiti’s government, said Jeremy McDermott, a head of InSight Crime, a research centre focused on organised crime. “This gives the gangs a stronger political voice and more justification to their claims to be the true representatives of the communities.”
It’s something that conflict victims, politicians, analysts, aid organisations, security forces and international observers fear will only get worse. Civilians, they worry, will face the brunt of the consequences.
Haiti’s history has long been tragic. Home of the largest slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere, the country achieved independence from France in 1804, ahead of other countries in the region.
But it’s long been the poorest country in the hemisphere, and Haiti in the 20th century endured a bloody dictatorship that lasted until 1986 and brought about the mass execution of tens of thousands of Haitians.
The country has been plagued by political turmoil since, while suffering waves of devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera outbreaks.
The latest crisis entered full throttle following the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. In his absence, current Prime Minister Ariel Henry emerged in a power struggle as the country’s leader.
Haiti’s nearly 200 gangs have taken advantage of the chaos, warring for control.
Tension hums in Port-au-Prince. Police checkpoints dot busy intersections, and graffiti tags reading “down with Henry” can be spotted in every part of the city. Haitians walk through the streets with a restlessness that comes from knowing that anything could happen at any moment.
An ambulance driver returning from carrying a patient told the AP he was kidnapped, held for days and asked to pay $1 million to be set free.
Such ransoms are now commonplace, used by gangs to fund their warfare.
An average of four people are kidnapped a day in Haiti, according to UN estimates.