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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Who are the gangs that have overrun Haiti’s capital?

Members of the G9 gang protest over the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 26, 2021. Gangs have long held sway in the country, but their dominance has expanded in recent years and the government has been accused of using them as tools of repression. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

By Frances Robles

Haiti, a Caribbean nation with a long history of upheaval, is enduring one of its worst periods of chaos.

Gangs have shut down the airport; looted seaports, public buildings and shops; and attacked nearly a dozen police stations. Roads are blocked, cutting off the food supply, and 4,600 inmates were freed after prisons were attacked.

The prime minister, Ariel Henry, after being stranded in Puerto Rico while gang members wreaked havoc for several days, agreed earlier this week to step down once a new transitional government is formed. The gangs had been demanding his resignation.

A state of emergency around Port-au-Prince, the capital, was extended another month.

With the government on the verge of collapse, the United States and Caribbean nations are working to come up with a resolution — including a plan for a transitional government — that would restore some semblance of order to the troubled nation and allow Henry to return home.

Who are the gangs, and what do they want?

Experts estimate that up to 200 gangs operate in Haiti, about 20 of them in Port-au-Prince. They range from small groups of a few dozen young men who share pistols to crews of roughly 1,500 men with weekly salaries and automatic weapons who belong to hierarchal organizations with bosses.

Two main gang federations, G-Pèp and the G-9 Family, control many of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital. The criminal groups and their allies sometimes collude, but more often clash.

The groups have been historically tied to political parties: G-9 is affiliated with the ruling Haitian Tèt Kale Party, while G-Pèp tends to support opposition parties.

G-9 and its allies have largely taken over the ports and the roads around the country’s main airport. It has been nearly impossible to drive from Port-au-Prince to northern cities because gangs have seized the north-south highway.

Henry left the country last week for Kenya, where he signed an agreement paving the way for a multinational force led by the east African nation to travel to Haiti and take on the gangs.

Instead, in Henry’s absence, gang leaders announced a loose alliance called “Vivre Ensemble,” or “Living Together.” They launched coordinated attacks on state institutions with the goal of toppling the current government and preventing the international force from deploying.

“They want to swallow up neighborhoods one by one,” said Nicole M. Phillips, a human rights lawyer who specializes in Haiti. “Whatever government that allows them to do that, that’s what they want.”

The gangs are also hoping to set up a governing council to rule the country, and they want to help pick its members so they can exert control, said Robert Muggah, who researches Haiti for various U.N. agencies.

Who leads the gangs?

The gangs have various chiefs in different neighborhoods, but in recent days a gang leader named Jimmy Chérizier, who is known as Barbecue, has become the public face of the Living Together alliance.

A former police officer known for his ruthlessness, he has been accused of leading massacres. His gang alliance, the G-9, commands downtown Port-au-Prince and has been accused of attacking neighborhoods allied with opposition political parties, looting homes, raping women and killing people at random.

He called it an “armed revolution.”

He sought to strike a more conciliatory tone this week, apologizing to people whose homes had been ransacked by gangs, including his own alliance, during the recent unrest.

“Our first step in the battle is to overthrow the government of Ariel Henry, as we have always said, then we will ensure that the country has a strong state with a strong justice system to fight against the corrupt,” he said during a news conference. “We are going to make sure that we have a strong security system to allow everyone to circulate at the time they want and return when they want.

“Our goal is to see another Haiti.”

Who are these gang members?

That is a complicated question to answer.

“We use the word ‘gang’ right now because it’s convenient, everybody uses it, and it’s a word everybody knows, but it doesn’t capture what is going on,” said Romain Le Cour, who researches Haiti for the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

Most gang members are men in their 20s who come from impoverished urban neighborhoods where opportunities are scarce. They are often aligned with elite business leaders and politicians who pay them for everything from securing cargo to amassing protesters. Political parties have used the gang members in elections to either turn out the vote — or suppress it.

“In Haiti there is a long tradition of elites trying to create and fuel paramilitary groups that have over the past decades helped them to serve their interests and use violence to keep the monopoly on some commodity or for some political interests,” said Diego Da Rin, a Haiti researcher at the International Crisis Group.

The concept of irregularly formed armed groups dates back decades in Haiti, and there have been several different types of violent actors in the country.

During Haiti’s dictatorship under Francois Duvalier, paramilitary groups known as Tonton Macoutes were notorious for their violence and repression. In 1995, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide outlawed paramilitary groups and disbanded the Haitian armed forces.

Former soldiers originally with Aristide’s movement later created local self-defense groups known as “baz,” which often followed charismatic leaders and came to rule parts of Port-au-Prince.

Other past paramilitary groups include the far-right Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti and the chimères, which were affiliated with Aristide.

Now the line between a baz and a gang is often blurry.

People fed up with gang violence have joined a movement known as “bwa kale,” which embraces vigilante justice. They have committed extrajudicial killings and generally target criminals, often with the support of the local community.

In addition, many members of a government-sanctioned environmental brigade known as B-SAP have turned against the state, bringing another group of armed people into the mix.

Can the police stop them?

The Haitian National Police force has seen about 3,000 of its 15,000 employees flee in the past two years. While the United States has poured nearly $200 million into the department, it is notoriously outgunned and understaffed. The department owns 47 armored cars, but in a recent visit by the U.N. investigators, less than half were operational.

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