Fri | Apr 12, 2024

In Haiti, gangs take control as democracy withers

Published:Tuesday | January 31, 2023 | 12:55 PM
A taxi driver passes a burning tire outside the door of police headquarters placed by officers protesting bad police governance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, January 26, 2023. Haiti's nearly 200 gangs have taken advantage of the chaos, warring for control. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph,File)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — 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 The Associated Press 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 U.N. estimated that gangs controlled 60% of Haiti's capital, but nowadays most on the streets of Port-au-Prince say that number is closer to 100%.

“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.

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