Haitians fight back against gangs, drawing support — and worry

Washington Post

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Jean Baptiste had watched Haiti descend into chaos as violent armed gangs marauded across the capital unchecked, forcing 130,000 people from their homes with a brutal campaign of kidnapping, rape and murder.

But when bandits shot and dismembered a relative last month, he said, he decided he’d had enough. Enough waiting for the Haitian government — a weak and unloved clique of unelected officials — to restore order. Enough counting on its enfeebled police force to beat the gangs back. Enough suffering while the world mostly looked away.

As Jean Baptiste and more than a dozen others in his neighborhood saw it, he said, the time had come to take matters into their own hands. Armed with machetes, they work in shifts, patrolling Turgeau and defending the Port-au-Prince neighborhood from gang members.

He estimates neighborhood vigilantes have killed 27 in the past two weeks.

“Our calls to the authorities fell on deaf ears. They don’t listen to us,” said Jean Baptiste, a gardener, whom The Washington Post is identifying by only his first name out of concern for security. “We must organize to survive. …

“If the population doesn’t stand up, more civilians will be killed.”

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The Washington Post could not verify Jean Baptiste’s claims. But Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Haitian police and U.S. and U.N. officials have acknowledged the phenomenon: In the absence of security, Haitians are arming themselves with rocks and machetes and banding together to fight the gangs who have turned their lives into what the U.N. human rights chief in February called a “living nightmare.”

In one incident last month, a mob pulled more than a dozen suspected gang members from police custody during a traffic stop in Port-au-Prince, hung gasoline-soaked tires around their necks and beat and burned them to death, police said. Similar attacks have occurred elsewhere in the capital and across the country.

In several neighborhoods, civilians have erected roadblocks and checkpoints to stop drivers and interrogate them about the purpose of their travel and intended destination — and then relay that information to checkpoints farther ahead.

Drivers edge around a blockade in Port-au-Prince on April 26. (Dorcin Lesly/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The “Bwa Kale” movement — Haitian Creole for “peeled wood” — reflects frustration over insecurity in a country increasingly described as a failed state.

More than 230 people have been killed in mob attacks and lynchings this year, the United Nations said — 164 of them in April alone.

Rights advocates say Haiti hardly needs more killing. They warn thatvigilantes could be targeting people who aren’t gang members — either in cases of mistaken identity or to settle unrelated scores — further deepening the Caribbean nation’s security crisis.

“We are worried by the current situation,” said lawyer Samuel Madistin, chairman of Fondasyon Je Klere, a human rights group. “The Bwa Kale operation is not a solution to the gang violence. We need a reinforcement of the institutions in charge of order in the state.”

Henry, who is deeply unpopular, has urged people to “calm down” and report suspected gang members in their communities to police.

“We understand you’re fed up,” he said in an address this month, “but do not let bad actors let you play dirty. … The government is working with local and international partners to establish security in the country. This will happen. We won’t back down to bandits.”

Gangs have long held sway in Haiti. But since the still-unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, they’ve taken control of much of the capital, shooting indiscriminately at people from rooftops, burning people alive and raping women and children.

More than 1,600 people were wounded, kidnapped or killed in gang violence in the first quarter of 2023, the U.N. human rights office and the U.N. office in Haiti reported this month, up 28 percent from the previous quarter. In recent months, the violence has spread into middle- and upper-class neighborhoods previously considered comparatively safe.

Haitian police retrieve tires left by factory workers Tuesday in Port-au-Prince during a protest to demand better wages and working conditions. (Richard Pierrin/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the victims of gang violence this year have been at least 21 police officers, members of a force that has been outmatched by gangs armed with weapons able to destroy armored vehicles.

The police are struggling with attrition to deaths, dismissals, resignations and applications to humanitarian parole programs in the United States. The U.N. office in Haiti reported last month that there were 13,200 active duty officers protecting a country of 11 million.

“With the high number of fatalities and increasing areas under the control of armed gangs, insecurity in the country has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said.

For months, Guterres and Henry have been calling for an international force to restore order in the country. The Biden administration backs the idea but says it won’t lead the mission and has struggled to find a country that will.

The United States and other countries have imposed sanctions on members of the Haitian political and business elite believed to have ties with gang leaders and in some cases to have provided them with money and weapons.

Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network has accused state authorities of hiding behind the Bwa Kale movement because it allows the Haitian people to “eliminate for them the links they have with the individuals they have armed” and to ensure they never face justice.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the agency is “closely tracking reports of ongoing violence against alleged gang members” and echoed the Haitian government’s “call for citizens to work with the Haitian National Police to ensure suspected criminals are lawfully arrested.”

A spokesman for the Haitian National Police declined to comment.

Trucks with flat tires block a street in Port-au-Prince in April. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)

Max Beluzaire supports the Bwa Kale movement. The 27-year-old has been caring for his mother and 9-year-old sister since his father died in 2018. They were asleep in their one-bedroom house in the hillside shantytown of Cité Gabriel last month when gunfire rang out at 2 a.m.

Bandits with guns and balaclavas tore through the neighborhood, robbing residents and ransacking homes. Beluzaire and his sister packed a bag with clothes, water and identification. When the gang members showed up, Beluzaire sent his mother and sister away and promised to catch up to them.

He confronted the invaders and was robbed of $100, money he hadearned selling cold drinks in the neighborhood to supplement his earnings from a part-time job at a hot dog factory.

Weeks later, he hasn’t returned home — but knows members of his community are organizing themselves to fight against future attacks.

“It’s war,” he told The Post. “The people wake up because they can’t take it anymore. It would have been worse without this movement.”

Haiti has a history of vigilantism. After the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fell in 1986, mobs attacked suspected members of the Tonton Macoutes, their paramilitary enforcers.

Still, historian Jean Ledan Fils, said, “What we are living today is unprecedented. The population is fed up.”

Haitians have long organized “vigilance brigades,” said Diego Da Rin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, but they have often been defensive in nature and don’t always support public lynching.

A street in Port-au-Prince last month. (Dorcin Lesly/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

But some self-defense groups that formed in the early 2000s to shield neighborhoods from attacks from right-wing paramilitary groups later transformed “into the gang structures we know today.”

“We don’t know how a self-defense group will evolve over time and how their power will be capitalized by some people with power,” Da Rin said.

Frantz has lost faith in the police — and the government. After the Cité Gabriel attack that displaced Beluzaire and his family, Frantz and 20 neighbors, one a police officer, armed themselves with machetes and guns and fought the bandits off themselves.

Frantz said they killed 11 and took several others to the police, and turned in two guns that they took off the invaders. The 47-year-old husband and father, whom The Post is identifying by only his first name out of concern for security, warned of more carnage “if citizens did not stand up.”

“I don’t believe in this government,” he told The Post. “God says you have to defend yourself. Self-defense is a right. We are not going to give up to the bandits. … I don’t remember the last time I went to the beach with my wife and my kid. We cannot spend our whole life in hiding.”

He dismissed Henry’s pleas for calm, saying he couldn’t be taken “seriously.”

“We are fighting him also,” Frantz said. “It’s not a game. We have our list.”


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1 thought on “Haitians fight back against gangs, drawing support — and worry

  1. We have so many fond memories of Haiti but what is going on in Haiti now is nauseous. However, not everyone thinks Haiti is Hell and that sentiment would not just be limited to Graham Greene were he alive. Of course, Graham was one of the great writers of the 20th Century and an MI6 spook. One other ex-spook used to love Haiti until the TonTon Macoute hunted him down like a wild animal. Maybe he deserved it? Was he front running the real CIA Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs?

    If you relish and yearn for Haitian spy thrillers as curiously and bizarrely compelling as Graham Greene’s Comedians, crave for the cruel stability of the Duvaliers and have frequented Hôtel Oloffson you’re never going to put down Bill Fairclough’s fact based spy thriller Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series.

    It’s a raw noir thriller but it is so real you may have nightmares of being back in Port au Prince anguishing over being a spy on the run. The trouble is, if you were a spook being chased by the TonTon Macoute in the seventies you were usually cornered and … well best leave it to your imagination or simply read Beyond Enkription. It’s considered compulsory reading for espionage aficionados.

    Interestingly Fairclough was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6 (see a brief intriguing News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website). If you have any questions about Ungentlemanly Warfare after reading that do remember the best quote from The Burlington Files to date is “Don’t ask me, I’m British”.

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