Sunday, April 14, 2024

Crews control the main city in Haiti. People think they might even try to take down the government

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In Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the city seems calm from above, with white houses on steep green hills around a sparkling bay. However, walking its cracked streets means weighing the risks and rewards.

Gangs have a strong grip on the city, preying on the people and dividing neighborhoods into rival criminal territories. They’ve even cut off Haiti’s international port from the rest of the country.

The most popular online videos here often show torture, recorded by gangs to spread fear and speed up ransom payments for kidnapping victims. Last month, a CNN team landing at Toussaint L’Ouverture airport received messages sharing cruel footage within hours – a woman bound and twisting away from flames while her kidnappers mocked.

This glimpse into daily torment shows that Haiti is at a breaking point, as civilian protests happen frequently. UN estimates say gangs control 80% of the capital and are fighting to take over the rest.

Recently, Port-au-Prince has faced a series of well-coordinated gang attacks, with groups burning police stations and freeing prisoners. One gang leader sees it as a direct challenge to Haiti’s unpopular Prime Minister, Ariel Henry. Haiti’s government declared a state of emergency after thousands of inmates apparently escaped from its largest prison on Sunday.

Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier, a former police officer who sees himself as a Robin Hood figure, stated that the battle is not just against Ariel’s government but aims to change the whole system. Prime Minister Henry’s whereabouts are currently unknown after a visit to Kenya last week.

“The situation in the country is getting worse every year. Many bad things are happening, like the old National Palace in Port-au-Prince still being broken from the big earthquake in 2010. Now, some courthouses are controlled by gangs.

People are angry with the prime minister, Ariel Henry, because they think he’s giving in to the gangs and not organizing new elections to bring in a fresh government. Henry says elections are not possible because of the current insecurity, but people are very mad about it.

Recently, in one neighborhood, people heard that a local police station might close. They got really upset, went to the streets, and even broke a bus and burned tires, demanding that Henry should leave.

One protester said, ‘Ariel Henry has to go. We are struggling a lot. We live in bad conditions, surrounded by garbage and sewage. I have nothing, and it’s hard to work or support my family or send my kids to school.’

Even some gang members are finding the situation too much. A 14-year-old gang recruit said he sees people dying every day, and he hates it when they make him burn the bodies. His friend, another gang member, was killed and burned a few days ago.

The United Nations deputy special representative in Haiti, Ulrika Richardson, said in a press briefing in New York, ‘People on the ground feel that the country can’t continue like this. The violence is too much, and it’s not humane.'”

Gangs pretty much run the show in 80% of Port-au-Prince. On TikTok and WhatsApp, there are accounts showing off guns and fancy cars, claiming they’re part of gangs like 5 Segond, 400 Mawozo (known for kidnapping foreign missionaries in 2021), and Kraze Barye, whose leader has a huge $2 million reward from the FBI.

Once, Haiti’s gangs were like henchmen for powerful politicians and rich folks. But now, they’ve gone rogue. The gangs in Port-au-Prince are like independent “violent entrepreneurs,” as per a recent study by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

In a poor country where there’s not much to take, the gangs treat people like products. They grabbed at least 2,490 folks off the streets last year to make money in the kidnapping business, says the UN.

If families can’t pay, the kidnapped people often end up dead. This adds to the thousands killed by random gunfire, fires, and other horrors. Last year, Haiti’s murder rate doubled, hitting 41 murders per 100,000 people – one of the highest in the world, says the UN.

Haiti’s cops, with a tough new anti-gang squad, did manage to catch some bad guys and keep gangs at bay in important areas, even near the US embassy. But with almost 100 gangs growing in the city, the police don’t have the power or training to bring peace, sources say.

UN stats show Haitian cops are quitting a lot, with 1,663 officers leaving in just 2023.

As more people go hungry, folks are getting angrier. In Delmas, a place near a tough neighborhood called Cité Soleil, lots of women waited in line for food from the UN’s World Food Programme, given out by a Catholic charity called St. Kizito.

CNN spoke to some people, and everyone had a tough story. One lady was attacked by a gang member and showed scars from being hurt. Another woman’s husband got burned alive in their home during a fight between gangs.

“I was at home with my family, when a rival group to our local gang attacked the neighborhood. I had the time to run with my child, but my husband was too slow behind us. They burned the house down with him inside.”

The UN says that over 300,000 people lost their homes because of fights between gangs.

In the countryside, the big problem is not fights, but hunger. Gangs control the roads around Port-au-Prince, making it hard to bring in important food and fuel. People have to pay a lot of money to be safe when they travel.

Prices are going up a lot, and many families who already don’t have much money are struggling. More than 60% of households have less than $4 a day, according to the World Bank.

A seller in Jeremie said the price for a sack of sugar went from $50 to $150. A bag of rice, a common food in Haiti, now costs $120 instead of $40.

People are really stressed trying to make enough money to live. In January, some angry people attacked St. John Bosco school, trying to get to the food given by the UN. The food was meant for poor students’ lunches – often their only meal of the day. But now, the scared kids haven’t come back to school.

People everywhere are really mad. From the busy city streets to farmers working in the fields, everyone’s singing the same angry tune: “Ariel is wrecking the country.”

Ariel Henry, who became the Prime Minister in 2021 after the previous president got assassinated, promised to fix things. But now, after two and a half years, Haiti, the world’s first free Black republic, is even farther away from having fair elections. Most elected positions are empty because the last elections were in 2016.

Recently, there have been protests in the capital, Port-au-Prince, demanding Ariel Henry’s resignation. The government announced a crackdown on a group called BSAP, accused of causing violence. BSAP says they’re trying to change a broken system and support any revolution that can help the Haitian people. They don’t want to fight the government, but they want things to change.

On the other hand, gangs are attacking government buildings directly. The National Penitentiary was pounded, and the police asked for help. Despite their plea, the prison was opened, and thousands of prisoners are now on the loose.

The violence keeps going, and the government declared a state of emergency in Port-au-Prince and imposed a curfew from 6pm to 5am to “regain control of the situation.” It’s a tough time for Haiti right now.’

In a faraway uniform,
On February 7, a new government was supposed to take charge in Haiti, as per an agreement between Henry’s government and a group of influential people from Haiti’s community and business world.

But the needed elections never happened. Last month, Henry made a rare national address, asking for patience and saying it’s time for all of us to work together to save Haiti.

He promised that the transitional government’s main job is to set things up for elections. Henry assured viewers that his interim government is working with the police to bring back normal life. He acknowledged that many things need to change, but he emphasized the importance of making those changes together and calmly.

A new deadline has been proposed: Leaders from the Caricom group stated last week that Henry agreed to hold general elections by August 31, 2025.

“The reason the Prime Minister asked for UN resolution in October 2022 is because the police and other forces can’t handle the gangs,” said Henry’s advisor Jean Junior Joseph.

Joseph clarified that the anger towards the government for Haiti’s gang issue is misplaced, as the government has limited options. “The situation is so complicated that the gangs have more ammunition than us,” he explained.

The Prime Minister’s office declined CNN’s request for an interview.

Foreign military interventions are viewed with suspicion in Haiti. The Kenyan-led mission’s details and the human rights precautions its forces will take are unclear.

However, Haitian security forces interviewed by CNN welcome the help. The United States, a top destination for Haitian migrants, has pledged $200 million to support the mission.

It might not be a coincidence that the recent surge in gang violence started while Henry was in Nairobi last week, signing an agreement for the mission.

The stakes are high: If the promised 1,000-plus troops arrive, the foreign support could challenge the gangs, bringing hope for change and giving time for the embattled premier. But if the mission doesn’t come soon, experts and government insiders warn that pressure over Haiti’s overwhelming violence might explode.

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