Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Haiti’s capital is controlled by groups of people. Some of them might be planning to take over the government

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Down in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, things may seem calm at first glance, with its pretty homes on lush hills around a shining bay. But stepping onto the cracked streets is like entering a dangerous game.

Nasty gangs have a tight grip on the city, causing trouble for everyone. They’ve divided neighborhoods into crime territories, making life tough and cutting off Haiti’s main port from the rest of the country.

What’s worse, the most popular online videos here show brutal stuff, like gangs torturing people. They record and share these horrifying clips to scare folks and get ransom money for kidnapping victims. Just last month, a CNN team got messages with terrible videos shortly after landing at the Toussaint L’Ouverture airport.

This gives us a peek into the everyday misery in Haiti, where people are fed up, as seen in frequent protests. UN estimates say gangs control a big chunk—80%—of the capital, and they’re battling to take over the rest.

Recently, there’s been a surge in coordinated gang attacks in Port-au-Prince. They’ve been burning police stations, setting prisoners free, all to challenge the unpopular Prime Minister Ariel Henry. The situation got so bad that Haiti’s government declared a state of emergency after thousands of inmates seemingly escaped from the biggest prison.

One gang leader, Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier, who used to be a cop, declared a bold mission. He said they’re not just going after Ariel’s government but want to change the whole system. The Prime Minister’s current whereabouts are unknown after his trip to Kenya last week.

The situation in Haiti keeps getting worse each year. The National Palace in Port-au-Prince is still in ruins from the 2010 earthquake, and now gangs have taken over multiple courthouses. Many Haitians blame their prime minister for giving in to the gangs and not organizing new elections. People are angry and frustrated with the insecurity.

Rumors about closing a local police station led residents to protest, demanding the prime minister’s removal. They expressed their struggles, living in poverty and unable to work or support their families. Even some gang members find the current brutality unbearable, witnessing death and being forced to burn bodies.

The situation is dire, and the United Nations deputy special representative in Haiti warns that the country cannot go on like this. The violence people face is inhumane.

Most of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs. On social media like TikTok and WhatsApp, there are accounts showing off guns and fancy cars claiming to be part of gangs such as the 5 Segond gang, 400 Mawozo (known for the 2021 kidnapping of foreign missionaries), and Kraze Barye, whose leader has a huge bounty from the FBI.

Gangs in Haiti were once used by powerful politicians and business people. But now, they seem to be acting on their own. A recent analysis by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime says these gangs in Port-au-Prince have become independent “violent entrepreneurs.”

In a poor country like Haiti, the gangs are treating people like goods. Last year, they kidnapped at least 2,490 people, according to UN data, and turned it into a growing kidnapping business.

If families can’t pay, victims are often killed. This adds to the thousands of people who have died from random shootings, arson, and other abuses. Last year, Haiti’s murder rate doubled, reaching 41 murders for every 100,000 people, making it one of the highest in the world, says the UN.

Haiti’s National Police have a new anti-gang unit, and they’ve had some success in catching criminals and controlling gangs in certain areas, like near the US embassy. But with almost 100 gangs in the city, sources say the police don’t have enough power or training to bring calm to the country.

According to UN numbers, many Haitian police officers are leaving their jobs, with 1,663 officers quitting in 2023 alone.

More and more people are getting upset because they’re hungry. In Delmas, a neighborhood, women from a place called Cité Soleil, controlled by a gang, lined up for food from the UN’s World Food Programme. Catholic charity St. Kizito was helping give out the food.

When CNN talked to these people, they all had bad things happen to them. One woman got hurt by a gang member, another woman’s husband got burned alive during a fight between gangs. She said, “I was at home with my family when a different group attacked. I ran away with my child, but my husband couldn’t make it. They burned our house with him inside.”

The UN says over 300,000 people don’t have homes anymore because of gang fights.

In the countryside, the problem is hunger. Gangs control the roads near Port-au-Prince, slowing down the delivery of important food and fuel. You have to pay a lot of money to pass safely.

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

In one place called Jeremie, a seller said the price for a sack of sugar went from $50 to $150. A bag of rice, a common food in Haiti, went from $40 to $120.

People are really stressed out because they can’t afford things. In January, some angry people attacked a school called St. John Bosco, trying to get to the food the UN gave for the kids’ lunches. The kids, who usually get their only meal of the day at school, haven’t come back since because they’re scared.

People in Haiti are really angry. They say Prime Minister Ariel Henry is messing up the country. He became the prime minister in 2021 after the president was killed, and he had support from the United States, Canada, and other important friends.

But things went downhill. Many parts of the capital city and the fields in Jeremie are filled with angry people. Henry promised to fix things and have elections, but it’s been two and a half years, and Haiti is still far from being a proper democracy. The last elections were in 2016, so many elected positions are empty, including the president and the legislature.

There’s a group called BSAP that’s upset. They’re part of a government agency, but they’re not happy with how things are going. They want to change the system and are ready to support any revolution that can free the Haitian people. They don’t want to fight the government, but they’ve been joining protests.

At the same time, gangs are attacking government buildings. The National Penitentiary was hit, and the police unions asked for help. They said if the prisoners are let out and join the gangs, it will be a disaster. But the prison was opened, and thousands of prisoners escaped. The violence continued, and the government declared a state of emergency and a curfew in the area around the capital city to try to control the situation.

In early February, there was supposed to be a new government in Haiti, but the planned elections didn’t happen. Prime Minister Henry addressed the nation, asking for patience and cooperation to save Haiti.

He explained that the transitional government’s main job is to set up conditions for future elections. Henry assured citizens that his government, along with the police, is working to restore normal life. Despite the need for change, he emphasized the importance of making those changes together and calmly.

Now, a new deadline has been suggested by Caricom leaders. They announced that Henry agreed to hold general elections by August 31, 2025. However, Henry might be relying on an external solution—the Kenyan-led “military support” force, approved by the UN, requested by his government last year.

Henry’s advisor, Jean Junior Joseph, explained that the Prime Minister sought UN support because local forces couldn’t handle the gangs. He mentioned that the gangs have more firepower, making the situation difficult for the government.

There’s skepticism in Haiti about foreign military involvement due to past UN peacekeeping issues. The specifics of the Kenyan-led mission and its human rights precautions remain unclear. Despite concerns, Haitian security forces welcome the assistance, and the United States pledged $200 million to support the mission.

The timing of the recent gang violence coincides with Henry’s visit to Nairobi to finalize the mission agreement. If the promised troops arrive, they could challenge gang control, offering hope for change and giving the Prime Minister more time. However, experts warn that without timely intervention, pressure over Haiti’s violence may escalate.

 

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