Foreign Correspondence

In Haiti, gang violence continues with no end in sight

The damage caused by violence in Port-au-Prince is currently difficult to quantify. As a journalist, I fear for my safety

April 04, 2024
Image credit: Associated Press/Alamy stock photo
Image credit: Associated Press/Alamy stock photo

In Port-au-Prince, we journalists are the first to see the corpses. The first to experience the exchange of gunfire. The first to see the sadness of those who are victims of gang violence. We are not only the targets of criminals, but also of the police, who constantly violate our rights. This sums up my daily life, and the life of my colleagues, in this time of violence.

None of us know when the violence will end. Since the dictatorial regime headed by François Duvalier fell in 1986, Haiti has formally been a democracy—but one that has faced political crisis after crisis, with recurring and extreme violence.

The situation has become more unstable in recent years, as the power and influence of gangs which control territory—particularly in disadvantaged neighbourhoods—increases. These gangs, used by political leaders to win elections and financed by certain Haitian businesspeople, became autonomous and independent through extortion, kidnapping, weapons trading and drug trafficking.

Haiti was plunged into its current era of instability back in 2021 when Jovenel Moïse, the country’s president, was assassinated at home in Port-au-Prince. The prime minister, Ariel Henry, became acting president. Then, on 29th February this year, gangs that are usually sworn enemies formed a political coalition and sought to take control of the country, forcing Henry, who was abroad in Puerto Rico, to stay out of Haiti. 

The violence since then has been unprecedented. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that 1,554 people were killed in the first three months of 2024. Armed gang members set fire to 10 police stations and sub-stations between 29th February and 6th March. They killed more than eight police officers and facilitated the escape of more than 4,000 prisoners. Demanding Henry’s resignation, they even promised to orchestrate what former policeman-turned-gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier called a “genocide”, if their demands were not satisfied. The violence seems to have only escalated since the beginning of March, but there is no official data on the damage inflicted on the population in recent weeks. 

The country’s governance infrastructure has collapsed, especially in Port-au-Prince. Schools remain closed, some hospitals had been emptied of their doctors, some stores and commercial bank branches were looted and pharmacies burned to the ground. Commercial flights to Haiti were suspended. The Haitian police attempted to control the gangs, but have failed to restore stability. On 4th March, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed a nightly curfew, which was extended just a few days later.

On the ground, some people believe that the armed forces of Haiti should be mobilised to restore order, while others hope for the arrival of a multinational security mission that was authorised by the UN last year. Meanwhile, political negotiations brokered by Caricom, the political and economic union of 15 member states in the Caribbean, have led to the creation of a Transitional Presidential Council (CPT) to replace Henry’s government.

On the ground in Port-au-Prince, journalists like me will do our best to document what happens

The CPT has already faced criticism—notably from groups who are calling for a judge from Haiti’s Supreme Court to act as an interim president—and doubts remain over how this council will run the country. The gangs have already rejected Caricom’s approach: Chérizier, perhaps the most prominent gang leader in the country, says that Haiti’s leader should be the chosen by the people and the gangs, not Caricom. 

Meanwhile, former Hatian Senator Guy Philippe, who returned to Haiti in November 2023 after a drug trafficking conviction in the United States, is  positioning himself as a potential strongman leader of the country. He has allied himself with former senator Moïse Jean Charles and agents from the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas (BSAP, an environmental agency turned paramilitary group) to demand Henry’s departure, promising to grant amnesty to gangs if he becomes president while also rejecting the CPT. Whether the CPT manages to restore order in the country remains to be seen. 

On the ground in Port-au-Prince, journalists like me will do our best to document what happens, either way. It is immensely difficult to quantify the material damage and the loss of human life caused by the escalation of violence in recent months. But, every day, my colleagues and I risk our lives to do our work, taking to the streets with or without protective equipment to verify information. It is no secret that journalists are often kidnapped, brutalised, killed and threatened—in some areas, a press badge can save us, while in others it could cost us our lives. Sometimes fear and stress are our only companions. But informing the public is an obligation.