Port-au-Prince, Haiti (AP) — Jimmy Cherisier zips through the Haitian capital on the back of his motorcycle, surrounded by young men in black and leopard-print masks and automatic rifles.
Crowds of bicycles pass graffiti that reads “Mafia Boss” in Creole, and street vendors selling vegetables, meat and second-hand clothes on the curb look down on the ground or peep curiously. increase.
CherizierBest known for his childhood nickname Barbecue has become the most famous name in Haiti.
And here, surrounded by tin-roofed houses and the busy streets of the informal hamlet of La Saline, he is the law.
Internationally, he is known as the leader of Haiti’s most powerful and feared gang, sanctioned by the United Nations for “serious human rights violations” and is the man behind the fuel blockade. It brought the Caribbean nation to its knees late last year.
But if you ask the former police officer with a gun tattoo on his arm, he’s a “revolutionary,” advocating against the corrupt government that has shattered a country of 12 million people. increase.
“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in a kidnapping. I’m not a rapist.” “I am a threat to the system,” he said, sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty road in the shadows.
When Haiti’s democracy wanes and gang violence gets out of hand, it’s armed men like Chelisier who are filling the power vacuum left by the crumbling government. In December, it was estimated that gangs controlled 60% of the Haitian capital.but today, most people on the streets of Port-au-Prince say that number is close to 100%.
Jeremy McDermott, director of Insight Crime, a research center focused on organized crime, said the Haitian government “has little legitimacy, democratically speaking.” “This allows gangs to have a stronger political voice and justify their claims of being true representatives of their communities.”
Victims of the conflict, politicians, analysts, aid agencies, security forces and international observers fear that things will only get worse. They worry that civilians will bear the brunt of the consequences.
Haiti’s history has long been tragic. Home to the largest slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere, the country achieved independence from France in 1804, ahead of the rest of the region.
But it was long the poorest country in the hemisphere, and 20th-century Haiti endured a bloody dictatorship that lasted until 1986 and resulted in the mass execution of tens of thousands of Haitians.
Since then, the country has been plagued by political turmoil while suffering waves of devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera outbreaks.
The latest crisis is in full swing following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021During his absence, current Prime Minister Ariel Henry emerged as the country’s leader in a power struggle.
haiti coming soon 200 gang Using chaos to fight for control.
Port-au-Prince is tense. Busy intersections are dotted with police checkpoints and graffiti tags reading ‘Down with Henry’ can be seen all over the city. Haitians walk the streets restlessly because they know anything can happen at any moment.
An ambulance driver returning with a patient told The Associated Press that he was kidnapped, held for days, and asked to pay $1 million to be released.
Such ransoms are now common and used by gangs to finance their wars.
According to the United Nations, an average of four people are kidnapped in Haiti every day. Estimate.
The United Nations has registered about 2,200 murders in 2022. That’s double what he did the year before. Women in the country tell stories of brutal gang rapes in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Patients in the trauma unit are caught in a shootout and are bombarded with gunshots from gangsters and police.
“No one is safe,” said Peterson Peane, who was shot in the face by police after failing to stop at a police checkpoint after work.
Meanwhile, a wave of gruesome killings of police officers by gangsters is fueling outrage and protests by Haitians.
Following the murder of six police officers, a video circulating on social media (presumably filmed by a gang) shows six naked corpses stretched out on the ground with guns pointed at their chests. was reflected. Another photo shows two of his masked men smoking cigarettes using the officer’s severed limbs.
“Gang-related violence has reached levels not seen in many years … affecting almost every segment of society,” said Helen La Lime, UN Special Envoy for Haiti. said at a Security Council meeting in late January.
Prime Minister Henry has called on the UN to lead a military intervention, but many Haitians say it is not the solution, citing the consequences of past foreign interventions. in Haiti. So far, no country has attempted to take the step.
the war is over A neighborhood historically ravaged by violence consumes streets lined with mansions previously considered relatively safe.
La Lime highlighted the turf war between Cherizier’s group, G9, and another group, G-Pep, as one of the key factors. driver.
In October, the United Nations condemned Cherisier. sanctionsArms embargoes, asset freezes, travel bans, etc.
The body accused him of carrying out a bloody massacre in La Saline, paralyzing the country economically and using armed violence and rape to threaten “the peace, security and stability of Haiti”.
At the same time, Henry, who was not elected to the administration and whose term has expired but the administration has declined requests for comment, continues to steer the skeleton government. For the past year and a half, he’s made a general election promise, but he hasn’t been able to carry it out.
In early January, the country lost its last democratically elected institution when the terms of ten senators who symbolically held public office expired..
One of the Senators, Patrice Dumont, said it turned Haiti into a de facto “dictatorship”.
He said that even if the current government were willing to hold elections, he wasn’t sure it would be possible because gangs firmly control the city.
“Citizens are losing faith in their country. (Haiti) is facing social degradation,” Dumont said. “We were already a poor country, but this political crisis has made us even poorer.”
At the same time, gang leaders such as Sheridier increasingly took advantage of the end of their senators’ terms to make political rhetoric, including questioning Henry’s power.
“Ariel Henry’s government is a de facto government.
A pistol tucked behind his jeans, Chelisier takes AP around his estate in La Saline to explain the harsh conditions in which the community lives.
Shelisier has refused to tell AP where his money came from, but insists he is only trying to improve the situation by ensuring security in the areas he controls.
Sherisier walked through trash heaps, past malnourished children, and advertised iPhones with a picture of himself on the back. Drones belonging to his team monitoring his security follow him as he weaves through rows of densely packed houses made of metal and wooden planks.
Followed by a group of masked, heavily armed men, he did not allow the AP to film or photograph the guards and their weapons.
“We’re bad guys, but we’re not bad guys,” one of the men told AP video journalists as he navigated a packed market.
Some have speculated that if an election were held, Shelisier would run for office, but she claims she will not.
According to InSight Crime’s McDermott, what is clear is that gangs are profiting from political turmoil.
Insight Climb Estimate Before the president was murdered, Cherisier’s gang coalition, the G9, had obtained half of its funding from the government, 30% from kidnapping and 20% from extortion. After the killings, government funding was significantly reduced, according to the organization.
But his gang has gone from strength to strength after the group blocked the distribution of fuel from Port-au-Prince’s main fuel terminal for two months late last year.
The blockade paralyzed the country in the midst of a cholera outbreak and gave other gangs a foothold to expand. claimed to be.
Today, the G9 controls much of central Port-au-Prince and is fighting for power elsewhere.
“Political Frankenstein long ago lost control of the gangster monstrosity,” said McDermott. “They are now rampaging freely across the country, making money in every possible way and making kidnapping their top priority.”
Ordinary citizens like 9-year-old Cristina Julian are among those paying the price.
A smiling girl who dreams of becoming a doctor wakes up curled up on the floor of her aunt’s porch next to her parents and two sisters.
She is one of at least 155,000 people forced to flee their homes because of violence in Port-au-Prince alone. 4 months since she was able to sleep in her own bed.
Their neighborhood at the north end of the city was once safe. But she and her mother, Sandra Santels, 48, said things started to change last year.
The once bustling streets are now empty. At night, as gunshots rang out of her window and her neighbors set off fireworks, Christina asked her mother if it was a bullet.
“When the shooting happened, I couldn’t go out in the yard, I couldn’t go see my friends, I had to stay home,” Christina said. “I always had to lie on the floor with my mother, father, sister and brother.”
Christina started having heart palpitations due to stress, and teacher Santels worried about her daughter’s health. At the same time, Sainteluz and her husband were worried that their children would be kidnapped on their way to school.
In October, during the blockade of Cheriziye, armed men belonging to the strong 400 mawozo Gangs raided the neighborhood.That same gang was behind the kidnapping of 17 missionaries 2021 years.
Christina saw a group of men with guns from a friend’s house and fled home. She said to Santels: I just saw a mob passing by with a weapon, we have to go! ”
They packed everything they could carry and took refuge in the family’s small two-bedroom house in another part of town.
Life here is not easy, said Sainteluz, the main provider for her family.
“It was hopeless to live in someone else’s house with so many children. I left everything behind, I left only two bags,” she said.
Sainteluz hastily scrubs clothes, cooks soup for the family in the dirt kitchen, and helps Christina do her math homework diligently as she sits in an empty container of petrol.
The rusted metal roof of the ten-person house trembles every time a gust of wind blows through the nearby hills.
Her mother used to work as an elementary school teacher, earning 6,000 Haitian Gourdes ($41) a month. She had to stop teaching two years ago because of her violence. Now she earns a fraction of her former income selling mud on the roadside.
Young Christina said she misses her friends and Barbie dolls.
But the sacrifice is worth it, Santels said. Over the past few months, she’s heard horror stories of her daughter’s classmate being kidnapped, her neighbor forced to pay her $40,000 ransom, and murdered right outside her home. Did.
At least here they feel safer. For now, she added.
Associated Press journalists Evens Sanon and Fernanda Pesce contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.
Contact AP’s Global Investigative Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/.