Haiti

Airport attack, police stations on fire: Mass prison escape brings chaos in Haiti

Author: Editors Desk, Kim Hjelmgaard Source: USA Today
March 5, 2024 at 11:27

'We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands,' said Jimmy "Barbeque" Chérizier, a former police officer who controls a confederacy of nine Haitian gangs known as the "G9 Family and Allies."

 

A mass escape from two large prisons. Gunfire exchanged at the central bank, main airport and national soccer stadium. A direct challenge from a powerful gang leader to an unpopular prime minister.

Haiti's long descending spiral of violence appeared to hit new lows in recent days as the country's powerful gangs led a series of coordinated assaults in what seemed to be an effort to overthrow the authorities.

“We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands. The battle we are waging will not only topple Ariel's government. It is a battle that will change the whole system," said Jimmy "Barbeque" Chérizier, a former police officer who controls a confederacy of nine Haitian gangs known as the "G9 Family and Allies," in a statement attributed to reports in local media. Ariel Henry is Haiti's U.S.-backed prime minister.

Here's what's been happening in Haiti.
 

Pedestrians walk past a soldier guarding the area of the international airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 4, 2024.
Pedestrians walk past a soldier guarding the area of the international airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 4, 2024. Odelyn Joseph, AP


Armed gangs storm two large prisons

A 72-hour state of emergency began Sunday night after armed gangs stormed two large prisons − one in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, the other in Croix des Bouquets, on the city's outskirts. At least 12 people were killed and about 4,000 inmates, some accused of murders, kidnappings and other serious crimes, escaped in the jailbreak.

Haiti's Office of Citizen Protection said late Monday that it was seriously concerned about the safety of judges, prosecutors, victims, attorneys and others following the mass escape.

On Monday, heavily armed gangs then tried to seize control of Haiti’s main international airport. Reports from the scene said airport employees and others fled the scene amid whizzing bullets.

This capped several weeks in which gangs also exchanged fire with police and soldiers at or near state institutions, set police stations on fire and forced many businesses to close and people to stay inside.

"The secretary-general is deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs have intensified their attacks on critical infrastructure," said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, referring to António Guterres, the head of the international body.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday who controlled Haiti's international airport.

 

What's the recent backstory to Haiti's violence?

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country and armed gangs have filled a power void that followed President Jovenel Moïse's 2021 assassination. His killing was orchestrated by a group of foreign mercenaries, mostly Colombians and a few Haitian-Americans, according to charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

The gangs control about 80% of Port-au-Prince, according to U.N. estimates. Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people. They are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned. Haiti has no functioning Parliament. Sexual violence, kidnappings and murder have skyrocketed.

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After gangs opened fire at Haiti’s international airport in a separate assault last week, the U.S. Embassy said it was halting all travel to the country. On Sunday night, it urged all American citizens to depart as soon as possible.

The Biden administration has refused to commit troops to any multinational force for Haiti while offering money and logistical support. It said it was monitoring the rapidly deteriorating security situation with grave concern.

 

What about that plan to send Kenya's police force?

As the violence in Haiti has escalated over the last few years, so have protests against Henry's government, which many Haitians view as ineffective. Henry had pledged to step down by Feb. 7 and hold elections. He later said that he was not able to do this because of the deteriorating security situation.

When the latest bout of Haiti violence erupted, Henry was in Kenya, where he had traveled to try to help salvage a plan by the East African country to send around 1,000 policy officers to combat the gangs and stabilize the nation.

It was not clear if Henry has returned to Haiti since the weekend. An advisor to Haiti's prime minister did not immediately return a WhatsApp message asking for clarification on his whereabouts.

"With an already very thin grasp on power, Henry's silence speaks volumes," said Renata Segura, the deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group, a think tank, in an X post.

"All of us, the armed groups in the provincial towns and the armed groups in the capital, are united today," Chérizier, the former Haitian police officer, who views himself as a Robin Hood-type figure, said in a video posted on social media before the attacks began, according to media reports.

"The country is in a situation it can no longer cope with. The country is not run, there is no leader, the population is in famine, people can't go out because of the insecurity. The population is tired, it can't take it any more. The first objective of our fight is to ensure that Ariel Henry's government does not remain in power by any means."

Contributing: Associated Press

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