“They have neither fear nor pity”: the gang regime invades the Haitian capital | Haiti
Jean Michel thought his neighborhood north of Port-au-Prince, far from the capital’s infamous slums, would protect his family from the violence that is overwhelming the Haitian capital.
But in May, young men began arriving in town on motorbikes, armed with assault rifles. In June, they took control of the region. And by July, the bandits had become the de facto authority, abducting children to join their ranks and raping any women they pleased.
“They take what they want now,” said the construction worker, who fled his home with his wife and two boys once the gangs took over. “They are not afraid and they have no mercy.”
Violence, natural disasters and political instability have plagued Haiti for decades, but in recent months the country has descended even deeper into socio-economic and political chaos as armed gangs have escalated their wars of territory.
Cité Soleil, a lawless haven for many of the capital’s gangs, has been a hot spot. Within 10 days between July 8 and July 17 says the UN 209 people were killed there as rival factions G9 and G-Pèp battled for control of the sprawling slum with machine guns and machetes.
Today, the violence is spreading through the capital, reaching formerly peaceful provinces and displacing thousands of families.
“I know it’s Haiti and I’ve heard about security issues elsewhere in places like Cité Soleil. But my neighborhood was peaceful. I never thought I would ever be kicked out of my house by the gangs,” said Michel, who asked not to use his real name for fear of reprisals.
With state forces outnumbered and overpowered, the gangs entered the administrative center of the capital. Deadly street skirmishes broke out streets of the presidential palace.
As much as 200 heavily armed The factions are believed to be dividing up the capital, leaving many areas that were relatively safe now engulfed in street warfare.
Human rights atrocities are becoming not only more frequent but more brutal as gangs become more ruthless in their efforts to expand their territory, say UN observers in Port-au-Prince.
Most of those killed are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted by bandits.
Women and children as young as one year old have been killed and their bodies burned in the recent wave of violence, a UN report found last month.
Teenagers accused of spying for rival gangs were shot in public executions and young women and girls were raped as a form of war.
Thousands of families like Michel’s are now living away from home or sheltering in makeshift camps set up by NGOs such as Mercy Corps.
“My sons are 8 and 12 years old. My biggest fear was that they would be recruited by the gangs,” he said.
The 5 Seconds gang – which took over the country’s Supreme Court in June – is increasingly training minors in the use of military-grade weapons, observers report.
The spreading violence in Port-au-Prince is exacerbating an already desperate humanitarian crisis, says Annalisa Constanzo, who was sent to the city by the AVSI Foundation to manage food and medical aid programs.
An estimated 1 million people in the capital are to be hungry due to the fallout from the conflict and basic health care is often unavailable.
Violent protests have erupted in recent weeks as soaring food prices and gas shortages have added to the misery of growing insecurity.
“Haitians don’t have much,” Constanzo says. “But now what little they have they are losing.”
Videos appear to show state forces clashing with gangs in pitched street battles but with the reconstituted national forces numbering around 500 soldiers, they are vastly outnumbered.
And most skirmishes are drama, said Nicole Phillips, legal director at Haitian Bridge, which provides support to refugees fleeing the Caribbean country.
Paramilitary groups arose when the Haitian army disbanded in 1995 and grew in power as governments lost control of the country.
Haiti has not held presidential elections since November 2016. The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 added to the country’s woes, sparking an outbreak of violence.
As the government has weakened, its reliance on gangs to maintain order has grown, Philips said. What appears to be state resistance is often a spectacle intended to mask the fact that many gangs are collaborating with the government.
“All skirmishes are symbolic. The reason gangs are allowed to proliferate is because the elections are coming up,” she said.
While some gangs get rich from arms and drug trafficking or kidnappings, others like the G9 are used to wield political power.
In areas such as Cité Soleil, gangs are said to withhold food and water in order to subjugate the local population.
If the ongoing protests escalate, the government could also turn to the gangs to violently suppress the unrest, as it is the only option left to them.
“I’m not even mad at the gangs,” said Michel, who is unable to find work and relies on Mercy Corps donations to support his family. “I am angry with the state. They did not take their responsibilities. Now we are in the hands of God.