The news out of Haiti this summer sounded too cruel and outlandish to be true.
A 4-month-old infant was shot dead while in his mothers’ arms on a minibus. Another, an 8-month-old, was fatally struck by a stray bullet as her mother cleaned their home.
Some college students, anguished after their celebrated professor was gunned down, attempted to set a police vehicle on fire — while several officers were inside.
Police officers, in turn, threw tear gas at student protesters, killing an infant patient at a nearby hospital. Days later, a group of police officers set a government building on fire, then vowed to kill pregnant women and children.
Meanwhile — many residents, human rights experts, activists, politicians and journalists say — Haiti President Jovenel Moïse’s and members of his administration turn a blind eye, at best. At worst, they condone the violent acts and have become part of the problem.
“The insecurity we have in Haiti is organized by the government itself to build fear within the people,” said Pierre Espérance, director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH).
In his 24 years with RNDDH, Espérance said the last four under Moïse’s leadership have been one of the most chaotic periods for human rights violations. He counts nine massacres, including one in Bel Air from the past summer.
Further, to prevent the Haitian National Police (PNH) from intervening, the government does not provide sufficient equipment to them, Espérance said. PNH officials said on various occasions that their officers don’t have the proper gear to fight bandits last summer.
“They’d rather strengthen the gangs,” Espérance said. “They want the bandits to have control over the impoverished neighborhood so they can win the next elections.”
Brian Concannon, a U.S.-based human rights lawyer, said he hasn’t seen such a dangerous period in Haiti since 2005, the year after Jean-Bertand Aristide was overthrown in a coup d’état.
Part of it is because Moïse entered Haiti’s National Palace as an unwanted leader under a cloud of election fraud, has used intimidation and bribery to remain in the country’s most powerful seat, Concannon said.
“People are getting taught a lesson that not agreeing with the president and his gangs can cost you,” said Concannon, pointing to human rights reports detailing the government’s involvement.
Moïse, coming into power as he did, said on the contrary, his life is the one in danger.
“They’ve been killing presidents since 1806,” Moïse said in a July speech. “Today, I tell you people, you put me in power but I went through a lot because of that power you gave me. I can’t explain the tribulations I went through.”
Among other factors, observers said, the departure of United Nations troops from Haiti in 2017 possibly made it easier for bandits to operate and has contributed to the prolonged violence. Also, the U.S. has not been able to intervene as it has in the past.
“President [Donald] Trump hasn’t really done much in general in foreign affairs, that’s not his main interest,” Concannon said. “And there’s a lot going on with the elections, the coronavirus and so many other issues. That makes it harder for the U.S. to do much.”
Click the arrows in the above timeline to view notable crimes and violent altercations in recent months. Timeline by Onz Chery
Police go AWOL, gangs take over
Moïse and his crew make deals with gangs to murder residents in areas that don’t support the government, several observers and humans rights advocates said. If a gang refuses, Moïse sics another gang on them. When violence ensues, the government fails to punish the gang members and makes no attempt to stop the attacks.
Among the instances listed as evidence are the events leading up to a November 2018 massacre in La Saline that left at least 70 people dead and scores injured or missing. According to the RNDDH report, Moïse administration officials said they would fund a school and health center on the condition that the community curbs anti-government activity and protests through that area. Another report by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti went further, saying that First Lady Martine Moïse offered cash to community members in the days before the killing, unsuccessfully.
One such enforcement crew, widely known by media and residents, is the G9 Family and Allies gang, led by a former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier and Iscard Andrice.
Cité Soleil residents say G9 members got into a skirmish with another gang. Police officers stationed in that neighborhood had long abandoned their posts because they didn’t have the weapons to combat the gangs, an anonymous officer has said.
In the gunbattle, bullets from an automatic rifle riddled the home where 8-month-old Meridina Fleurimont lived with her family. One bullet entered through the girl’s right ear, blew off her tongue and shattered her cheek.
Fleurimont’s mother Lenèse Léo blamed the government and gangs for killing her baby.
“I say thank you to Iscar, G9 and Jovenel Moïse,” Léo told Le Nouvelliste. “We’re under siege.”
Three weeks later in August, “400 Mawozo” gang members invaded Ganthier, a Port-au-Prince exurb. Godson Joseph was in her mother’s arms inside a minibus when bullets began flying. One struck and killed the 4-month-old.
Some known gang members accuse the government of being behind many of the attacks.
Cherizier, who denied planning the Bel Air Massacre, said in a Vibrasyon Lakay interview that government officials had asked bandits —some of whom are police officers — to carry out the massacre and provided the guns. Cherizier has also said politicians had offered him money and guns to organize massacres, but that he refused.
Meanwhile, the police force complained time and time again about not having weapons to battle the gang members. In June, the Haitian National Police (PNH) received $17 million from the Inter-American Development Bank. In August, Canada promised to give PNH $9.3 million.
As of late August, the Haitian government had spent $134,151 on armored vehicles. Government officials have not said how they plan to use the rest of the money.
Police representatives have not returned calls and messages seeking comment for this article.
High-profile killing triggers more unrest and mourning
Later in August, Haiti experienced one of its most high-profile murders this side of the millennium. That of Monferrier Dorval, the head of the Port-au-Prince bar and law professor at the University of Haiti (UEH).
During an interview on Radio Magik9 Aug. 28, Dorval said Haiti’s constitution needs changes. Later that evening, at about 10 p.m., bandits overtook the 64-year-old in the driveway of his home in the upscale Pélerin 5 neighborhood near the National Palace. They shot him eight times at close range and ransacked his car.
Scores of Haitian residents presumed that Moïse planned Dorval’s murder, as shown by social media reactions to the killing. More measured observers have said several high-profile activities prior to the killing raised suspicion.
Dorval, along with other judicial authorities, had signed a statement denouncing over two dozen presidential decrees under Moïse’s leadership. In the radio interview, Dorval called for a new constitution and for the government to stop governing through decrees, saying, “The country belongs to us, not to a president.”
“The government is dysfunctional and that is why we are suffering,” the outspoken attorney said.“We must change the government and we must do this via the constitution.”
In addition, Dorval was one of several attorneys representing SOGENER, an electrical company that Moïse accused of pocketing the government’s money instead of providing electricity to the country. On the day of the killing, a SOGENER executive was released from jail in Miami.
After the killing, Moïse condemned it and declared three days of mourning for Dorval, a popular figure who had influenced legal minds across the entire country for decades. The police arrested four other suspects.
Two days after Dorval’s death, G9 gang members murdered at least 12 people and set on fire numerous houses in Bel Air. They visited the commune at least three more times, killing over eight people.
Sherline, who declined to give her last name, was eating when she saw a bullet roll onto the floor of her house in Bel Air. She rushed outside with her two children, a 17-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, who were both screaming.
The family has since been sleeping at Champ-de-Mars Park along with scores of other residents left homeless in the attack. Other families sleep at Celtic Park.
One of G9’s leaders, Cherizier, was accused of organizing that attack.
In a statement that took many aback, Haiti’s Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe said police didn’t come to the rescue of the Bel Air residents because doing so would have made things worse.
The attitude leaves people like Sherline feeling downright dejected.
“We have a president, but it’s like we don’t have a president. Bandits are the president now, they’re destroying the country,” Sherline said. “It’s a lot of pain. We’re suffering.”
Between the Dorval murder and the spate of mass killings, calls for justice rang out from a cross-section of groups.
Taking it to the streets
Dorval was a law professor at UEH for 27 years. Dedicated, patriotic and fearless, the constitutional scholar was a role model to many of the law students. When news of his killing spread, Dorval’s students were left inconsolable.
Peterson Cledanor, a senior, stayed glued to his laptop when news of the murder broke, trying to distract himself by doing research on biodiversity to avoid having a nervous breakdown.
“Dorval was a living example of conviction, integrity and seriousness,” Cledanor, 24, said. “His death was one of the hardest hits I ever took in my life.”
The morning after the killing, the law students gathered outside the university. Some were in tears, others didn’t want to pursue law anymore. But after comforting each other, they started protests against insecurity around the country, calling “La Vi Tout Moun Konte,” Creole for All Lives Count.
The students attempted to have a procession from the school to Dorval’s home on several occasions. Each time, they met with police who threw tear gas at them and fired bullets to disperse them.
Cledanor said the students never retaliated.
However, in media footage of one protest, a group of young men who identified themselves as students brought the recent massacres into the students’ march. The men attempted to set an armored police vehicle on fire. Three police officers were locked inside until another police car came to the rescue.
“Us students, we say it’s too much,” a young man told Voice of America Kreyòl in the video. “Too many people are dying in the country. [Just like] they killed the people in Bel Air and La Saline, they’re going to have to kill us today.”
Later that day, police filled the streets near UEH with so much tear gas that students at a nearby all-girls high school, Lycée Marie Jeanne, inhaled the vapors and were left in excruciating pain.
A baby, who was being treated at the UEH Hospital also nearby, died from the tear gas attack.
Three days later, a UEH student protest turned into a full-on clash with police. During that altercation, police injured several students, including Kyglenson “‘Ibolele”’ Hérard.
They ran into him with their car, beat him, drove around with him, then dumped him in a random street, Hérard said.
“I thought they were going to kill me after they dropped me in the streets,” Hérard said. “I just stood there for a couple of seconds. But then they left. I was relieved.”
The Haitian Times reached out to PNH for comment via text messages and phone calls, but received no response.
Later on Oct. 2, Grégory Saint-Hilaire, another student protester was fatally shot in the back during a protest at Superior Normal School (ENS). Fellow students who witnessed the crime accused a National Palace security guard.
The following day, ENS’ library was burned down. The students accused National Palace security guards again.
The National Palace didn’t answer phone calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, civil servants have taken to the streets as well to demand better pay and back wages. Clerks, judges and state teachers across the country have been among them.
During one protest in Jacmel, high school students started their own protest to ask that their teachers report to class. Five police officers were caught on camera beating Johanis Doris, whom they said was resisting arrest. In another video that went viral, students ran away from a police officer who was striking them with his gun.
Fantom 509, a group of masked police officers, also started their own protest to demand that their colleague, Jean-Pascal Alexandre, be released from jail. For weeks, they set government buildings and police vehicles on fire and blockaded the streets. Alexandre was later released on Sept. 26.
Looking ahead to 2021
Police having the freedom to conduct such dangerous criminal activities and get away with is yet another example of poor government, the human rights observers said. With Moïse installing a new CEP council to hold elections in 2021, prompting more protests already this fall, the observers are worried about the near future.
Elections could turn into yet another war between the police and protesters. Or more massacres.
“2021 will be very chaotic,” Esperance predicted.
Editor’s Note [Thursday, Oct. 8, 2:30 p.m.]: This article has been updated from the original version to include additional information about the Moïse administration’s alleged involvement in violent events.