Nicolas Joseph’s home in Plaine du Cul-de-Sac was supposed to be in a safe area, a place to escape the hotbed of shootings and kidnappings associated with Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. But on a Thursday in May, gunshots rang out across his neighborhood.
“Bo, bo, bo. It sounds like it’s 10 meters away from you,” said Joseph, 30, a social work student. “I’m not just hearing about it in the news anymore, it’s not around me anymore — it’s in my home.”
The shooting turned out to be part of a raging gang battle, a facet of daily life that reminds all Haitians — in Port-au-Prince and the provinces, outside of it across the diaspora — that the country is out of control. For Joseph, the rampant violence is scary and an enormous disappointment.
“I thought things would’ve gotten better,” he said. “I thought after a president got assassinated like that there would’ve been a desire to give him justice and then people who died before him would’ve gotten justice too.”
Haiti was already a weak state under President Jovenel Moïse, with a severe ongoing violence crisis in Port-au-Prince. After his assassination on July 7, 2021, the country reached a point of deterioration that residents and experts alike strongly worry will shatter what’s left of the nation, the world’s First Black Republic, like never before.
In the past year, existing crises have been exacerbated and new ones emerged. Under Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Haiti’s government has been unable to provide its citizens with basic services and carry out form functions. Hospitals and school days, police stations, courts to hold trials, factories and office buildings — so many have been destroyed or left damaged at best.
An ongoing gas shortage grew worse, with armed gangs preventing distribution at times. Health workers went on strike in April 2021 for salary adjustments and more materials. The response to the Aug. 14 earthquake, which left 2,248 dead, was poor, leaving many in the south of the country homeless. And Henry has yet to hold elections, keeping the country captive in a political vacuum.
“People always say we hit rock bottom, but this time we’re way beneath the bottom,” said Chantal Elie, a political analyst of 20 years based in Port-au-Prince. “The country deteriorated to a level that I would’ve never expected, politically, socially, economically, in having values, everything.”
A former liaison officer of the Prime Minister’s Office under Presidents René Préval and Boniface Alexandre, Elie often finds herself reeling at life in Haiti.
“Haiti is a state that has failed completely,” she added.
No safe havens as gun violence skyrockets
The day that Moïse was brutally tortured and murdered and his wife Martine left for dead inside their bedroom is the day gang violence exploded around the capital, many residents say. That day, gunshots rang out in Martissant, the notorious neighborhood in Port-au-Prince that serves as a gateway to the country’s southern region. Even though gangs had traded gunfire before, after Moïse’s killing, gunshots became a part of daily life.
“After Jovenel died things fell apart completely,” said Sherley Louis of Fontamara, an area near Martissant. “You might wake up to gunshots, then after 30 to 40 minutes, you hear another round of gunshots.”
It has gotten so bad that some residents of Port-au-Prince sleep in their daytime attire, complete with shoes on, in case they have to flee at night. Sometimes, residents hear bullets strike objects just outside their homes or see casings in their front yards. Feeling it is safer, some have resorted to sleeping on the floor, residents said.
Daphne Gabriel, a neighbor of Louis’, was not in the habit of sleeping on the floor. One night last November, at around 1 a.m., Gabriel was getting out of bed to use the bathroom when a bullet shot through her window, striking her in the neck. She died on the spot.
“I saw her [Gabriel] the night before and told her ‘See you tomorrow,’” Louis said. “After Jovenel died, things got completely out of hand. There are so many more gunshots now that we’re losing more people in the area.”
Rising crime renders people, with homes, into wanderers
Following Moïse’s assassination, many residents of the capital have joined the ranks of the estimated 20,000 displaced Haitians from October 2021. The people who sleep inside stadiums and gyms, the parks and relatives because their homes have become too dangerous to inhabit.
More than 4,000 people fled Martissant during a gang battle in June 2021 before the assassination, government officials said. But after the assassination in May, the number of people who left their homes during one exodus grew to 9,000, as residents fled from Tabarre, Croix-des-Bouquets, Cité Soleil, La Plaine and other areas. At least 75 people were killed, including women and children, and 68 others were injured, according to the United Nations.
Kidnappings are also on the rise. In the first three months of 2022, 225 people were held hostage, compared to 142 people for the same period in 2021, according to the Center of Analysis and Research of Human Rights (CARDH).
The UN, which was tasked to help restore order in Haiti, has yet to answer The Haitian Times’ interview request.
Speculation and theories over the gangs
Gang violence has escalated because politicians are fighting among themselves to succeed Moïse, some often claim, though without evidence.
“[Moïse] died, so now other people looking to replace [Moïse] are fighting for territories, for power,” Elie said. “They’re the ones making people’s lives difficult and unsustainable.”
Since gangs took control of Martissant just one month before the assassination, Elie believes he politicians “most likely planned” the takeover because they knew Moïse was going to die. Moïse’s killer is possibly among the politicians fighting for territories, in Elie’s mind.
Likewise, the politicians possibly chose to take over Martissant because it has a large population. As of 2015, Martissant, an area of 2.16 square miles, had 293,041 residents, accounting for 29% of Port-au-Prince’s population, according to the Haitian Institute of Statistics and Informatics (IHSI).
“These are electoral areas,” Louis said about Martissant and surrounding areas. “We hear everybody saying that these politicians gave them guns. And the people are the victims.”
Some of the gangs who’ve been fighting since the assassination are Chen Mechan, or Mad Dog, 400 Mawozo, a crew in Grand Ravine and the G9 Family and Allies. Chen Mechan is an affiliate of G9, according to local reports.
Justice system disintegrates, while gangs organize
Even though there are many, the gangs have been more communicative and responsive to Haitians across the country and abroad than the formal government has been. And they appear to be under some sort of leadership structure.
When asked for an interview recently, for example, G9 leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier said via a WhatsApp message, “At this moment all of G9 asked me to remain silent, to speak I need their authorization. [sic]”
Cherizier did not answer follow-up messages asking if he received authorization or not.
Although it has long been rumored that politicians use gangs to gain control of neighborhoods to further their political ambitions, some residents disagree with that theory.
“I don’t see it like that,” Joseph, the social work student said. “There might be some elements of that hidden in it but it might not be 100% true.”
To add to the gang wars, Five Seconds, a gang in Village-de-Dieu, invaded Port-au-Prince’s Palace of Justice in mid-June, weakening the country’s justice system even more during the investigation into the assassination. At the time of this article, the Five Seconds gang was still occupying the courthouse.
The courthouse was previously vandalized more than twice following the assassination. Additionally, officials who worked on the case, including Justice of Peace Carl Henry Destin and clerks Marcelin Valentin and Waky Philostène, said they received death threats, according to the New York Times. Similarly, Merlan Belabre, an investigative judge who presided over the case, said he was worried about the safety of his family, according to Alter Presse.
Five different judges have ruled over the investigation in the past year, with Walther Wesser Voltaire being the latest after he was designated in May. Under the five judges’ watch, 48 suspects were arrested, however experts said the case is blocked.
As human rights expert Samuel Madistin watches the gang violence rise and the justice system fall apart, he offers one solution.
“We need to change the government of the country,” said Madistin, president of the Fondasyon Je Klere human rights group. “We need competent men and women to lead the country. Henry isn’t doing anything.”
Others contend that Haiti has fallen so deep into chaos that a new government will not be able to solve its problems. Louis urges the gangs to come to a consensus instead.
“The gangs, who proved that they’re the force within the country, need to have a dialogue with the state,” Louis said. “If not, we will never get out of what we’re in.”