As the violence on Haiti’s streets attributable to “gangs” reaches unprecedented levels, The Haitian Times digs into four answers to the question so many Haitians ask — “How do we get rid of these gangs?”
This story is part of a special investigation into Haiti’s gang crisis and potential solutions. To view the full series visit our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look.
Along the side of the road in an area near Bel-Air called “Wireless,” five young men sit chatting under the afternoon sun, each holding an assault rifle. With no insignia or special affiliations, locals refer to such armed men simply as “Bel-Air bandits.”
Still, these men are the ones residents count on to defend Wireless from G9 Family & Allies, the notorious group led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Chèrizier, which has attacked the area several times. Often, the young men place large objects, once an abandoned shipping container, on Carrefour Peyan, the area’s thoroughfare, to block G9 from invading Bel-Air — again.
The assessment of this massacre is not yet final. The human rights organization, Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), continues to receive information relating to it.
“Acts affecting the life and physical and psychological integrity of citizens are already very heavy,” said RNDDH Executive Director Marie Rose Auguste Ducena.
Thus goes the gangsterization of Haiti, particularly Port-au-Prince. It’s what some experts are calling a “criminalized state.”
Any young man who wants to can be armed to protect his neighborhood from another.
Police are nowhere in sight when needed.
And residents know that, at any time, their home base can fall apart. Or that many of them might die.
That’s exactly what happened when G9 and the Bel-Air bandits suddenly clashed last spring, leaving at least 300 dead, stabbing another 20 and sexually assaulting more than 50 women, according to the RNDDH.
One young woman, who lives nearby, recalled the invasion.
“When the men from Barbecue’s armed gang first attacked on April 1st, we thought everyone was going to die in Bel-Air,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety.
That day, G9 gang members released tear gas on residents and set their homes on fire. Franck Moléon, an 81-year-old blind man, died in the flames inside his family’s home on Rue Monseigneur Guilloux, the woman said.
“Some fled areas of Bel-Air, Sans-Fil, Carrefour Peyan, with suitcases on their backs, their children in their arms, while others left the area without taking any belongings,” she said.
Although these attacks were not in the girl’s neighborhood, she, too, is ready to flee.
Residents can get killed at any time. For instance, Christelle Delva, a 17-year-old high school senior, was shot dead while she was shopping for school supplies with her mother in Brooklyn, Port-au-Prince, on Sept. 10. The following day, two journalists, Tayson Latigue and Frantzsen Charles were also shot dead in Brooklyn after reporting on the gang violence crisis in the area, according to Le Nouvelliste.
A necessary evil where lawlessness reigns
The rampant violence in neighborhoods like Wireless is only one part of the three-pronged roadblock keeping Haiti under the control of gangs, experts say. No stable government in Haiti and no jobs are the other two.
The three, together, make eradicating gangs from Haiti more complex, with no one approach unanimously supported.
Seeing the rise of gangs, experts and residents shared several potential solutions with The Haitian Times. The most popular drown out newer, less politically-based paths. Some are costly. Others are short-term and address immediacy as people clamor for help with increasing desperation. A few call for longer-term approaches. One demands involvement by governments of many countries. Another emanates within an individual’s thought process.
Most have been tried before, in Haiti or elsewhere.
For any solution to have effect, experts say, Haiti must contend simultaneously with the absence of a stable government and strong economy.
“Today we can say that society is the main victim,” Ducena said. Before, the problems of armed gangs were confined to the red zones. Today, it is almost the entire metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince and even the western department.”
The population must serve as human rights defenders as the police are not able to deal with this situation alone, according to Ducena.
“When a citizen witnesses an act of violence, he must denounce it and avoid remaining silent,” she said. “It could be a good start to make a difference.”
Not everyone sees now as the time to talk about solutions.
U.S. Congressman Andy Levin, founder of the House Haiti Caucus, said that despite his continued interest in new approaches to gangs, the political situation must be dealt with immediately to support an interim government with a plan to return to constitutional government. He imagined a conference, led by an interim government in Haiti, that would call for the best ideas and how to implement them.
“Talking as Americans about the solution to gang violence in Haiti is putting the cart before the horse because it’s not for us to impose solutions,” Levin said. “Now, it feels like a dry academic discussion to me because we don’t have an authority, a team that has any legitimacy that can be the center of driving any solution on the ground.”
No future, no functioning state limits options
However, with the Haitian state not functioning during the last few years, gangs hold outsized power.
“It is really the point at which gangs in Haiti became politicized, heavily armed and dangerous to the Haitian people,” said Athena Kolbe, long-time researcher of Haitian gangs at Barry University.
Gangs are now a threat — rather than a protector — to their community, she said. The sense of anarchy or insecurity is prevalent throughout the entire country.
“People need to have a sense that they have a future, and that if they work hard for something, they can achieve something,” Kolbe said. “And you don’t have that sense in Haiti anymore.”
Many Haitians no longer hold the belief that an education and hard work can lead to financial stability, noted Kolbe. A lot of young people in particular, she said, believe the only future is to engage in crime.
“If we look at the individuals who died — these are primarily young people who have no economic prospects for their future,” Kolbe said. “Many of them have not been able to finish high school for a variety of reasons; who had no other prospects for jobs or for stable housing or for a normal kind of transition to adulthood.”
Some look at Haiti’s economy as a driver of Haiti’s instability.
The State should support marginalized people in disadvantaged neighborhoods and reduce social inequalities in the country, said Clifford Andrieux, coordinator of the political organization Plateforme Kore Delma. Everyone must have the same chance to access schools, bank credit and basic necessities.
“Without reducing inequalities, it would be difficult to solve the insecurity problem,” Andrieux said.
This article was updated to include the killing of Christelle Delva, Tayson Latigue and Frantzsen Charles in September 2022.
Read more about about Haiti’s gangs in our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look