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Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier: The former cop-turned-gang leader bringing Haiti to its knees

US embassy says it is halting all official travel to the country and urges American citizens to leave

Evens Sanon
and Pierre-Richard Luxama
,Shweta Sharma
Saturday 16 March 2024 21:23 GMT
Will Haiti's 'fractious divided political spectrum' unite before 'gangs extend power even further'?

Haiti’s prime minister Ariel Henry said he was resigning amid mounting international pressure following gang violence that has pushed the capital to the brink of civil war.

Mr Henry faced calls to resign from Haitian gang leaders who have taken control of capital Port-au-Prince, keeping the prime minister stranded outside the country.

Heavily armed gangs have tried to seize control of Haiti’s main international airport, exchanging gunfire with police and soldiers in the latest attack on key government sites.

Former police officer Jimmy 'Barbecue’ Cherizier, leader of the ‘G9’ coalition, greets a boy while giving a press tour of the La Saline shanty area of Port-au-Prince, (REUTERS)

An explosion of violence has taken place in the country, including a mass escape from the country’s prisons.

Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, a former elite police officer who now runs a gang federation, has claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks.

The Toussaint Louverture International Airport was closed when the attack occurred, with no planes operating and no passengers on site. It is the biggest attack on the airport in Haiti’s history.

A breakthrough has come with Mr Henry’s resignation after the Caribbean Community regional bloc, Caricom, held urgent meeting of Caribbean leaders late on Monday in Jamaica. It was also attended by officials including US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

“The government that I’m running cannot remain insensitive in front of this situation. There is no sacrifice that is too big for our country,” Mr Henry said in a video statement. “The government I’m running will remove itself immediately after the installation of the council.”

Last week, the airport was struck briefly by bullets amid ongoing gang attacks, but gangs did not enter the airport nor seize control of it.

A police officer runs during an anti-gang operation at the Portail neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Gangs already were estimated to control up to 80 per cent of the capital Port-au-Prince. They are increasingly co-ordinating their actions and choosing once unthinkable targets such as the Central Bank.

Mr Henry has remained stranded in Puerto Rico after he travelled abroad last week to try to salvage support for a United Nations-backed security force to help stabilise Haiti in its conflict with the increasingly powerful crime groups.

Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people, according to the UN. They are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned.

A demonstrator holds up a Haitian flag during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government (REUTERS)

Gunfire was reported in several neighbourhoods in the capital. Internet service for many residents was down as Haiti’s top mobile network said a cable connection was slashed during the rampage.

After gangs opened fire at Haiti’s international airport last week, the US embassy said it was halting all official travel to the country. On Sunday night, it urged all American citizens to depart as soon as possible.

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

An inmate waves at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, March 3, 2024 (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Why is there violence in Haiti?

Some of Haiti’s most powerful gang leaders say their goal is bringing down Henry.

The country has failed to hold parliamentary and general elections in recent years and there are no elected officials. Henry was sworn in as prime minister with the backing of the international community after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The latest round of attacks began in February after Henry pledged to hold long-awaited general elections by mid-2025.

The surge in attacks follows violent protests that turned deadlier in recent days as the prime minister went to Kenya seeking to move ahead on the proposed UN-backed security mission to be led by that East African country.

Mr Cherizier said the goal is to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Mr Henry’s return.

He has threatened to go after hotel owners hiding politicians or collaborating with Mr Henry. He demanded the country’s next leader be chosen by the people and live in Haiti, alongside their families.

“If (Henry) continues down this path, he will plunge Haiti into chaos,” Mr Cherizier said. “We’re not in a peaceful revolution. We are making a bloody revolution in the country because this system is an apartheid system, a wicked system.”

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, has shrugged off calls for him to resign and did not comment when asked if he felt it was safe to come home.

A map of Port-au-Prince in Haiti

Henry’s whereabouts were not public Monday. When asked in Kenya if it was safe for him to return to Haiti, Henry shrugged.

Who is responsible for the violence?

Mr Cherizier announced as gunmen began to attack infrastructure that he would try and capture the country’s police chief and government ministers.

Four police officers were killed when their stations came under siege.

Mr Cherizier said last summer that he would fight any international armed force if they committed abuses, and he urged Haitians to mobilize against the government.

Former police officer Jimmy 'Barbecue’ Cherizier, leader of the ‘G9’ coalition, greets a boy while giving a press tour of the La Saline shanty area of Port-au-Prince, (REUTERS)

Other gang leaders also appear to be involved in recent attacks.

Johnson Andrï best known as “Izo” and leader of the 5 Seconds gang, appears in a video posted on TikTok wielding a heavy mallet in his right hand as he pretends to punch his face with his left hand.

Mr Andrï’s gang is considered an ally of G-Pep, archenemy of Mr Cherizier’s gang federation, but alliances have been shifting in recent days.

A report released last month by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime found that “for the gangs, the development of alliances is a fluid phenomenon”.

It also noted how “only the most powerful gangs – such as Izo’s or Chïrizier’s – are usually able to operate or profiteer outside their fiefdoms”.

Residents transport mattresses on a motorcycle in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, March 4 (AP)

Mr Cherizier is leader of a gang federation known as G9 Family and Allies, and he has previously launched powerful attacks that have crippled the country. In late 2022, he seized control of an area surrounding a key fuel terminal in the capital of Port-au-Prince for almost two months.

Why have the gangs become so powerful?

An estimated 200 gangs exist in Haiti, with 23 main ones believed to be operating in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince.

Up until recent years, they controlled some 60 per cent of the capital, a number that has since grown to 80 per cent, according to UN officials.

Smuggled firearms and ransom payments to kidnappers have allowed gangs to become more financially independent. That has increased their power as the state has weakened, and an underfunded and under-resourced police department has been unable to contain them.

“Present-day gangs enjoy a much higher degree of military capacity than those a decade ago,” according to the Global Initiative report. “This has largely been driven by the gangs’ ability to acquire high-caliber weapons.”

A 2023 UN report stated that recovered weapons destined for Haitian ports include “.50 caliber sniper rifles, .308 rifles, and even belt-fed machine guns.”

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