‘All the institutions are collapsing. Haiti is a dying country’

Violence, criminal gangs and a failed government have plunged the Caribbean nation into chaos

Haitian women walk near Lake Azuei, near the border with the Dominican Republic.RAMON ESPINOSA (AP)
Pablo Ferri

The larvae crawled in and out of his wound. Blood, pus, maggots and hopelessness infested the rotting flesh of 21-year-old James Fennis, who lay helpless in a hospital bed. “The doctor stuck his hand in and pulled them out,” said his mother, Cecilian Solomon. “There were still doctors then, but we had to buy the medications, and I didn’t have 5,000 gourdes [$30].”

That was last November. The medical center where James still lies – the University Hospital of Haiti – is in what was the nicest part of Port-au-Prince, two blocks from the National Palace. Then, in late December, the doctors went on strike. They only asked for a little more pay and better working conditions.

Police at the police academy in the capital city guard the coffins of three colleagues who died in the line of duty.Odelyn Joseph (AP)

The doctors are still on strike, and James, admitted last August, still languishes in his hospital bed. His room is dark because the electricity was cut off. The hospital, like the doctors, has been forgotten. To try and keep the maggots at bay, James’s mother cleans his injury with chlorine tablets that she grinds into powder and rubs into the wound. The last time she got him out of bed was on Christmas Eve when a Christian group came and helped wash him. Other than that, James never gets up.

James was shot, says Cecilian. She speaks for her son because he doesn’t have the strength. He was walking down one of the streets that run from the surrounding hills to the downtown area when a bullet pierced his lower back. “It shattered his spine and kidneys,” says Cecilian. There is little else to say – just a stray bullet, a random event. These days, anything can happen in the capital of a country that is falling apart.

Haiti is struggling to survive. EL PAÍS interviewed doctors, human rights activists, international organizations and victims of the violence plaguing Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. No one can remember a worse time than the last six months, not even after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. “The situation keeps getting worse and worse,” says Benoit Vasseur, the local head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which runs one of the largest networks of clinics and hospitals in Port-au-Prince. “All the institutions are collapsing. The education system, the justice system – it’s a dying country.”

Dozens of criminal gangs control much of the capital and the surrounding area, home to a quarter of the country’s 12 million people. The police force of 10,000 seems powerless to control them.

A masked and armed gang member in the Portail Leogane neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.Rodrigo Abd (AP)

In December 2022, the United Nations reported that gangs control 60% of Port-au-Prince. In other words, the city is in a de facto state of war. The evidence is everywhere. The country’s principal court of justice is a few blocks from the university hospital and the National Palace. Weeds have swarmed over the building, an unfinished monument to the independence bicentennial commissioned by former President Jean Bertrand Aristide. From below, it looks like the ruins of an abandoned cemetery. A hundred meters to the east is where the gangs hang out in the rubble of the cathedral destroyed in the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.

No one is allowed to approach gang territory without their permission. Various criminal groups control all the roads in and out of Port-au-Prince and have turned the city into a bunker. It’s rare to get permission from anyone except Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, one of the most famous gang leaders. Cherizier is a former policeman who likes to take journalists on tours of the shantytowns on the coast of Port-au-Prince. Usually, he takes them to Cité Soleil and talks about how he’s not a murderer, just a local leader who wants to end corruption.

The tense, war-like environment becomes more noticeable in the densely populated areas leading down from the National Palace to the ruined cathedral, the entryway to the embattled Bel-Air neighborhood. There’s no one to be seen near the old church or the surrounding streets – just barricades of garbage, old tires and concrete blocks erected by the gangs. There are other gang bosses besides Barbecue, who people say got his nickname from his mother, a barbecue chicken street vendor: Vitelhomme, Gabriel Jean Pierre, Izo, Ti Makak and more.

Police patrol the streets of Port-au-PrinceOdelyn Joseph (AP)

The gangs of Port-au-Prince

What matters most to the gangs is their firepower, as daunting as ever, and their business interests – mostly extortion and kidnapping these days. According to local NGOs that try to collect data on behalf of an absent government, there have been hundreds of kidnappings in the last two years. Sometimes it’s foreigners that get kidnapped for ransom, like the group of North American missionaries captured in late 2022, but mostly it is locals.

Located in the historic but tattered neighborhood of Pacot, the Hotel Oloffson is an apt symbol of the deterioration of Port-au-Prince. One of the jewels of Haitian gingerbread architecture, the hotel now looks like the sad shell of a ship adrift. For decades it was the favorite haunt of local bohemians and home to RAM, the voodoo rock band led by Haitian-American Richard Morse. RAM regularly played there, attracting droves of party-goers who came to dance and drink the night away.

The Hotel Oloffson now languishes in lonely silence. Nightlife is practically non-existent in the capital, especially in a neighborhood close to where the gangs fight daily for turf, transit routes and possibly even votes. Two mountains of garbage stand in front of the hotel, stark proof of the city’s decay. Plumes of smoke and ash rise from trash burning in a dry riverbed nearby.

“I started playing in the Oloffson in 1988″, says Morse, who recently moved his family and band to New Orleans. “I rented it because it was a good opportunity. We played our first show there on Christmas Eve 1990 and kept going until 2022.″ But at the end of last year, the situation became untenable. “We had seven events canceled around the country in September and October,” he said. “We left in October.”

Protestors swarm the streets of the Villa Petion area in Port-au-Prince.Odelyn Joseph (AP)

Haiti’s latest cycle of disaster started last September, when interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has been running the country since Moïse’s assassination, raised fuel prices by more than double. Long subsidized by Venezuela, Henry’s price hike triggered a wave of protests that literally paralyzed the country.

Blocked by barricaded streets, water, food and fuel deliveries ground to a halt. Barbecue and his federation of gangs, known as the G9 Family and Allies, seized the port terminal where imported fuel is stored. Then, MSF detected a new cholera outbreak in late September, years after the last case was seen.

Open warfare between gangs raged all over the city – it was chaos. On October 5, Henry asked for international help in controlling the violence and the cholera outbreak. Nine days later, the United Nations issued an alert about the “catastrophic” famine affecting nearly five million people throughout the country.

Aerial view of the Jalousie neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. HECTOR RETAMAL (AFP)

In January, 14 policemen were murdered in the span of three weeks, unnerving a police force incapable of dealing with all the crime. A violent protest by current and former police officers paralyzed the area near the airport, forcing Henry to hole up in the terminal for hours after arriving from a trip to Argentina. Local media reported gunfire next to his home.

The situation has not improved. People take to the streets daily to sell what they have to survive, finding new ways to avoid the gangs. The severely crippled Henry government, rejected by much of the country, and constant crises make thinking about the future fruitless. Haiti is a shipwrecked country inhabited by desperate survivors forced to live one day at a time.

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