Haiti inches towards disaster while awaiting international help

Pressure is mounting as many Haitians demand the departure of the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who recently announced elections for August 2025

Crisis Haiti
A demonstrator holds a Haitian flag during a protest in Port-au-Prince, on March 1, 2024.Odelyn Joseph (AP)
Pablo Ferri

On February 29, Alan was driving his vehicle along Route Delmas, in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. This is one of the main roads between the upper and lower parts of the city. He had gone to the airport to drop off a client and was returning to his area of operations, near Petionville, in the upper part of the city — a neighborhood filled with embassies and banks. “There, through Delmas,” he explains by phone from the Haitian capital, “I began to see that the situation was getting complicated. I saw bodies lying on the ground and everything.” It was the beginning of the latest wave of violence in Haiti, which still hasn’t ended.

Since the end of February, criminal gangs have indiscriminately attacked any trace of the state in Port-au-Prince, with special attention being paid to the National Police stations (the bandits have attacked at least nine). Other targets in the capital have included the National Police Academy, the prisons (more than 3,500 inmates have escaped), the Sylvio Cator Stadium, as well as the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, which closed and hasn’t reopened.

On Friday night, a group of gang members shot at the doors of the National Palace and tried to set fire to the Ministry of the Interior, where agents finally managed to contain the revolt.

Political sources familiar with the situation indicate that the criminal groups have two principal reasons behind their actions. The first is to reject the announcement by Prime Minister Ariel Henry — who has led the country since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 — that he will call elections in August 2025, a date that many in Haiti consider too far away. The second reason is to reject the visit that Henry made to Kenya last week, to negotiate a police support mission under the U.N. umbrella. The criminal gangs — who dominate a good part of the capital — are opposed to this plan and have made their opinion clear.

Police patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, on Friday, March 8, 2024.
Police patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, on Friday, March 8, 2024. RALPH TEDY EROL (Reuters)

Videos of extreme cruelty have circulated on social media, where groups of armed boys — the de-facto power in the city — brutalize the corpses of murdered police officers, or stalk agents with drones as they try to contain the onslaught. At the same time, high-profile crime bosses — such as former police officer Jimmy Cherizier, alias “Barbecue” — give unhinged press conferences, in which they present themselves as social leaders, willing to do anything to see the government fall.

A worker in the private security industry, Alan (not his real name) spent the afternoon of February 29 taking people to their houses. “Through the WhatsApp groups, we already saw that everything was very hot. My team and I were moving our clients to their homes. There were 15 in total. Then, everyone went their own way and we waited for all this to stop. The police have no capacity,” he laments. “Everyone is afraid: they’re waiting for help to arrive from abroad. It’s the only possibility.”

Possible foreign assistance is the talk these days in Haiti. For months, the U.N. has been trying to finalize the deployment of a police support mission to the country, which, with 11 million inhabitants, has fewer than 10,000 police officers. The government of Kenya had offered to lead the operation and has pledged to send at least 1,000 agents. Other nations — such as Spain — have also offered human and material support, all under the financial umbrella of the United States, which has promised a logistical investment of $200 million.

The dozens of criminal gangs operating in Port-au-Prince — with constantly changing leadership and alliances — are uncomfortable with the arrival of an international mission. Born in the heat of political fights, their dynamics have changed in recent years. During the first two decades of the century, they functioned as shock troops at the service of the elites, within a political context always linked to electoral cycles. But Haiti hasn’t held elections since 2016 and the gangs began to look for resources elsewhere. Since then, extortion and kidnapping have become their main activities.

Protestors demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, March 7, 2024.
Protestors demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, March 7, 2024. Johnson Sabin (EFE)

Romain Le Cour — a researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, a civil organization based in Switzerland — points out that “the kidnapping industry operates on an industrial scale in Haiti.” Le Cour — who left Port-au-Prince this past week on one of the last flights that took off from the airport — recalls the case of a victim he recently interviewed. “He told me that he was in a safe house, with 70 other kidnapped people. He said they could keep you there for a month or a month-and-a-half. Do you see the logistics required [for such an operation]? In Port-au-Prince, everyone knows someone who’s been kidnapped. And, if not, it’s only a matter of time,” he adds.

A cornered prime minister

The figure of Ariel Henry embodies much of the chaos in Haiti. The acting prime minister hasn’t even been able to come back to the country. His return flight from Kenya landed in Puerto Rico, where he’s awaiting a solution to the crisis. A source who knows the political situation in the capital points out that criminal groups are targeting the airport precisely because of him. They don’t want the airlines to operate again so as to prevent Henry’s return, thus forcing his resignation.

Puerto Rican police officers stand guard at entrance to the hotel where Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry is staying, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 8, 2024.
Puerto Rican police officers stand guard at entrance to the hotel where Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry is staying, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 8, 2024.Ricardo Arduengo (REUTERS)

“Henry [oversees] a transitional government and, generally, governments like this have lasted two years here,” explains Haitian economist and sociologist Joseph Harold Pierre, by phone from the city of Cap-Haïtien. “By announcing elections for August 2025 — with whatever delays there may be and so on — Henry would be in power for five years. A good part of the political class has been frustrated with this announcement,” he explains. “I believe that there are going to be profound changes in the government… changes of ministers, at least. I’m sure that there are negotiations, but in secret,” Pierre tells EL PAÍS.

These negotiations are aimed, in part, at containing the criminal gangs. “Currently, there are two entities that have power in Haiti: the gangs and the international community. Any political group that wants power and that doesn’t achieve legitimacy [in the eyes of] the two of them won’t be able to do anything,” Pierre continues. In that sense, the criminal leader Barbecue — who has emerged as spokesperson for a federation of the most powerful criminal gangs in the capital, which he calls Vivre Ensemble (“Living together”) — has been very clear: if Henry doesn’t leave, he vows, there will be a “civil war that will lead to genocide.”

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