By Robenson Sanon and Andre Paultre
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - One of Haiti's most powerful gang leaders warned this week he was launching a revolution against the country's business and political elites, signaling a likely further escalation of violence in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Violence has spiked in Haiti's capital in recent weeks to what the United Nations has called "unprecedented levels" as rival groups battle with one another or the police for control of the streets, displacing thousands and worsening the country's humanitarian crisis.
Jimmy Cherizier, alias Barbecue, a former police officer, heads the so-called G9 federation of nine gangs formed last year.
Surrounded by gang members wielding machetes and guns, he gave a statement to local media outlets in the slum of La Saline on Wednesday, saying the G9 had become a revolutionary force to deliver Haiti from the opposition, the government and the Haitian bourgeoisie.
Human rights activists say Cherizier is actually not targeting the government but the opposition.
The government has not publicly commented on his statements and was not immediately available for comment.
A suspect in several massacres of citizens in recent years, among other crimes for which he was sanctioned late last year by the United States, Cherizier depicts himself as a community leader filling the void left by weak institutions.
Cherizier said his gang members sparked the looting at multiple stores in Port-au-Prince last week, and the broader population followed suit because they were hungry.
"It is your money which is in banks, stores, supermarkets and dealerships, so go and get what is rightfully yours," he said in comments that went viral on social media in Haiti.
Armed groups have become increasingly powerful in Haiti in recent years due to political unrest, growing poverty and a sense of impunity, say rights organizations like the nonprofit Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research.
The presidential and legislative elections slated for later this year could be a factor for the recent uptick in violence committed by gangs often linked to local politicians, they say.
Haiti's police is not equipped to deal with gang members who have acquired ever more sophisticated weapons, partly financed with kidnappings for ransom https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/descent-into-hell-kidnapping-explosion-terrorizes-haiti-2021-04-26.
Many officers have died in confrontations with armed bandits https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/gangs-raid-police-stations-weapons-haiti-deadly-violence-surges-2021-06-07 in recent months, including one in a fight with Cherizier last weekend, according to the police.
The violence is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in a country in which nearly half the population is facing "high acute" food insecurity https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/acute-malnutrition-surging-among-haitian-children-unicef-warns-2021-05-31, according to the United Nations, and coronavirus infections are surging.
The president of Haiti's supreme court died from COVID-19 on Wednesday even as the country has yet to start its vaccination campaign.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said earlier this month the displacements were "creating a host of secondary issues, such as the disruption of community-level social functioning ... forced school closures, loss of livelihoods and a general fear among the affected populations."
(Reporting by Robenson Sanon and Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince; Editing by Richard Chang; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Chang)