Haiti crisis: What we know about the gang takeover that has killed dozens and displaced 15,000

Haiti is spiralling further into chaos after armed gang members freed thousands of prisoners, burned government buildings, and forced the prime minister to resign after he fled the country to seek help.

Dozens of people are dead and roughly 15,000 have been forced to flee their homes due to gang raids, according to The Associated Press, with many now facing dwindling supplies of food and water.

The violence escalated on 29 February when Haiti’s powerful criminal gangs, which already controlled large parts of the economy and most of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, launched a series of attacks on police stations, prisons, and other government buildings.

After all the capital’s international airports were seized by gangs, prime minister Ariel Henry was trapped outside the country and faced both domestic and international pressure to resign.

On 5 March, the leader of the unified gangs Jimmy Chérizier — known by his childhood nickname, “Barbecue” — threatened continued violence if Mr Henry did not step down.

He said “if the international community continues to support [Mr Henry], we’ll be heading straight for a civil war that will lead to genocide.”

“Either Haiti becomes a paradise or a hell for all of us. It’s out of the question for a small group of rich people living in big hotels to decide the fate of people living in working-class neighborhoods,” Mr Cherizier said.

On Monday, Mr Henry resigned.

The US has airlifted in extra military muscle to guard its embassy in Port-au-Prince, and Caribbean leaders have met in Jamaica to find a solution to the crisis.

So how exactly did this happen?

Gunfire, mass jailbreaks, and an absent prime minister

The heightened upheaval this month began while former Prime Minister Ariel Henry was travelling to Kenya to push forward a United Nations deal that would bring 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti to help restore security.

On 28 February, leaders of Caricom — a trade bloc comprised of 15 Caribbean countries or territories — announced that Henry had pledged to hold elections by mid-2025, after promising and then failing to do so twice before.

We don’t know exactly why Haiti’s powerful criminal gangs chose that moment to strike. But one day later, they unleashed a wave of violence that killed at least four police officers and forced airports, businesses, and schools to close and numerous Haitians to flee their homes.

In a recorded video, gang leader and former police officer Chérizier declared that he planned to capture various government ministers and prevent Henry from entering the country.

“With our guns and with the Haitian people, we will free the country,” said Chérizier, who has previously claimed that he is a “revolutionary” rather than a mere crook.

Former police officer Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, leader of the ‘G9’ coalition in Haiti (REUTERS)
Former police officer Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, leader of the ‘G9’ coalition in Haiti (REUTERS)

Gangs led a mass jailbreak at Haiti’s national penitentiary, reportedly releasing nearly all of its roughly 4,000 prisoners. Three people were found fatally shot outside the facility, while the other Port-au-Prince prison, which held 1,400 people, was also taken over.

Several prisoners and prison staff members were injured in the two raids, Haitian government officials said in a less than reassuring statement.

“Our police officers, on the scene of several operations – facing the rampages of heavily armed criminals wanting at all costs to free people in custody, particularly for kidnapping, murder and other serious offenses, and not hesitating to execute civilians, burning and looting public and private property – thanks to various collusions, did not succeed in preventing the bandits from bringing out a large number of prisoners,” the statement read.

Only a small portion of inmates did not flee. Among them were reportedly the 18 Colombian mercenaries accused of orchestrating the assassination of a previous Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, in 2021. Their attorney, Samuel Madistin, told The New York Times they remained in the prison out of fear for their lives.

Since Mr Moïse was killed, Haiti has faced widespread violence at the hands of gangs. According to a UN report, there were nearly 5,000 homicides in 2023 — twice as many as the prior year.

Haiti’s finance minister Michel Patrick Boisvert, who is acting prime minister while Henry is away, declared a state of emergency and imposed an evening curfew.

But by Sunday 10 March, the government was still struggling to quell the violence, with sporadic gunfire audible across Port-au-Prince while ordinary Haitians run low on basic supplies.

How did Haiti’s criminal gangs become so powerful?

On the afternoon of 13 November 2018, a police armoured vehicle drove into the La Saline neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince and unloaded its cargo of armed men, some of whom were wearing police uniforms.

What happened next was one of Haiti's worst massacres in decades. At least 71 people were killed, 11 raped, and 150 homes looted and destroyed, according to a report by human rights observers.

The leader of the slaughter, the report alleges, was Jimmy Chérizier – then a serving police officer, allegedly acting with the support of senior Haitian politicians who wanted to punish La Saline for its role in a huge wave of protests against then-President Moïse.

That was the first of many atrocities allegedly backed by Moïse's government, which experts say increasingly colluded with criminals to keep a lid on unrest.

"'Barbecue' is a Frankenstein['s monster] who has broken free from his master," Sorbonne University geographer Jean-Marie Theodat told AFP, a French news agency, on Sunday.

Police officers run holding their guns while confronting a gang during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and insecurity, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1 March 2024 (REUTERS)
Police officers run holding their guns while confronting a gang during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and insecurity, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1 March 2024 (REUTERS)

Haiti has long suffered from poverty and political stability. Founded in 1804 by Black revolutionaries who had broken the shackles of slavery, it was eventually forced at swordpoint to pay vast sums in compensation to French former slave owners, creating a debt that would cripple its development for more than a century.

Haitian politicians have relied on armed gangs to enforce their rule since at least 1959 when the infamous dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier formed a paramilitary militia known as the Tonton Macoute – named after a mythological boogeyman.

The problem continued long after the Duvalier family were overthrown in 1986, as Haiti stumbled between military coups and foreign interventions.

In 1995 the Haitian military was disbanded after one coup too many, but that put thousands of armed men out of work while creating a power vacuum. When a rogue police official attempted another coup in 2001, it was armed civilians, not soldiers, that thwarted him.

Meanwhile, Haiti's position between Latin America and the US made it an attractive route for drug smugglers, creating a new line of commerce for the gangs.

Experts say that some progress was made under René Préval, the only Haitian leader to democratically win and complete two terms, who took a hard line on gangs.

But in 2010, Haiti was struck by a massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake that flattened Port-au-Prince, killing anything between 100,000 and 316,000 people. The Haitian economy was more or less destroyed, while thousands of former gang members escaped from jail.

Since then, democratic government has steadily crumbled in Haiti. Before his death, Moïse was accused of consolidating power and ruling by decree, repeatedly violating the constitution while refusing to step down at the end of his term.

While the reasons for his assassination remain murky, a New York Times investigation found evidence that he was preparing to name names about senior Haitian politicians and businessfolk involved in the drug trade.

For his part, Ariel Henry has repeatedly reneged on promises to hold elections, saying that gang violence would make it impossible to ensure that they are fair.

Hence, Haiti has been trapped in a fiendish double bind. The United Nations has warned that security must improve before elections can be held. However, the lack of elections has created a crisis of legitimacy that empowers and emboldens the gangs.

"For the last three years, the gangs started to gain autonomy. And now they are a power unto themselves," University of Virginia professor Robert Fatton told AP.

Just ask Jimmy Chérizier, who gave an interview to AP earlier this year as he strolled through the slums of La Saline, flanked by armed guards and watched from above by a personal monitoring drone.

"The government of Ariel Henry is a de-facto government. It’s a government that has no legitimacy," he said. "I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight."

Former police officer Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, who leads an alliance of armed groups in Haiti, gives a news conference in Port-au-Prince on 11 March, 2024 (REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol)
Former police officer Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, who leads an alliance of armed groups in Haiti, gives a news conference in Port-au-Prince on 11 March, 2024 (REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol)

Ariel Henry resigns

After Henry was left stuck in the US territory of Puerto Rico, having been refused entry by the Dominican Republic (Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, which shares a land border with it), he began facing pressure to resign.

Chérizier and other gang leaders are dead set on removing him and have promised to temporarily stop the violence if he agrees to resign.

“We are going to call for a truce just to evaluate the situation,” Chérizier told ABC News. “Everywhere around Port-au-Prince that is currently blocked or inaccessible will be reopened and we will automatically stop the attacks on the police stations.”

After initially rejecting calls to resign, Mr Henry agreed to resign his position, and said the remnants of his government would end when a transitional council was ready to take over.

On Monday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Jamaica for an urgent Caricom summit aimed at resolving the crisis. Whether Henry was allowed to attend this meeting is unknown.

What happens next?

One possible solution proposed by Caricom: Henry could be replaced by a transitional council, which would select an interim president and arrange the country’s first elections since 2016.

However, it’s hard to imagine how free and fair elections could take place under the current conditions of violence, in a country where armed groups have usurped such power from the government.

Guyana’s president, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, said: “I think we can all agree: Haiti is on the brink of disaster. We must take quick and decisive action.”

However, he also noted that a transitional council was still a ways off.

The United Nations approved an intervention plan that would send 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti to help restore order. However, this intervention faced several barriers.

For one, Kenya’s High Court has ruled it unconstitutional; for another, 1,000 police officers would not even replace the estimated 3,300 Haitian officers who have deserted since 2021.

The mission is also not very well funded: the US has pledged $300m, while Canada has said it will give $80m.

However, all of those issues became moot on Tuesday when Kenya announced it would not send a security force due to a lack of a “sitting government” in Haiti to coordinate their efforts.

“The deal they signed with the president [William Ruto] still stands although the deployment will not happen now because definitely we will require a sitting government to also collaborate with,” Salim Swaleh, Kenya’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told The New York Times.

All of which leaves the future of Haiti, and the safety and prosperity of its people, severely in doubt.

This story was originally published on 4 March 2024 and was updated on 12 March to reflect the changing situation.