Haiti declares state of emergency after mass prison escape

Haiti’s government declared a state of emergency on Sunday after thousands of inmates apparently escaped from its largest prison during a surge of gang violence that has upended the Caribbean nation for months.

The government cited the “deterioration of security,” notably in the capital Port-au-Prince, and “increasingly violent criminal acts perpetrated by armed gangs,” including kidnappings and killings of citizens, violence against women and children and looting, according to a statement from Finance Minister Patrick Boivert, who is serving as acting prime minister.

It also cited the attacks by armed groups on Saturday against the country’s two largest prisons, one in Port-au-Prince and another in Croix des Bouquets, which led to the escape of “dangerous prisoners” and caused deaths and injuries among police and prison staff.

A United Nations’ source said Sunday that around 3,500 prisoners are believed to have escaped Haiti’s National Penitentiary in Port-Au-Prince during the weekend.

There had been 3,687 prisoners at prison, according to the source. The UN mission in Haiti tracks incarcerated populations and humanitarian conditions in prisons in the country.

Police officers confront a gang during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and insecurity, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 1, 2024. - Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters
Police officers confront a gang during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and insecurity, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 1, 2024. - Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

According to Haitian lawyer Arnel Remy, head of the Collective of Lawyers for the Defense of Human Rights in Haiti, (CADDHO), a total of 3,597 prisoners escaped from the National Penitentiary. CNN cannot independently verify CADDHO’s figures.

Remy said his team was at the prison on Sunday and told CNN the remaining inmates are being moved to other facilities and that the penitentiary is now empty and surrounded by police vehicles.

The Haitian Ministry of Communication said in a statement Sunday that police confronted “heavily armed criminals seeking at any cost to free people from custody” and were “not able to stop the criminals from freeing a large number of prisoners.” The violence left several inmates and prison staff injured, it said.

Earlier, in a post on X, one of Haiti’s police unions pleaded for all officers in the capital with access to cars and weapons to assist police battling to maintain control of the prison. It warned that if the attackers were successful, “we are done. No one will be spared in the capital because there will be 3,000 extra bandits,” according to the statement.

Multiple security sources in Port-au-Prince told CNN that the most recent surge in violence, which began Thursday and has targeted police stations, the international airport and the penitentiary, is unprecedented in recent years.

Protesters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 1, 2024. - Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters
Protesters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 1, 2024. - Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

On Friday, Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, said he would continue in his effort to try to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

“We ask the Haitian National Police and the military to take responsibility and arrest Ariel Henry. Once again, the population is not our enemy; the armed groups are not your enemy. You arrest Ariel Henry for the country’s liberation,” Cherizier said, adding, “With these weapons, we will liberate the country, and these weapons will change the country.”

Cherizier is a former police officer who heads an alliance of gangs. He has faced sanctions from both the UN and the United States Department of Treasury.

Public frustration, which had been building against Henry over his inability to curb the unrest, boiled over after he failed to step down last month, citing the escalating violence.

Under a previous agreement, he had committed to hold elections and transfer power by February 7.

Caribbean leaders said Wednesday that Henry had agreed to hold general elections no later than August 31, 2025.

The recent fighting came as Henry was visiting Kenya to finalize details with Kenyan President William Ruto for the expected deployment of a multinational security support mission to Haiti.

Speaking to CNN, a Haitian law enforcement source said gangs had attacked multiple police stations across the city since Thursday, killing at least four people, and burning some of the stations down.

Meanwhile, gunfire near the airport on Thursday forced airlines to suspend flights.

The US Embassy in Haiti issued a security alert Friday, warning of gunshots and disruptions to traffic near the domestic and international terminals, as well as surrounding areas including a hotel and the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police.

In a statement Sunday, the embassy urged US citizens to leave the country due to violence, adding that it would be on limited operations Monday. The French Embassy in Haiti said it was suspending visa and administration services on Monday.

Haiti has been gripped by a wave of unrest and gang violence in recent years.

Warring gangs control much of Port-au-Prince, choking off vital supply lines to the rest of the country. Gang members have also terrorized the metropolitan population, forcing more than 300,000 people to flee their homes amid waves of indiscriminate killing, kidnapping, arson and rape.

Some 1,100 people were killed, injured or kidnapped in January alone, in what the UN called the most violent month in two years.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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