Violence in Haiti: gangs take over in the war with the police

Do you see where it came from? the members of the special forces inside the armored personnel carrier asked each other with bated breath. It provides only a tiny strip of window onto the streets outside, which alternate between appearing deserted and teeming with civilians trying to flee.

According to them, in the past 72 hours, the police killed the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang and freed six hostages from them. But the gang – one of the dozens terrorizing the capital – has not been ousted from these streets.

“Do you see that red SMS sign? This is them,” said the special forces officer, pointing to the position of the militants. Like his team, he did not want to be identified, citing their safety. He pointed down the road to a small shack as dozens of people poured out of the alley and into the street.

“Step back,” he told the crowd through the armored car’s loudspeaker. “You are too open. This is dangerous”.

The officer ordered the vehicle to move to a new location. “When we get there, open everything that moves,” he said. A fierce firefight between police and gang members ensued.

It’s a common scene of injuries, shootings and panic in one of dozens of gang-controlled neighborhoods as Port-au-Prince appears to be descending into full-blown warfare between the police and increasingly well-equipped and organized crime gangs.

And it’s a familiar routine: the police are probing gang areas to show their reach, and the gangs respond with intense volleys of bullets.

More than 470 people were killed, injured or missing in the Cité Soleil region in ten days of violence in July, according to the UN, after the G9 attempted to expand its influence in the area by taking territory from rival gangs.

Social media video filmed in the area shows the gangs using a bulldozer covered in steel plates to demolish the armor of houses believed to be rival houses. Other houses were burned down, and another video shows dozens of locals fleeing the area on foot at night, in the midst of fighting.

The civilians who fled the Cité Soleil found no respite: dozens received food distributions from the World Food Program and took refuge in the open air in the Hugo Chávez Leisure Park.

Flies cover the rain-soaked concrete floor of the sports amphitheater stage, where four-month-old babies struggle to sleep as they are exposed to the elements. One has bruises from a fall, the other has a painful and ugly rash, but they are alive.

Here Natalie Aristel angrily shows us her nasty new home.

“That’s where I sleep in the puddle,” she said, pointing to the water. “They burned down my house and shot my husband seven times,” she says, referring to the gang members.

“I can’t even afford to go to him [in hospital]. In this park, even if some food is brought, there will never be enough for everyone. Children are dying.”

Others are missing. “I have four children, but my first one is missing and I can’t find it,” another woman said. “We have been completely abandoned by the state, and we even have to pay to use the toilet,” added another.

The boy added: “My mother and father are dead. My aunt saved me. I want to go to school, but it was demolished.”

Locals speak of a perfect storm of disaster and warn that the country is increasingly feeling on the brink of social collapse.

Last month, residents of the area built a wall on a public road to keep out gangs who kidnap residents for ransom.

What remains of the country’s emergency interim government, set up last year after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, is starting to crumble and is mired in accusations of inaction. His successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has vowed to fight instability and hold new elections, but has so far made little progress towards both goals.

Meanwhile, analysts expect inflation in the country at 30%. There is not enough gas, and there are angry queues at the stations. The UN has warned that gang violence could put the youngest children in active war zones at risk of imminent starvation as their parents cannot access food or go to work.

One Haitian security source who spoke to CNN estimated that the gangs control or influence three-quarters of the city.

Franz Elbe, director general of the Haitian National Police, rejects this claim. “This is not a common problem in the metropolitan area,” he told CNN, declining to give a percentage.

However, it is indisputable that vital parts of the national infrastructure are now completely in the hands of criminals. The city’s vital port – the main one in Haiti – is controlled by gangs that dominate the roads outside. As is the main road to the south of the country, which means that the fragile part of the country hit by last year’s earthquake is effectively cut off from the capital. Gangs are also expanding their control to the east of the city, where the Croix-de-Bouquet is located, and to the north, in the Cité Soleil area, observers say.

Kidnappings are massive and indiscriminate, one of the few thriving industries in Haiti. Seventeen American and Canadian missionaries were kidnapped last year after visiting an orphanage in Croix-de-Bouquet and only released after a ransom was paid to the gang of 400 Mavozos.

Police, often armed, are doing what they can, Elba told CNN.

“Gangs are changing the way they fight. They used to be knives, but now they are large weapons. The police must be well equipped. members,” he said.

Franz Elbe, Director General of the Haitian Police.

The problem they faced is revealed by a short checkpoint set up at the Croix des Boucs, where the gangs dragged the truck across the main road and set it on fire.

The police push an armored military bulldozer to push the wreckage to the side of the road, which is already littered with the wreckage of other trucks. The bulldozer operator, when asked if he works under fire, replies: “Often.”

SWAT police set up a perimeter by scanning nearby rooftops. Local residents and the cars they drive are stopped and checked. One person says the situation is “bad, very bad” before the other gives him a stern look.

He suddenly changes his tone: “We don’t know anything.”

Fear is the currency of this war, though it’s not clear if he’s afraid to speak to the press or the police, or what the gang might find out, he later said.

However, in order to escape from this fear, you need to endure more. A short boat trip from the mainland to La Gonave, the center of human traffickers.

The sluggish pace and blue waters of one tiny bay on La Gonave belie its poverty. This world is dominated by heat, rubbish, hunger and worry about leaving.

One, a smuggler who introduced himself as Johnny, calmly explained how his business worked.

Boat travel is often one-way, he says, so each endeavor requires a boat to be purchased right away for around $10,000. To cover these expenses, Johnny needs at least two hundred clients to huddle in his disheveled hull.

Scraps of mesh plug all the cracks in the hull, and the inside of the boat is decorated with loose wooden boards. Johnny shows where the pump and motors will end up going.

“If we die, we die. If we do it, we will do it,” he said.

He added that he hopes to pack his boat for 250 passengers, as he considers it to be in “good” condition.

The final destination is the United States, with Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Islands stopping occasionally along the way.

And it is from these three locations that the International Organization for Migration has reported a sharp increase in the number of forced repatriations of Haitians in the first seven months of this year: 20,016 so far, compared to 19,629 in all of 2021.

Some Haitians appear to be nearing the end of their journey: The US Coast Guard detained 6,114 Haitians between October and the end of June—four times the number between October 2020 and October 2021. Over the past weekend alone, more than 330 migrants from the US Coast Guard rescued Haiti near the Florida Keys.
Boat in La Gonave, Haiti.

The numbers are as staggering as the risks. Previous voyages from this bay have ended in tragedy. Johnny doesn’t know the exact time of the last boat’s arrival, but he’s sure of possible casualties: 29 people died on one recent voyage he arranged.

“The boat had an engine problem,” he said. “Water got into the boat. We called for help, but it took too long. While I was trying to save people, the boat was sinking. By the time help arrived, it was already too late.

While CNN is unable to independently corroborate Johnny’s account of the system, two other locals who said they were involved in human trafficking independently described similar details. Authorities in neighboring Caribbean countries, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, have repeatedly reported finding the remains of would-be migrants after boats capsized in their waters.

Despite the risks, many Haitians are still desperately looking for a way out. Locals on La Gonave told CNN that at least 40 people who intended to make the boat trip were already on the island, and the rest would follow from the mainland as soon as Johnny said the boat was ready.

One potential passenger, a university graduate who once worked as a teacher, revealed why he would risk everything to take the trip.

“I worked as a teacher, but nothing came of it. Now I ride my motorcycle every day in the sun and dust. How can I take care of my family when I have one?”

He said he had saved a year’s money to make the trip and was not afraid of the boat’s precarious condition. “I might be eaten by a shark or I’ll get to America.”

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