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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Luke Taylor

Haiti’s weekend of violence puts government future in doubt

police confront a gang
Police confront a gang during a protest against the government of the prime minister, Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 1 March. Photograph: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

The future of Haiti’s government appeared increasingly uncertain on Monday, after armed gangs attacked the country’s international airport and freed more than 3,800 prisoners this weekend in what appears to be a coordinated effort to topple the prime minister, Ariel Henry.

Haitian officials declared a three-day state of emergency and imposed a nightly curfew in an effort to calm the growing unrest but national police are outgunned, and senior officials – including Henry, who is also acting president – are outside the country.

The measures came after a deadly weekend that marked a new low in Haiti’s spiral of violence, and which has led the US to advise its citizens to leave “as soon as possible” and Canada to temporarily close its embassy.

But just hours after the decree, heavily armed gunmen launched a new attack on the country’s main airport on Monday, exchanging fire with police and soldiers.

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs an alliance of gangs, has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying the goal was to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Henry’s return.

At least nine people have been killed since Thursday, among them four police officers. Targets have included police stations, the country’s international airport and the national football stadium, where one employee was held hostage for hours.

The UN estimates that about 15,000 people were forced to flee the violence between Thursday and Saturday, including those already in makeshift camps for displaced people set up in schools, hospitals and squares around the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The mass escape of convicted criminals and high-profile gang leaders was a brazen show of force by the country’s street gangs and represents a critical moment for international efforts to shore up the government and restore order in the Caribbean nation, analysts said.

“We might be witnessing a turning point right now, as the gangs appear to be joining forces to overthrow the government and send a message of intimidation to the politicians who are away not to return,” said Diego Da Rin, Haiti analyst at International Crisis Group.

Haiti has fallen into ever deeper chaos and lawlessness since its president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by Colombian mercenaries in July 2021, making Ariel Henry interim leader.

More than 8,400 people were victims of brutal gang violence in Haiti last year according to the UN and hunger in the conflict-ridden nation has reached unprecedented, “catastrophic” levels.

Last week, Henry flew to Nairobi in his latest effort to bring a force of 1,000 Kenyan police officers to retake control of the country from the armed factions who now dominate three-quarters of the capital.

But in his absence, the gangs sent the government and international community a stark message by launching coordinated assaults on Port-au-Prince’s main international airport, police stations and major prisons.

More than 3,800 prisoners, including murderers and kidnappers, are believed to have escaped from the National Penitentiary on Saturday and a number of inmates also broke free from the Croix des Bouquets prison, a facility on the edge of the city holding about 1,500 people.

Port-au-Prince’s normally overcrowded main prison – which held more than a quarter of the entire incarcerated population of Haiti – was left eerily empty on Sunday, with no guards in sight and plastic sandals, clothing and furniture strewn across the concrete patio. Three bodies with gunshot wounds lay at the prison entrance.

In another neighbourhood, the bloodied corpses of two men with their hands tied behind the backs lay face down as residents walked past roadblocks set up with burning tyres.

The US embassy in Port-au-Prince asked its citizens on Sunday to leave Haiti “as soon as possible” while the French embassy said it was closing visa services.

The coordinated assault from gangs – who normally war with each other for territory – was “a major show of force” and an attempt to demonstrate that they must be negotiated with to solve Haiti’s deep and protracted crises, Da Rin said.

“The gangs are showing they can bring Haiti to its feet whenever they want,” he said.

The government announced a curfew on Sunday in an effort to stem the violence while security forces pledged to use “all legal means” to beat back the gangs but the country’s police force is outgunned and outnumbered while its president is unelected, deeply unpopular and now absent.

Haiti’s police force numbers only about 9,000 officers and they are abandoning the force more quickly than it can find new recruits. At least four officers have been killed in the last week.

Henry has repeatedly called for foreign nations to assist the police in taking back control of the country and alleviating its dire humanitarian crises by sending foreign troops.

The escalating violence in Haiti is “inhuman” and 4.4 million people – roughly 40% of the population – face “huge food insecurity”, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Haiti, Ulrika Richardson, told reporters last week.

The west African country Benin offered to dispatch 2,000 soldiers to the Caribbean last week and Henry signed an agreement in Nairobi for a taskforce of about 1,000 police officers to be sent after it was initially blocked by Kenya’s high court.

It is uncertain whether Henry will now return to Haiti or attempt to rein in the chaos from afar given the growing security risk inside the country.

The embattled prime minister pledged last week to hold elections in 2025 after some members of the Caribbean bloc, Caricom, said the unelected leader had become an obstacle to peace.

Haiti has not had a single elected political official for more than a year, as the Henry government has repeatedly failed to hold fresh elections.

In Henry’s absence the gang leader Chéreizer has held press conferences to put forward his own claim to power.

The head of the powerful G-9 gang claimed last week that he now heads up a coalition of Haitian factions who have joined forces to topple the corrupt Haitian elite.

Chérizier told journalists that they have revived the “Viv Ansanm” non-aggression pact – a message from the gangs that they are capable of putting aside their differences to fight off foreign forces.

The former police officer has said in the past that the best way to end violence in Haiti is not to send foreign forces but to sit down with gang leaders who control most of the capital.

No other gang leader has confirmed the agreement but the violence over the weekend is an alarming sign that an alliance could be taking shape and that with every day that passes the gangs strengthen their stranglehold over the country.

“The window of opportunity for foreign forces is closing,” Da Rin said.

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