PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the doorway of a crumbling cinder-block house, on a small hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea, the gangster known as Barbecue lifts his shirt and pulls at his breast to stretch out a scar.
“This,” he says, “is where the bullet came out.” Barbecue, whose real name is Jimmy Cherizier, presses his finger into the small, soft patch of wrinkled flesh. Then he points to another puckered crater in the center of his chest. The entrance wound.
Had that bullet killed him during a shootout a few months ago, it would’ve been the end of the de facto king of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. But while he lived to wear the scars, someone managed to assassinate the country’s president—allegedly a key ally of Cherizier’s—this month.
Before dawn on July 7, a group of Colombian mercenaries broke into President Jovenel Moïse’s fortified mansion and riddled him with bullets before escaping into the surrounding neighborhood, throwing Haiti into an acute political crisis. Now, with Moïse gone, Cherizier stands at a crossroads: He could use the social and political power vacuum left by the president’s murder to increase his power. Or, with shifts in government, he could lose the support he enjoys within the state—and the freedoms it affords him.
Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in a raid on his home on July 7, 2021. Photo: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Cherizier, a former cop turned gang leader, is a major player in the city, with alleged ties to the government. He runs the G9, a federation of powerful local gangs that he formed last year in a bid to refocus the violence they were waging against one another on Haiti’s ruling class instead. The gangs, according to the police union, are better armed than the country’s own cops.
At 44, Cherizier is about 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a bulging gut, buzz cut, patchy goatee, and a menacing gaze that rarely softens, even when he smiles. Depending on who you talk to, he got the nickname Barbecue either from being the son of a street vendor who hawked grilled chicken or from the massacres police accuse him of masterminding, which burned people alive. For obvious reasons, he prefers the chicken story. But considering the guy regularly packs a pistol in his waistband and is guarded by ski-masked henchmen with high-powered rifles, it’s not unreasonable to doubt his version of his nickname’s origin.
A few days after President Moïse was gunned down, Cherizier agreed to meet with VICE World News.
A lanky kid—maybe 17 or 18 years old—was waiting outside Cherizier’s house holding a rifle at his side like a rag doll and shuffling down the street in socks and sandals, listlessly keeping watch when VICE World News arrived. Other young toughs—more of Cherizier’s muscle—sat on the stoops of squalid homes that lined the quiet street.
Cherizier then appeared, wearing black skinny jeans, a blue, button-up short-sleeved shirt, and a pair of new Timberland boots.
“Don’t worry about the guns,” he told us. “You can feel at home here.”
Barbecue's heavily armed men guard the gangster's territory. Photo: Samuel Stonefield for VICE World News.
Police don’t come around these parts of the capital, not just because Cherizier won’t let them but because many are afraid to. Agent Synci Domond, an officer and spokesman for Haiti’s police union, reluctantly passes through Cherizier’s neighborhoods to and from work.
“It is only when you are through that area that you can make the sign of the cross,” he said.
Agent Domond said Haitian police officers don’t have enough helmets, vests, or ammunition to stand up to the gangs.
“We also don't have the appropriate weapons to respond accordingly to what the gangs carry,” he said.
Cops in Port-au-Prince carry rusted relics that look like the same rifles that would’ve been used by United States Marines who were sent to the country in 1915 to “restore order and maintain political and economic stability” following the assassination of Haiti’s then-President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. On the flip side, Agent Domon described Barbecue’s men as having high-powered rifles and “cartridges by the bucket.”
“There are several locations in the country where the gangs are the movers and shakers,” he said. “They make the law.”
Credit: VICE News Graphics / Day Wardell
On his turf, Barbecue not only makes the law, but he enforces it. During a four-day bloodbath in November 2018, he and two senior members of Moïse’s government were accused of orchestrating the slaughter of 71 people in the La Saline neighborhood, allegedly to silence members of the opposition who were living there. Men, women, and children were killed in their homes, and reports say their bodies were dragged into the streets and either burned, dismembered, or fed to wild animals. Cherizier denies all of this. But the U.S. Treasury Department brought the hammer down anyway, sanctioning him and the two politicians as “foreign persons responsible for or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.”
We walked with Cherizier and a trio of armed goons through the deserted streets of Delmas 6, a neighborhood off the main drag that connects the territory he controls to Pétion-Ville, where the president was killed. Many of the houses were charred black from a recent gang war, and some were completely abandoned. Stray dogs, with drawn-out teats from overbreeding, sniffed around for scraps of food. At one point, Cherizier pulled out a wad of cash, flicked off a couple bills, and handed it to a young man with a gun.
“The gang in this country is not those men with guns you can see here,” he said. “The real gangs are the men in suits. The real gangs are the officials in the national palace, the real gangs are the members of the opposition.”
Cherizier pitches himself as a man of the people, a populist, a messenger of hope and change and revolution. It’s possible there’s a part of him that actually buys that spiel, evident by the graffitied portraits of Che Guevara on walls of the turf he rules.
“The people are in need of a leader and are seeking one,” Cherizier said. “I am talking about the misery of the poor people. I am talking about my country that doesn’t have hospitals, professional schools, medical clinics. People are sleeping next to pigs. If they call me a revolutionary for that kind of thing, yes, I am.”
Two weeks before President Moise was assassinated, he and his men marched openly through the streets of La Saline—flashing weapons they’d previously kept hidden—to announce that G9 was now a revolutionary force. Later, holding a press conference, he called for Haitians to “mobilize” and commit “legitimate violence” against the bourgeoisie.
Patrick Rosarion, commissioner of the Pétion-Ville Police Department, doesn’t put much stock in Cherizier’s threats against those in power.
“He’s a gang leader who’s only working on his own,” Rosarion said. “I think it’s just a matter of time until they catch him.”
But there has been a warrant out for Cherizier’s arrest since 2018 following the La Saline massacre. Rosarion blames the gang leader’s years as a cop as the reason he’s been able to duck law enforcement, despite the fact there’s a police station only a few blocks from his house.
A Haitian National Police Officer on patrol in Port-Au-Prince. The gangs are better armed than the government, say many. Photo: Samuel Stonefield for VICE World News.
Since Moise’s killing, Haiti watchers speculated the death would be a major blow to G9’s influence in the capital. Cherizier says that’s not the case.
“The assassination of the president is something very revolting,” he said. “It hurts all the Haitians deep inside. I was asking people to take the streets, to go out and protest and ask for justice, not only for the president but for justice for every Haitian in general.”
As he talked, tears welled up in his eyes.
"You can see how people are living in the United States, right? Do you want me to bring you to La Saline to see how people are living? Because when you are talking about these people and the misery, I am one of them. I am always next to them, living with them every day.”
Cherizier may live among the people, slumming it in his seedy pad with bars on the windows and torn sheets for drapes, but he’s not one of them. He has, as rap group The Lox so eloquently put it, money, power, and respect. But the Haitians he calls neighbors are facing a surge of kidnappings. Two-hundred-and-fifty-four people were kidnapped in 2020, a 200 percent increase from the previous year. The epidemic of violence—in which G9 gang members have been implicated—has effectively transformed the country’s capital into a ghost town after dark. Schools have closed. People are afraid to go out at night. Well, everyone except for Barbecue and his thugs.
“I have never been involved in a kidnapping,” Cherizier argues. “I am just fighting for our upcoming generation in 10, 20, 30 years for them not to carry guns like us.”
But things are looking grim for Haiti’s next generation—especially those who live in the neighborhoods controlled by Cherizier.
Following Moïse’s murder, the impoverished nation—already deeply troubled by insecurity, gang violence, corruption and weak governance— edged further into chaos. And as those in government jostled for power, the head of the former president’s security team, Jean Laguel Civil, was arrested in connection with the killing. Meanwhile, Washington is pressuring Haiti to establish a unity government in the run up to the scheduled September presidential elections.
Cherizier’s primary concern, however, is whether Haiti’s future will still include him, or if he will be next in the crosshairs.