The slums of Port-Au-Prince have become a fuming warzone in recent weeks as gangs grapple for control. The Ti Lapli and the Krisla gangs are fighting over territory and resources such as weaponry and fuel, as another group of gangs, called the G9, takes advantage of the chaos to expand its influence, according to local media, social media and police reports.
Civilians living in Martissant, the neighborhood most affected by the violence, are at constant risk due to machine gunfire and stray bullets from shootouts that shower the streets, witnesses told VICE World News.
The gang war is the latest disorder to strike Haiti. The government of President Jovenel Moïse faces credible accusations of funding the activities of numerous gangs, as well as rampant corruption, and misuse of public funds. Moïse retains support from the United States, despite a gutting of the legislature and the judiciary, numerous arrests of opposition leaders, as well as mass public protests against his leadership. Kidnappings for ransom by gangs also surged last year.
On security camera footage from June 18, gang members formed a line to loot a grocery warehouse on the northern side of Port-Au-Prince. Two dozen men stripped the warehouse bare, emerging holding hefty sacks of dry food above their heads. The men shot at the security guards patrolling the doors, striking one in the mouth, then used hammers and chisels to break into the storeroom. It took them two days to pillage the place.
“We spent two hours calling the police who never came to help us. Other businesses in the area have suffered the same fate,” Anthony Bennett, the owner of the store, told local media.
“I feel like my arms and legs have been ripped off,” another looted shop owner said on a local radio broadcast. “They broke what they couldn’t steal.”
The basic wellbeing of millions of Haitians is in peril, according to the United Nations, as gangs captured oil distribution centers at the port, leading to fuel shortages that have inhibited the transportation of necessary goods. Some gas stations have been dry for over a month. The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti told VICE World News that the gangs also blockaded the highway connecting Port-Au-Prince to the southern region of the country, cutting off the delivery of fruit and vegetables to the city.
The loss of critical food sources due to looting, sequestering, and blockades, has significantly diminished the amount of food getting to the majority of Haitians. Some 46 percent percent of the Haitian population, or 4.4 million people, are in need of “urgent action” to combat food insecurity, and over one million are in the “humanitarian emergency” phase, nudging towards famine, according to the National Food Security Coalition.
“Finding food is an everyday struggle for the majority of people,” said Sabine Lamour, a professor of sociology at the State University of Haiti.
Criminal groups captured all four police stations in Martissant, making off with numerous weapons, according to the Haitian police, and several police officers were killed as a result. Now, police have largely retreated from the area, leaving those left behind to fend for themselves.
Lamour stressed that the violence is limited to neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. “I live in the center and it is calm here. It is just a normal day,” she said.
Over 13,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, as gangs set entire neighborhoods aflame, according to the UN’s most recent report. Millions have been affected by the food and fuel shortages, and through the blockage of one of Haiti’s highways. Hospitals have noted a sharp uptick in gunshot victims, spreading doctors thin as the COVID-19 epidemic rages. The crisis has fed the ferocity of the epidemic, as thousands have fled their homes, many sheltering together in makeshift camps inside public buildings. In the largest camp inside a sports arena, set up by the UN, thousands of displaced people live among rows of thin mats on the floor with little, if any, privacy.
Since May, fatalities due to COVID-19 have risen by 500 percent in Haiti, according to government figures, killing several prominent figures, including a Supreme Court judge. “Hospital overcrowding due to COVID-19 is reducing capacities to care for the injured and those affected by violence. Several confirmed cases have been reported within the humanitarian community, with some requiring medevac,” the UN wrote in its report. Vaccines are yet to arrive.
Due to the violence and the epidemic, the government postponed a vote on a constitutional referendum, despite pressure from the United States to hold elections as soon as possible. “Given the security situation, people struggling to get access to food, just think about what it could possibly look like for someone to actually go out and vote in this climate. This focus on having an election right now, given the circumstances, just feels like theater,” said Alexandra Filippova, an attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
The government has moved slowly to tackle gang domination in critical areas as the gangs have grown in strength. On June 23, Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier, the leader of the the G9 gang collective, long suspected of having ties to Moïse’s government, announced a rebranding of the group into a “revolutionary force”, though it’s not clear who the “revolution” will be fought against, especially if Cherizier maintains a financial partnership with the government.
In the video of the speech, Cherizier is ringed by henchmen repeatedly thrusting AK-47’s into the air.
After gangs began looting, Cherizier encouraged the public to take part in the looting as well. "It is your money which is in banks, stores, supermarkets and dealerships, so go and get what is rightfully yours,” he said on social media. Hundreds followed his advice and rushed to the ransacked supermarkets and warehouses to scavenge. They were hungry.