A Gang War Is Messing Up Earthquake Relief in Haiti

Vehicles full of desperately-needed supplies must cross a perilous two-mile stretch of highway controlled by gang gunmen and hijackers.
August 16, 2021, 4:37pm
A boy is tended to outside Les Cayes General Hospital after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on August 15, 2021.
A boy is tended to outside Les Cayes General Hospital after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on August 15, 2021. Photo by Richard Pierrin/Getty Images.

Chronic gang violence outside Haiti’s capital is encumbering national and international efforts to provide essential aid to survivors of an earthquake that struck the country on Saturday. 

Unless rival gangs the Ti Lapli and the Krisla decide to let relief vehicles pass through their disputed territory, transporting enough medicine, water, and other necessities into the area crushed by the earthquake will be an uphill battle, according to Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency. It takes between three and four hours to drive between the capital Port-Au-Prince and Les Cayes, the largest city hit by the earthquake. 

The sole highway connecting the country’s southwestern peninsula, the earthquake disaster zone, to Port-Au-Prince, runs through the area of Martissant, which has been embroiled in a tempestuous gang war for months that has displaced some 14,000 people. Two weeks ago, Doctors Without Borders closed their field hospital there because of concerns over staff safety. 

Multiple gangs have been fighting over territory and resources in the area, making shootouts, raids, and hijackings common occurrences on the highway. Members of the Ti Lapli and Krisla gangs ambush trucks bringing supplies into the city. Gangs have impeded the highway since June, causing fuel shortages and food insecurity, but the problem is now hindering relief efforts, the Center for Justice and Democracy in Haiti told VICE World News.  

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So far, eight planes have arrived in Port-Au-Prince from Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, the U.S., the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic, carrying relief workers and supplies. A USAID plane carrying 52,000 pounds of supplies landed in Haiti late Sunday night to assist in search and rescue operations. At this point, any survivors will have been trapped under rubble for 48 hours. The supplies will need to be ferried south on small planes and helicopters if Martissant is impassable.

On Sunday, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry released a statement saying he was deploying military and police forces to Martissant in an attempt to keep the road clear, and UNICEF called for a “humanitarian corridor” through the zone. But so far UNICEF has successfully sent only one container of supplies to affected areas. 

A United Nations office claimed it was able to send a convoy of humanitarian aid past Martissant, thanks to a deal negotiated between gangs and local officials that will allow two convoys to pass through the area each day. But rumors that spread on social media Sunday that a temporary truce had been established between the gangs weren’t confirmed.

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Just a week ago, a pregnant woman in her home and two civilians on a minibus were shot by gang members. The two men died and the woman lost her pregnancy as a result of the gunfire.

“My mother died in the earthquake yesterday... and the other members who want to return to Les Cayes cannot cross the Martissant district; the road is completely blocked by armed bandits,” Haitian rapper Josué Souffrant wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Nearly 1,300 people have been confirmed dead and over 5,000 were injured after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Haiti Saturday, flattening entire towns and crushing people in their homes.

90 percent of the buildings in Baradères, a town of 30,000, collapsed during the quake, including the hospital, leaving the injured with nowhere to go, according to a former mayor who spoke with Haitian radio station Magik9. Hospitals in the affected cities in Haiti’s southwestern peninsula have exhausted their supply of basic materials needed to treat the injured, specifically surgical gauze, antibiotics, and painkillers. Many patients are being forced to pay for medicines, leaving some with no option but to forgo pain relief after surgery. Numerous hospitals sounded cries for help on Haitian radio stations, asking for supplementary medical staff as well as materials. 

“The city of Corail is 60 to 70% affected. The only hospital in the city collapsed. No medicine, no water, no gauze to give first aid to victims. There is only one ambulance, and it has broken down. The roads are blocked, so it is impossible to transfer the injured. People are dying for want of care,” former senator Sorel Jacinthe told local radio.

Videos circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp in Haiti show people trying to dig in the rubble of homes as they wait for official aid workers to arrive. In Les Cayes, residents have formed rescue brigades, using shovels and human chains to extract people from the rubble.

On Monday, Tropical Storm Grace is expected to advance across Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, unleashing high winds, and drenching the rubble, the injured, and the dead with torrents of rain.