Hundreds Escape After A Massive Prison Riot in Haiti, Including a Notorious Gang Leader

The crime boss was killed a few days later by police following the prison break that some suspect was orchestrated, and during which 25 people died.
March 1, 2021, 7:08pm
Recaptured inmates are led by police outside the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison after an attempted breakout, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Recaptured inmates are led by police outside the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison after an attempted breakout, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Photo: Dieu Nalio Chery, AP

A notorious gang leader was among hundreds of inmates who broke loose from Haiti’s most heavily-guarded maximum security facility. Speculation suggests the riot was staged to get gang boss Arnel Joseph out of jail in what was his fourth, and last, attempted escape. 

Inmates at the Croix-des-Bouquets prison took the prison director hostage, then accessed the prison’s cache of arms and began shooting at guards in an incident on February 25. Twenty-five people died as the prisoners fought their way out. It was the largest prison break since 2014, when inmates staged a mutiny in the same facility and hundreds escaped. The penitentiary was at near double capacity last week due to the fraying of Haiti’s judiciary system under President Jovenel Moïse. 

Joseph, a notorious gang leader famous for leading sweeps over the last decade of a poor neighborhood known as the “Village of God”in Port-au-Prince, during which he and his men allegedly raped, pillaged, kidnapped, and set buildings on fire.

Some observers believe last week’s riot was staged to free Joseph, as another group of armed assailants was supporting inmates from outside the prison, suggesting a coordinated attack planned in advance. 

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“The disturbances happened only in the area where Arnel Joseph was,” Frantz Exantus, Haiti’s Communications Secretary, said in a statement

Joseph’s warned his social media followers and fans for months via cryptic messages that he would be getting out soon. In July, he posted a video, taken on one of his three contraband cell phones, saying, “Me, I’m not used to sleeping away from home. I will get out regardless, by any means, I’m coming.” Joseph broke out of prison twice before, once in 2010 and again in 2017, but was recaptured. 

But just twenty-four hours after his latest escape last week, Joseph was killed in a shootout with police. Speculation arose surrounding whether corrupt officials within the Haitian government were involved in freeing and / or murdering Joseph. "Arnel Joseph did not escape with the help of a commando, it was rather based on planning from the outside to the inside," Pierre Espérance, director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, said in a statement. “The powers in place will never leave Arnel Joseph in prison. There was no need to make this whole show; they could simply have opened the prison door.”

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In December 2019, the Judicial Police published a report claiming that Joseph communicated regularly by phone with several significant government officials, most notably a powerful senator. Numerous politicians, President Moïse included, have been accused of funding gang activity and cooperating with gang leaders to serve their political interests.

Haiti has been rocked by an epidemic of gang violence and kidnapping for months, with up to a thousand people kidnapped for ransom, and the judicial system is overwhelmed.

The escape of between two and four hundred prisoners who are now evading capture adds to the ongoing political turmoil gripping the nation. Thousands marched through the streets of Port-Au-Prince on February 28, demanding the resignation of President Moïse, an end to the everyday kidnappings, and the implementation of a new, more transparent government. Emotions were heightened by the assassination of a pediatrician after a failed kidnapping on the morning of the protests.

The opposition claims Moïse’s term ended on February 7, according to the constitution. Protesters were motivated by Moïse’s recent dictator-adjacent behavior, including arresting dozens of members of the political opposition. In early February, President Moïse forcibly retired three of the nation’s high court judges and arrested several other government officials he claimed were conspiring to overthrow his government and assassinate him.  

“We urge the population to remain calm,” President Moïse tweeted the day of the prison break.