Haiti is falling apart and there is no safety net – the perverse reality is that gangs have filled the gap

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Arriving in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the sheer scale of the poverty takes your breath away.

The streets are teeming with people but everywhere is shrouded in acrid smoke from piles of burning rubbish.

From the hills above Port-au-Prince, the city at times disappears in a fog of polluted air.

Wherever you walk people ask for money. Beggars trudge amid the crowds, unemployment is high and kidnapping of anyone – not just the rich – is a constant fear.

Gangs control 60% of the entire capital.

Much of the city is a no-go area, it’s simply too dangerous to venture inside the territory of the hundred-or-so gangs who operate here.

The police seem powerless to break the gangs down. They patrol in masks, carrying machine guns, but they do little to stop the crime rates that have rocketed in recent years.

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Civil society has been crushed by political failure.

There are no elected officials in office; the country is run by politicians with no mandate and virtually no popular support.

A cholera outbreak is ripping through the slums of Port-au-Prince and millions are starving.

 G9 is one of about 95 gangs that battle for supremacy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
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G9 is a coalition of gangs battling for supremacy in Port-au-Prince
Haiti is facing almost unprecedented levels of  gang violence. Pic Dominique Van Heerden
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A ‘no guns’ sign painted on the wall outside the health clinic in G9 territory

Haiti hasn’t really recovered from a devastating earthquake in 2010. I was there then and have returned in the intervening years.

Each time, I’m shocked that rather than getting better, it’s getting worse.

This country is falling apart and there is no safety net. The perverse reality is that the gangs have stepped in to fill the gap.

They offer work, protection, and security to those who welcome them.

I went to meet one of the leaders – he’s arguably the most famous, and he’s certainly the most vociferous.

Through a myriad of alleyways I was taken to his stronghold, surrounded by hooded armed men not wanting to show their faces on camera, I was introduced to the man known as ‘Barbecue’.

Barbecue is actually Jimmy Cherizier, a former policeman, now gang boss who is the acknowledged mouthpiece for a coalition of gangs called the G9.

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Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier has survived four assassination attempts

Folklore says his sobriquet comes from the way he treated his victims; his friends say it’s because his mum ran a fried chicken stall and he’s had the nickname since he was a child.

Either way, as he took large diamond earrings out and passed his revolver to a gunman before we could film, I decided I didn’t want to find out which story was nearer the truth.

Barbecue requested we first sat down for an interview before he walked me around his territory, pretty much in the centre of Port-au-Prince.

He describes G9 as a group of armed young men and women with an ideology to change the lives of those who live in Haiti’s notorious slums.

The Caribbean country has been bad for years and there is now no elected controlling authority at all.

Police patrols in the Haitian capital Port au Prince. Pic Dominque Van Heerden
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Police patrol but seem unable to break the gangs’ grip

Some countries are actively considering sending in foreign soldiers to impose order, but Barbecue warns it will only end in disaster.

“If we have an intervention, the international community is understanding enough to sit down and have a decent conversation with everyone,” he told me.

“But if they try to resolve it with guns, I think, many people in the slums could die and they will kill mostly innocent people, more than the guilty ones.”

Barbecue is a natural politician.

Many here question why at obvious moments of political vacuum he hasn’t ascended the steps of the presidential palace and taken control.

There were two separate opportunities, I am told, by well-connected commentators who believe he could’ve grasped power – but he didn’t.

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‘Barbecue’ says G9 wants to improve the conditions of people in the slums
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The leader of G9 is constantly escorted by armed guards

He is sanctioned by the UK and its allies for “engaging in acts threatening the peace, security and stability of Haiti”.

“I would like for one person to prove what they are accusing me of,” Barbecue told me. “I am a victim of a bunch of lies.”

Amongst the Haitian elite there is a view that Barbecue is in fact the pawn of a higher power.

He denies this and says he’s a man of the people. “We took up guns to change the living conditions of those less fortunate in the slums, we said it’s to change their lives, we don’t use guns to kidnap people,” he insisted.

Barbecue’s G9 is not known to be part of the overwhelming number of kidnappings taking place in Haiti today.

“We don’t kidnap, and we don’t rape. We are all fathers, we have sisters, aunts, we have kids. I have a daughter myself – I could never allow rape to happen around me.

“We don’t kill for money, but we do have guns to defend ourselves, because we can’t let others kill us.”

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Midway through our chat, his guards a few metres up the road started messing about and laughing loudly, he was out of his seat in seconds.

His anger was clear as he told them to shut up in no uncertain terms. He returned to his seat and apologised.

For the hours we were with Barbecue he was constantly escorted by these machine-gun-toting guards.

He has survived four assassination attempts.

A man lights candles at an altar set up for police officers who were killed by armed gangs, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti January 30, 2023. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol
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A man lights candles for police officers killed by armed gangs. Pic: Reuters

As we walked through his neighbourhood, people came out to greet him – some fist-pumping, others shaking his hand, many just staring.

He dispenses money and largesse. It’s hard to explain but this place is like a castle and inside Barbecue is the king.

He sees himself as a revolutionary fighting against the dark corruption of government and oligarch businessmen, but he is a gang leader. And his land – like all other gangs – is always under attack.

In some parts of his territory, his enemies are only one wall away.

We watched as he inspected his fighters manning the frontline barricades. Some are just breeze block walls with gaps for them to fire through.

In other streets, sheets and blankets are strung up across the roadway to obscure the view of enemy snipers. The last time I saw that was in Aleppo, Syria.

Make no mistake, Port-au-Prince is a war zone.

But the irony is, when we were filming, we were safer in the G9 gang’s territory than on most of the capital’s streets, where kidnapping, murder and rape are endemic. And that is something every single person lives with here every single day.

Pics: Dominique Van Heerden/Toby Nash/Reuters

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