In Haiti, gangs take control as democracy withers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Jimmy Cherizier races through Haiti’s capital on a motorcycle, flanked by young men wearing black and leopard masks and carrying automatic weapons.

As the pack of bicycles flies past graffiti that reads “Mafia Boss” in Creole, street vendors selling vegetables, meat and old clothes on the curb glance to the ground or peer curiously.

Cherisierbest known by his childhood nickname Barbecue, has become the most famous name in Haiti.

And here, in his territory, surrounded by the tin-roofed houses and busy streets of the informal settlement of La Saline, he is the law.

Internationally, he is known as Haiti’s most powerful and feared gang leader, sanctioned by the United Nations for “serious human rights violations” and the man behind fuel blockage which brought the Caribbean nation to its knees late last year.

But if you ask the ex-policeman with tattoos of guns running down his arm, he’s a “revolutionary” standing up against the corrupt government that left a nation of 12 million people in the dust.

“I am not a thief. I am not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just waging a social battle,” Cherizier, leader of the G9 Family and Allies, told The Associated Press as he sat on a chair in the middle of an empty road in the shadow of a home with bullet-shattered windows. “I’m a threat to the system.”

At a time when Haiti’s democracy has withered and gang violence has spiraled out of control, gunmen like Cherisier are filling the power vacuum left by the crumbling government. In December, The UN has estimated that the gangs control 60% of the Haitian capitalbut today, most on the streets of Port-au-Prince say that number is closer to 100%.

“Democratically speaking, there is little or no legitimacy” to the Haitian government, said Jeremy McDermott, head of InSight Crime, a research center focused on organized crime. “It gives gangs a stronger political voice and more justification for their claims to be true representatives of communities.”

It is something that conflict victims, politicians, analysts, humanitarian organizations, security forces and international observers fear will only get worse. They worry that civilians will bear the brunt of the consequences.


Haiti’s history has long been tragic. Home to the largest slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, the country achieved independence from France in 1804, ahead of other countries in the region.

But it has long been the poorest country in the hemisphere, and Haiti in the 20th century suffered a bloody dictatorship that lasted until 1986 and resulted in the mass execution of tens of thousands of Haitians.

Since then, the country has been plagued by political turmoil while suffering waves of devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera epidemics.

The latest crisis came full force after the 2021 assassination President Jovenel Moise. In his absence, current Prime Minister Ariel Henry has emerged in a power struggle as the country’s leader.

Haiti is almost 200 gangs have taken advantage of the chaos, fighting for control.

Tensions are high in Port-au-Prince. Police checkpoints dot busy intersections, and graffiti tags that read “down with Henry” can be seen in every part of the city. Haitians walk the streets with an anxiety that comes from knowing that anything can happen at any moment.

An ambulance driver returning from carrying a patient told the AP he was kidnapped, held for days and demanded to pay $1 million to be released.

Such ransoms are now commonplace, used by gangs to fund their wars.

An average of four people are kidnapped a day in Haiti, according to the United Nations grades.

The UN recorded nearly 2,200 murders in 2022, double the number of the previous year. Women in the country have described brutal gang rapes in areas controlled by gangs. Trauma patients are caught in the crossfire, ravaged by gunfire from gangs or police.

“Nobody’s safe,” said Peterson Peen, a man with a bullet lodged in his face after being shot by police after failing to stop at a police checkpoint on his way home from work.

Meanwhile, there has been a spate of gruesome murders of police officers by gangs caused outrage and the Haitian protests.

After the killing of six policemen, a video circulating on social media – possibly shot by gangs – showed six naked bodies stretched out on the ground with guns on their chests. Another shows two masked men using officers’ dismembered limbs to hold their cigarettes while they smoke.

“Gang-related violence has reached levels not seen in years … affecting almost all segments of society,” Helen La Lime, the UN special envoy for Haiti, told a Security Council meeting in late January.

Henry, the prime minister, asked the United Nations to lead a military intervention, but many Haitians insist that is not the solution, citing past consequences of foreign interference in Haiti. So far, no country has been willing to put boots on the ground.

There is war extended past historically violence-torn areas now engulfing streets of mansions once considered relatively safe.

La Lime highlighted turf wars between Cherizier’s group, G9, and another, G-Pep, as one of the key drivers.

In October, the UN denounced Cherizier with sanctionsincluding an arms embargo, asset freeze and travel ban.

The body accused him of carrying out a bloody massacre in La Salline, economically paralyzing the country and using armed violence and rape to threaten “the peace, security and stability of Haiti”.

Meanwhile, despite not being elected to power and his term expiring, Henry, whose administration declined a request for comment, continued to head a skeleton government. He promised to hold a general election in a year and a half, but he did not.


In early January, the country lost its last democratically elected institution when the terms of 10 senators symbolically occupying the post ended their terms.

He turned Haiti into a de facto “dictatorship,” said Patrice Dumont, one of the senators.

He said that even if the current government wanted to hold elections, he did not know if it would be possible due to the tight grip of gangs in the city.

“Citizens are losing confidence in their country. (Haiti) is facing social degradation,” Dumont said. “We were already a poor country and we have become poorer because of this political crisis.”

At the same time, gang leaders such as Cherizier increasingly invoked political language, using the end of senatorial terms to question Henry’s authority.

“Ariel Henry’s government is a de facto government. This is a government that has no legitimacy,” Cherizier said.

Cherisier, a gun tucked into his jeans, took the AP around his grounds in La Salline, explaining the harsh conditions in which the communities live. He denies the allegations against him, saying the sanctions imposed on him were based on lies.

Cherizier, who would not tell the AP where his money comes from, says he is simply trying to provide security and improve conditions in the areas he controls.

Cherisier walked through piles of trash and past malnourished children advertising an iPhone with a picture of his face on the back. A drone belonging to his security team follows him as he weaves through rows of packed homes made from sheet metal and wooden planks.

Followed by a group of heavily armed masked men, he did not allow the AP to film or take pictures of his guards and their weapons.

“We’re the bad guys, but we’re not the bad-bad guys,” one of the men told an AP video reporter as he led her through the crowded market.

While some have speculated that Cherizier will run for the post if an election is held, Cherizier insists that he will not.

It’s clear, InSight Crime’s McDermott said, that gangs are reaping rewards from the political chaos.

InSight Crime grades that before the president’s assassination, Cherizier’s gang federation, the G9, got half of its money from the government, 30% from kidnapping and 20% from extortion. Since the assassination, government funding has dropped significantly, according to the organization.

Yet his gangs have grown significantly in power since the group blocked the distribution of fuel from Port-au-Prince’s key fuel terminal for two months late last year.

The blockade paralyzed the country in the midst of a cholera epidemic and gave other gangs footholds to expand. Cherizier claimed the blockade was a protest against rising inflation, government corruption and deepening inequality in Haiti.

Today, the G9 controls much of downtown Port-au-Prince and is fighting for power elsewhere.

“The political Frankenstein has long since lost control of the monster gang,” McDermott said. “Now they run wild all over the country without restriction, making money in any way they can, mainly kidnapping.”


Civilians like 9-year-old Christina Julien are among those paying the price.

The smiling girl with dreams of being a doctor wakes up curled up on the floor of her aunt’s porch next to her parents and two sisters.

She is one of at least 155,000 people in Port-au-Prince alone who have been forced from their homes by the violence. It’s been four months since she can sleep in her own bed.

Their neighborhood on the northern outskirts of the city was once safe. But she and her mother, Sandra Saintloose, 48, said things started to change last year.

The once bustling streets have emptied. At night, gunfire rang out outside their window, and when the neighbors set off fireworks, Christina would ask her mother if they were bullets.

“When there were shootings, I couldn’t go to the yard, I couldn’t go see my friends, I had to stay in the house,” Christina said. “I always had to lie on the floor with my mum, dad, sister and brother.”

Christina started having heart palpitations due to the stress and the teacher Sainteluz was worried about her daughter’s health. At the same time, Sainteluz and her husband feared that their children might be kidnapped on their way to school.

In October, during the blockade of Cherisier, armed men belonging to the powerful 400 Maroso a gang broke into their neighborhood. The same gang was behind kidnapping of 17 missionaries in 2021

Christina saw a group of men with guns from a friend’s house and ran home. She said to Sainteluz, “Mom, we have to go, we have to go. I just saw the gangsters walk by with their guns, we have to leave!’

They packed everything they could carry and sought refuge in the small two-bedroom home of family members in another part of town.

Life here is not easy, said Sainteluz, the main breadwinner for his family.

“I felt desperate living in a foreign home with so many children. I left everything, I left with only two bags,” she said.

Centeluz gets busy scrubbing clothes, cooking soup for his family in the dirt-floored kitchen, and helping Cristina, sitting on top of an empty gasoline container, meticulously do her math homework.

Every time a gust of wind blows through the nearby hills, the rusted metal roof of the house they share with 10 other people shivers.

The mother once worked as an elementary school teacher, earning 6,000 Haitian gourdes ($41) a month. She had to stop teaching two years ago because of the violence. Now she sells slush on the side of the road, earning a fraction of what she once made.

Young Christina said she misses her friends and Barbie dolls.

But the sacrifice is worth it, Sainteluz said. In the past few months, she has heard horrific stories of her daughter’s classmates being kidnapped, neighbors being held to a $40,000 ransom, and murders right outside their house.

At least they feel safer here. For now, she added.


Associated Press reporters Evens Sanon and Fernanda Pesce contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.



Contact the AP Global Investigative Team at [email protected] or

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