The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in his heavily guarded private residence on July 7 shocked the nation. But it happened at a time when violence is surging in the country. Many Haitians say that killings, kidnappings and random shootings are at levels they’ve never seen before.
According to security officials, criminal gangs dramatically expanded their control over parts of Port-au-Prince during Moïse’s time in office. Some of Moïse’s critics say this was no accident. They charge that the former president not only allowed gangsters to operate freely but worked with them to destabilize some of the most destitute neighborhoods in the capital, particularly areas loyal to his political opponents.
The capital’s violence has its biggest impact on the poor
Whatever the reason, the rise in violence is being felt most acutely by some of the country’s poorest residents. Residents like Marie René Bonet.
Bonet spent most of her life in the Martissant neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The 73-year-old raised her children there. But in early June the situation became intolerable.
“I was at my daughter’s house and we heard shots,” Bonet says. “We rushed out to a church to pray. But then we were forced to leave the shrine and take refuge at a friend’s house. When we arrived, I found my friend’s family packing up to leave their house.”
Gang members were moving block-by-block through the neighborhood of cinder-block and sheet-metal homes, looting, shooting, taking whatever they wanted. The violence had been escalating since the beginning of the year. The police had abandoned their local barracks months earlier.
That was the last night Bonet spent at her own home.
Tears well up in her eyes as she describes how her family fled the next morning. Along with two of her grown children and four members of their families, they left taking only what they could carry.
“From the beginning, people have been dying, people have been shot,” she says. “Nobody says, ‘No, this can’t continue.’ And now the situation is getting worse.”
Many Haitians are effectively refugees in their own country
A friend from church let them move into one of his kid’s bedrooms in a house that’s still under construction in a neighborhood all the way across Port-au-Prince from Martissant.
There are now 13 people living in the three-bedroom cinder-block building. Bonet worries that she’s imposing on the owner of the house.
“I feel better here, because I don’t hear the sound of gunshots,” she says. “But when I’m here, it makes me very sad because the owner of this house also has children in the house. It bothers me. I would like to give them their space back.”
Her son, Junior Milien, says he’s trying to raise enough money to move out but for now they have few options.
“We just sleep on the floor,” he says, holding back a curtain to show a small dark room with a rough concrete floor. “We put down some sheets and we sleep on the floor.”
Milien says he wanted to go back to Martissant to retrieve some of their belongings.
“When we tried to get back, there was a lot of shooting,” he says. Neighbors warned him not to try to return to his mother’s house. “They said the (gang members) shoot on people. If you come into your house to take your things, they will shoot on you.”
He heard from another friend that their home had been ransacked.
“We just learned recently that they took everything,” he says.
His mom says she and her family have become refugees in their own city.
Aid organizations are also targeted
This family is not alone. The U.N.’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that nearly 15,000 people have been forced from their homes in Port-au-Prince just over the last six weeks.
Doctors Without Borders shut down its clinic in Martissant after it was attacked on June 26. The month before, one of their staff was robbed and killed.
“He was the father of three children,” says Julien Bartoletti, the Haiti mission director for Doctors Without Borders France.
And in February, gun battles forced the medical charity to move its burn unit out of a clinic in Drouillard, near Cité Soleil.
“It’s like a war context in some neighborhoods,” Bartoletti says.
There are front lines that certain people, including some of his staff, can’t cross. “We can’t have patients in a burn ward with this high level of insecurity,” he says.
Doctors Without Borders had to relocate that burn unit, the only one in the country treating severe burns, to a larger trauma hospital in the Tabarre neighborhood. But Tabarre faces its own security challenges.
The rising level of violence, Bartoletti says, is the biggest challenge to Doctors Without Borders operations right now in Haiti.
“Our staff, we thank them a lot,” says Bartoletti, “because every day they are at risk at any time of kidnapping, robberies, killings. They are really brave. When they decide to come to work for [Doctors Without Borders], they are at risk on their way in, and on their way back.”
Critics of Moïse blame him for much of the security crisis
Things were already unstable in Haiti before the assassination of Moïse. Now, they’re even more unstable.
Attorney Samuel Madistin says that this is no accident. He says Moïse gave the gangs carte-blanche to do just about whatever they want.
“Those gangs have impunity, official impunity,” Madistin declares smacking his desk with his palm. “There’s been no trials for any gangs for three years.”
Madistin is a criminal defense attorney. He says usually he handles 50 cases or so a year. But after Moïse took office, the number of trials started to dry up. Just as Moïse let parliament dissolve and never held elections to reinstate it, the slain president allowed the judicial system to collapse, Madistin says.
Courts shut down as judges weren’t appointed to fill empty seats. Prosecutors stopped filing charges. Suspects languished in jail. Madistin says he hasn’t had a single case go to trial since 2018.
“And every day you have people killed, you have people raped every day, kidnapped every day,” Madistin says, and the government does “nothing to stop this bad situation. Nothing!”
The criminals feel so untouchable that after Moïse’s assassination the leader of one of the largest gangs in the capital, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, held a press conference to weigh in on the political crisis.
A former police officer turned head of the G9 gang, Chérizier called Moïse’s killers “cowardly” and called for justice for the slain president. He also warned that his forces will use their weapons to protect the Haitian people.
“We invite all those who are trying to take advantage of this coup to think carefully,” he told the assembled reporters. “And consider whether they have in their hands the appropriate solution to the country’s problems.”
Getting arrested or held accountable for the reign of terror he’s unleashed was the last thing on the gangster’s mind.
Moïse’s poor governance may have been his undoing
Haitian journalist Monique Clesca says Moïse was a victim of his own efforts to weaken the power of the Haitian state.
“While he was in power [Moïse] really worked very hard to destroy or weaken a lot of the country’s institutions, including the security apparatus,” she says. “And this moment shows us that he was successful. The security apparatus of the Republic of Haiti was not able to save the president.”
And the assassination sent a chilling message to ordinary Haitians, that “nobody else is safe,” Marie René Bonet’s son Junior Milien says. “If they get mad at you, they can enter your house and shoot you easily. That’s the message this is sending right now to people. People are afraid.”
Madistin, the attorney, says this has to change. He was no friend of Jovenel Moïse. Madistin calls the former president a dictator. But he says Haiti needs justice for Moïse.
“Justice is symbolic. It’s not for the individual person,” he says. “It is to say to everyone, ‘We can’t accept these things. We can’t accept crime in our society.'”
Building a criminal case against the assassins of Moïse, Madistin says, would symbolize that Haiti’s justice system is functioning again, that impunity won’t be tolerated, that the country is moving in a new direction.
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