PORT-AU-PRINCE (AP) – Gangs in Haiti have long been financed by powerful politicians and their allies — and many feel they may be losing control of the increasingly powerful armed groups who have driven thousands of people from their homes as they battle over territory, kill civilians and raid warehouses of food.
The escalation in gang violence threatens to complicate — and be aggravated by — political efforts to recover from last week’s brazen slaying of President Jovenel Moïse. Haiti’s government is in disarray; no parliament, no president, a dispute over who is prime minister, a weak police force. But the gangs seem more organized and powerful than ever.
While the violence has been centered in the capital of Port-au-Prince, it has affected life across Haiti, paralyzing the fragile economy, shuttering schools, overwhelming police and disrupting efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The country is transformed into a vast desert where wild animals engulf us,” said the Haitian Conference of the Religious in a recent statement decrying the spike in violent crime. “We are refugees and exiles in our own country.”
Gangs recently have stolen tens of thousands of bags of sugar, rice and flour as well as ransacking and burning homes in the capital. That has driven thousands of people to seek shelter at churches, outdoor fields and a large gymnasium, where the government and international donors struggle to feed them and find long-term housing.
Those included dozens of disabled people who were forced to flee last month when gangs set fire to the encampment where they settled after being injured in the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
Experts say the violence is the worst they’ve seen since in roughly two decades — since before the creation of a second UN peacekeeping mission in 2004.
Programs aimed at reducing gang activity and an influx of aid following the earthquake helped quell some of the problem, but once that money dried up and aid programs shut down, gangs turned to kidnappings and extortion from businesses and neighborhoods they control.
Gangs are in part funded by powerful politicians, a practice recently denounced even by one of its reputed beneficiaries — Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer who heads a gang coalition known as G9 Family and Allies.
He complained that the country is being held “hostage” by people he did not identify: “They reign supreme everywhere, distribute weapons to the populous quarters, playing the division card to establish their domination.”