PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – Jamie Scherizer zips through Haiti’s capital on the back of a motorbike, flanked by young men in black masks and automatic weapons.
While the collection of bicycles was flitted by graffiti that read “mafia boss” in Creole, street vendors selling vegetables, meat and vintage clothes on the sidewalk cast their eyes on the floor or peered curiously at peers.
Scherizerbetter known by his childhood nickname Barbecue, has become the most popular name in Haiti.
And here on his grounds, lined with tin-roofed houses and the bustling streets of the squatter settlement of La Saline, is the law.
Internationally, he is known as Haiti’s most powerful and feared cartel leader, sanctioned by the United Nations for “serious human rights abuses,” and the man behind the fuel embargo. That brought the Caribbean nation to its knees late last year.
But if you ask the former police officer with the gun tattooed on his arm, he’s a “revolutionary,” standing up for a corrupt government that left a nation of 12 million people in the dust.
“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just doing a social fight,” Cherizier, the 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 house with windows shattered by bullets. “I am a threat to the system.”
At a time when democracy has withered in Haiti and gang violence is spiraling out of control, it is armed men like Cherizir who are filling the power vacuum left by the collapsing government. In December, the United Nations estimated that gangs controlled 60% of Haiti’s capitalbut nowadays most people on the streets of Port-au-Prince would say that number is closer to 100%.
“There is, democratically speaking, little or no legitimacy” to the Haitian government, said Jeremy McDermott, president of InSight Crime, a think tank focused on organized crime. “This gives the gangs a stronger political voice and more justification for their claims to be the true representatives of the communities.”
It is something that conflict victims, politicians, analysts, aid organizations, security forces and international observers fear will exacerbate. They worry that civilians will face the brunt of the consequences.
Haiti’s history has always been tragic. Home to the largest slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere, the country gained its independence from France in 1804, ahead of other nations in the region.
But it has long been the poorest country in the hemisphere. In the 20th century, Haiti suffered a bloody dictatorship that lasted until 1986 and led to the mass execution of tens of thousands of Haitians.
The country has been plagued by political turmoil ever since, while it has suffered waves of devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera outbreaks.
The latest crisis entered its climax after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. In his absence, current Prime Minister Ariel Henry has emerged in a power struggle as the country’s leader.
Haiti approx 200 gang Taking advantage of the chaos, they wrestle for control.
Tension beats in Port-au-Prince. Police checkpoints dot busy intersections, and graffiti signs reading “Down with Henry” can be seen in every part of town. Haitians walk the streets with the anxiety of knowing that anything can happen at any moment.
An ambulance driver returning from transporting a patient told the Associated Press that he had been kidnapped, held for several days, and demanded a $1 million payment for his release.
Such ransoms are now commonplace, and gangs use them to fund their war.
According to the United Nations, an average of four people are kidnapped every day in Haiti estimates.
The United Nations recorded nearly 2,200 murders in 2022, double the previous year. Women in the country describe brutal gang rapes in gang-controlled areas. Patients in trauma units are caught in the crossfire, devastated by gunshots from gangs or police.
“No one is safe,” said Peterson Bean, a man with a bullet lodged in the face from being shot by police after he failed to stop at a police checkpoint on his way back from work.
Meanwhile, the horrific killing spree of police officers by gangs has sparked outrage Haitian protests.
After six officers were killed, a video spread on social media – likely filmed by gangs – that showed six naked bodies sprawled on the dirt with guns on their chests. Another clip shows two masked men using the officers’ severed limbs to hold their cigarettes while they smoke.
“Gang-related violence has reached levels not seen in years… touching close to all segments of society,” Helen Lime, the UN special envoy for Haiti, told a Security Council meeting in late January.
Henri, the prime minister, has asked the United Nations to lead a military intervention, but many Haitians insist this is not the solution, citing the past consequences of foreign intervention. in Haiti. Until now, no country has been willing to put soldiers on the ground.
The war has spilled over into the past Areas historically riven by violence are now consumed by mansion-lined streets once considered relatively safe.
La Lime highlighted the turf wars between Cherizier’s group, G9, and another group, G-Pep, as one of the main drivers.
In October, Schreizer was criticized by the United Nations Penaltiesincluding arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans.
The commission accused him of committing a bloody massacre in La Salle, crippling the country economically and using armed violence and rape to threaten “peace, security and stability in Haiti”.
At the same time, although he was not elected to power and his term expired, Henry, whose administration refused a request for comment, continued to lead a structural government. He pledged for a year and a half to hold a general election, but failed to do so.
In early January, the state lost its final democratically elected institution when ten nominally held senators ran out of office..
Patrice Dumont, one of the senators, said it had turned Haiti into a de facto “dictatorship”.
He said that even if the current government is willing to hold the elections, he does not know if that is possible due to the gangs’ strong hold on the city.
Citizens lose faith in their country. (Haiti) is facing social decline,” Dumont said. “We were already a poor country, and we are getting poorer because of this political crisis.”
At the same time, bandit leaders such as Schéryser increasingly resorted to political language, using the end of terms for senators to question Henry’s authority.
“Ariel Henry’s government is a de facto government. It’s a government that has no legitimacy,” Scherizer said.
Chérisier, gun tucked into the back of his jeans, took the AP around his La Salleine estate, showing the harsh conditions the communities live in. He denies the allegations against him, saying the penalties imposed on him are based on lies.
Scherizer, who did not tell the AP where his money came from, claims he is only trying to provide security and improve conditions in the areas he controls.
Scherizer walked among piles of trash and malnourished former children touting an iPhone with a picture of his face on the back. His team’s drone follows him watching his security as he weaves between rows of crowded shingle-and-shingle houses.
He did not allow a group of heavily armed men wearing masks, to photograph or take pictures of his guards and their weapons.
“We’re the bad guys, but we’re not the bad guys,” one of the men tells an Associated Press video journalist as he drives her through a crowded market.
While some have speculated that Schreizer would run for office if the election were held, Schreizer insists he would not.
What is clear, said McDermott of InSight Crime, is that gangs are reaping the rewards of political chaos.
Crime Insight estimates that before the boss was killed, Schreizer’s gangster federation, G9, got half of its money from the government, 30% from kidnappings, and 20% from extortion. After the killing, government funding decreased dramatically, according to the organization.
However, his gang’s power grew exponentially after the group blocked fuel distribution from the main gas station in Port-au-Prince for two months late last year.
The blockade paralyzed the country amid an outbreak of cholera and gave a foothold to other gangs. Cherizer claimed that the blockade was a protest against rising inflation, government corruption, and deepening inequality in Haiti.
Today, the G9 group controls much of central Port-au-Prince and is fighting for power elsewhere.
“The political Frankenstein has long lost control of the gang beast,” said McDermott. “They are now spreading all over the country without restriction, making money in whatever way they can, and above all kidnapping.”
Among those paying the price are civilians like 9-year-old Christina Julian.
A smiling girl, who dreams of being a doctor, wakes up curled up on the floor of her aunt’s balcony 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 to flee their homes because of the violence. It had been four months since I had been able to sleep in her bed.
Their neighborhood on the northern fringes of the city was once safe. But she and her mother, Sandra Santillos, 48, said things started to change last year.
The bustling streets emptied. At night, gunfire is ringing outside their window and when neighbors set off fireworks, Christina asks her mother if they were shot.
“When there were shootings, I couldn’t go out into the yard, I couldn’t go see my friends, I had to stay home,” Christina said. “I always had to lie on the floor with my mom, dad, sister and brother.”
Cristina begins to experience heart palpitations due to the stress and teacher Santlos’ concern for her daughter’s health. At the same time, Santlose and her husband feared that their children would be kidnapped on their way to school.
In October, during the siege of Cherizier, armed men belonging to the powerful 400 mauzu A gang broke into their neighborhood. That same gang was behind the kidnapping of 17 missionaries in 2021.
Christina saw a group of men with guns from a friend’s house and ran into the house. She tells Santlose, “Mom we have to leave, we have to leave. I just saw the mobsters running through with guns, we need to leave!”
They packed everything they could carry, and took refuge in a small two-bedroom family home in another part of town.
Life here is not easy, said Santlose, the main breadwinner in her family.
“I despaired of going to live in someone else’s house with so many children. I left everything, and left with only two suitcases,” she said.
Santlose scrambles to clean clothes, cook soup for her family in the dirt-floored kitchen, and helps Christina, sitting on an empty container of petrol, do her math homework meticulously.
When a gust of wind blows through the nearby hills, the rusty metal roof of the house they share with 10 other people shivers.
The mother once worked as a primary 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 made before.
Little Christina said she misses her friends and Barbie dolls.
But Santlose said the sacrifice was worth it. Over the past few months, she’s heard horror stories of her daughter’s classmates being kidnapped, neighbors having to pay a $40,000 ransom and killings right outside their home.
Here at least they feel safer. For now, she added.
Associated Press journalists Evens Sanon and Fernanda Pesce contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.
Contact the AP Global Investigative Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/