The 14 alleged gang members arrested were arriving at a police station in Haiti’s capital when a group of people overpowered police, herded the suspects outside and used petrol to burn them alive.
The gruesome executions on April 24 marked the beginning of a brutal vigilante campaign to reclaim the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, from the gangs that have inflicted terror on Haitians for nearly two years.
In a nation wracked by extreme poverty and violence, civilians have taken up arms and killed at least 160 people believed to be gang members in the six weeks since a citizens’ « self-defense » movement known as « bwa kale » kicked off to his vigilantism with the blatant attack on the Police Headquarters, according to the data collected in a new report by a prominent Haitian human rights group.
The result: a sharp decline in kidnappings and gang-attributed killings in neighborhoods where people told The New York Times they were afraid to leave their homes.
« Before the 24th, someone would come by every day and ask me to give them money because of my small business, » said Marie, 62, who sells shoes on the streets of Port-au-Prince. The Times is withholding her full name and those of other residents referenced in this article for their own safety.
« When I didn’t have any money, they would take whatever they wanted from my table, and that was at any time of the day, » she said.
But two weeks ago, members of « bwa kale » – crude slang for erection – burned alive a man believed to be a gang member in front of his shoe stall.
Though she sees the revenge movement as « God starting to fix things, » Marie has her doubts.
« I support watchdog groups, but I don’t like the way they do it, » she said. “He could have been punished another way. He could have been arrested and put in jail. »
The outbreak of mob justice is worrying, Haiti experts say, because it could easily be used to target people who have nothing to do with gangs and could lead to an even worse outbreak of violence if gangs try vendetta.
That it took a self-proclaimed vigilante movement to bring a semblance of calm to parts of Port-au-Prince underscores the chaos enveloping a country where no president has been elected in two years and police underpaid and outgunned she fled in large numbers.
Even as vigilantes set people on fire and set up checkpoints, many Haitians support them and see them as a natural consequence of an acute power vacuum.
Nearly two years ago, the last elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home and replaced by an interim prime minister widely regarded as inept. Elections have not been held since the assassination, and the Caribbean nation of 11 million people no longer has elected officials.
Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry called last year for outside intervention, but efforts by the United States and other nations to create an international contingent have stalled, largely because no country wants to lead it.
The gangs have long controlled Haiti’s poorest neighborhoods, but their influence and violence grew after the killing of Moïse.
They fought for control of parts of Port-au-Prince through random killings, rape and kidnappings. A nine-day period last July saw 470 homicides, according to the United Nations. The violence prevented residents from working or working buy food, prompting many people to leave for the United States.
« People lived like rats that would come out of their holes just to eat, » said Arnold Antonin, 80, a Haitian filmmaker living in the Dominican Republic who fled last year when his wife, Beatriz Larghi, was kidnapped and gangs have taken control of his neighborhood, south of the capital. « Gangs were like cats. » (His wife was released unharmed after three days after a ransom was paid.)
On April 24, the residents decided that was enough. The 14 alleged gang members had been arrested and taken to a Port-au-Prince police station. Police officers watched helplessly as neighbors beat suspects and used gasoline-doused tires to set them on fire, according to the report by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, known as CARDH, which used a combination of field investigators , local authorities, witness accounts, media and verified social media reports to compile your details.
The murders were also captured on video which was widely shared.
« The country is close to anarchy, » said Nicole Phillips, a human rights lawyer in San Francisco who follows Haiti closely, noting that the vigilante killings are particularly concerning because many young boys are forcibly recruited into gangs. .
In one incident, a mob in Pétion-Ville, an affluent suburb of Port-au-Prince, left the charred bodies of five men they had killed near a police station along the road leading to Mr. Moïse’s house.
« The reaction of the population, after years of gangs imposing their law, can be attributed to self-defense, » said Gédéon Jean, executive director of CARDH. “Gangs are supported by certain authorities, politicians and businessmen. At nearly every level of the police force, gangs have ties to police officers. The police lack the means to systematically and simultaneously deal with the growing gangs. »
The « bwa kale » movement has led to a significant reduction in gang violence, according to the report. There were 43 homicides recorded in May, the most in Port-au-Prince, up from 146 in April, Jean said, adding that there were almost no kidnappings.
« Fear has switched sides, » said Mr. Antonin. He plans to return to Haiti in the coming weeks now that his neighborhood is back in community hands.
Although gang violence has apparently declined precipitously, gangs still remain powerful and control some important neighborhoods and streets, said Pierre Espérance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network.
« The problem is the correlation between gangs and people in power, » he said. “We do not see any willingness on the part of the authorities to improve the situation in Haiti. I won’t say I support bwa kale, but I will say I understand the people, because there is a lot of impunity and lack of authority, and they don’t have any choice. »
The rise of the vigilante movement, he said, underscored the international community’s inability to deal with the crisis.
President Biden said in March that military intervention was « not in play at the moment. Meanwhile, the US government has earmarked $92 million to help Haiti strengthen its security forces, including the supply of new police vehicles, the State Department said.
Mr. Henry, in a speech last month, urged citizens to lay down their arms.
« I ask my compatriots, despite what they have suffered at the hands of the bandits, to remain calm, » he said.
Vigilantism in Haiti is nothing new. It was used during the Haitian Revolution against the French in the late 1700s and was common in 1986 when former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted from the country and mobs attacked and massacred his associates.
The practice was known in Creole as dechoukaj, the uprooting of the old order.
« The people who are doing this are not criminals, » said Robert Maguire, a retired professor at George Washington University who has studied Haiti for decades. “They are just ordinary Haitians who are fed up, frustrated and scared. And they want some kind of security. If they have to do it themselves, they will. »
Amanda, 29, said she had to leave her home in the La Grotte neighborhood of Port-au-Prince in a hurry before dawn one April morning when gangs descended on her street. She slept on the sidewalks and hid from the assailants. The vigilantes then killed some of the gang members, she said, though with no guarantee they had taken the right people.
They now run checkpoints, helping keep strangers out of her neighborhood by checking IDs.
« I support the vigilance brigades, » he said. « When I pass a checkpoint, I accept that they check me. »
An energetic teenager who worked at a checkpoint vowed to keep up the pressure by closing the streets all night and interrogating people who tried to enter. It was necessary, he said, because the police were too afraid of gangs.
“We are ready to fight until things change in this country,” he said, refusing to give his name, for fear of being targeted by gangs. “Nothing can stop us”.
Emiliano Rodriguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.