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Armed with machetes, stones, Haitians fight back against gangs - but there's a deadly price

Miami Herald - 5/2/2023

Fritzgerald Vixamar is normally a businessman who runs a school in Haiti.

But not today. Today he sees himself as a soldier preparing for battle.

As he sharpens the steel blades of two machetes against each other in a street market in Cap-Haïtien, above the clanging sounds he issues an ominous warning to the armed gangs terrorizing Haiti with daily kidnappings, rapes and killings.

"We are not going to let gangs come from Port-au-Prince and enter the north," he says. "If they do, we're going to chop off their heads."

Vixamar, 49, who is appealing to Haitians abroad to provide 100,000 machetes, says people in in his country have had enough, and are joining forces with the police to fight back, with whatever weapons they can get, against the murderous gangs that have grown in strength since the brazen July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

"This is a cry of war," he told the Miami Herald days after making his declaration in a video that has gone viral. "Haiti is at war, and not just any war. It's a civil war between the gangs, the population and the national police... and the population is taking justice into its own hands."

In a nation where the battle cry "Koupe tet, boule kay" -- "Cut off heads, burn down houses" -- powered the successful 1791-1804 revolution, Haitians are once more invoking the same defiance. This time, their enemy isn't the French colonizers who kept them in slavery, but the illegal armed groups whose deadly turf wars have been turning once peaceful neighborhoods into bloody battlegrounds.

Adopting a popular Haitian Creole expression about a man's virility,"Bwa Kale" -- street slang for an erection -- and turning it into a war cry of civil disobedience and determination, Haitians are arming themselves with machetes, gasoline, matches, bottles, tires and rocks and chasing down heavily armed gangs across the country.

Their promise to uproot gangs is being welcomed by residents who have grown desperate and frustrated waiting for outside intervention, and as Haitian police remain outnumbered and outgunned by gangs.

But the popular movement is also stoking fears that the revolt may be sowing the seeds of more violence, as it sometimes targets people other than suspected gang members -- and mobs act as judge, jury and executioner.

Videos circulating on social media show Haitians in the mountains above the capital tying up suspected gang members and pushing them into pits made of burning tires. Elsewhere around the capital suspected gang members have been beaten or stoned to death. The reaction has spread outside Port-auPrince: Even the provinces are now in a heightened state of alert, with residents threatening to arrest or lynch any suspicious persons trying to seek refuge in their communities.

In the rural Artibonite Valley, two men were dragged out of a police precinct in the small town of Gros-Morne and beaten to death while a crowd screamed, "Bwa Kale, Bwa Kale." In the city of Marigot in the southeast, where crowds also demanded that police hand over a presumed bandit, a suspected gang member was stoned to death, his battered and bloody corpse left in the middle of the road with a tire on top.

The vigilante killings have left so many suspected gang members dead in recent days -- one human rights advocate has put the tally at around 100-- that even policemen involved in the anti-gang effort say there are too many bodies to count.

Speaking at a press conference last week, Haiti National Police Spokesman Garry Desrosiers condemned the killings, telling Haitians: "Do not take justice into your own hands."

Still, he and other authorities have made it clear that Haitians have little choice but to fend for themselves because of the number of gang-related killings and the growing territory they now control. The level of violence had reached "levels comparable to those in countries in situations of armed conflict," the United Nations noted in a recent report.

"The way things are now there is no other way out," said a young woman in the Nazon neighborhood of the capital, where residents are using fuel and water tanker trucks as barriers to keep gangs out. "We have to defend ourselves, because we don't have anyone to do it for us."

The gang-fueled violence, she said, has gone on for far too long.

"If there was any political will to change it, we would have seen it already," she said, declining like so many others interviewed by the Herald to give her name.

"The only visible change has been what's been going on in the last week, where we the people have decided to take charge of our own destiny."

Stray bullets and extrajudicial killings

Gang violence has become so prevalent that hospitals and schools have been forced to close as attacks against them become more common. School children are getting hit by stray bullets while sitting in class, and kids are being targeted for gang rapes, kidnapping and killing by the hundreds of criminal groups that now control about 80% of Port-au-Prince.

The anger at the gangs finally erupted in violence last week when residents in the southeast Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of Canapé-Vert, Turgeau, Debussy, Pacot and Croix-Deprez woke up to the sounds of automatic gunfire and gangs announcing on megaphones that they had seized control of the communities.

Unwilling to be taken over, men in the communities evacuated the women and children, grabbed machetes and rocks and attacked the gang members who had divided into groups of 20 or 30.

Residents in Canapé-Vert intercepted 13 suspected gang members traveling in a mini-bus who had been stopped at a police checkpoint. The crowd dragged the men from the police, beat them with stones and hacked them with machetes, then set them ablaze with burning tires. The explosion of violence set off a chain reaction, as residents in other neighborhoods beheaded suspected gang members and burned their bodies in the streets.

In Debussy, as police launched an assault to stop the armed groups from taking control of the strategically located neighborhood, the population joined in the manhunt. Machete-wielding residents of nearby Carrefour Feuilles followed, joined by police in civilian clothes who helped them track down armed gang members.

Elsewhere in the capital resident formed citizens' brigades, imposed curfews and checkpoints, beefed up patrols from rooftops and used vehicles, sandbags and even tires to block access to their neighborhoods.

Haiti's new United Nations envoy in Port-au-Prince, María Isabel Salvador, told the U.N. Security Council last week that Haitians' decisions to take matters into their own hands will inevitably lead to the breakdown of the social fabric, with "unpredictable consequences for the entire region."

In the making for months, the population's violent backlash to take back control of their streets is just the latest example of extrajudicial killings targeting suspected gang members. Such vigilante acts have been accompanied by a shifting attitude that the actions are justifiable in the face of Haiti's overcrowded prisons, ill-equipped police and corrupt judges who quickly release detained gang members.

When a human rights advocate wrote an open letter last year to the justice ministry, expressing concerns about a government-appointed prosecutor in Miragoâne, Jean-Ernest Muscadin, carrying out extrajudicial killings of a suspected gang member, she faced protests and threats.

Marie Yolène Gilles, head of the Eyes Wide Open Foundation, wrote to the ministry after a widely circulated video showed Muscadin accusing Elvain Saint-Jacques of being a member of the Village de Dieu gang. Muscadin then tells Saint-Jacques to "say his last words to his parents" -- and shoots him at point-blank range.

Muscadin later threatened to arrest Gilles over her criticism, and thousands demonstrated in his favor in the streets saying, "If Muscadin weren't here, we would all be dead."

Earlier this year, support for the prosecutor extended to Haitians abroad, who launched an online GoFundMe campaign that raised thousands of dollars to buy an armored vehicle for Muscadin. The GoFundMe page was later shut down by the crowdfunding platform after someone complained.

Killings move Haiti in wrong direction

Louis-Henri Mars, the executive director of Lakou Lapè, a conflict-management and peacebuilding organization in Port-au-Prince, said the vigilante killings are moving Haiti, already on the brink of anarchy, "in the wrong direction."

Still, he says he understands people's frustrations, which finally boiled over in two separate but connected incidents last week. One was the death during a police operation of notorious gang leader Carlo Petithomme, known as Ti Makak, whose gang had been terrorizing residents in the wealthy enclaves of Laboule and Thomassin. The second was the detention of some of his suspected soldiers by police and their seizure by the angry mob in Canape-Vert.

Police spokesman Desrosiers last week confirmed Petithomme's death, but offered little detail other than he was fatally injured during the police operation. Others, who closely follow gang activities, claim the gang chief was killed by another leader. Either way the death removed the aura of invincibility he and others had, Mars said.

"It's pent-up trauma exploding," he said about the Haitian people's decision to fight back.

Over 100,000 displaced

As of last month, at least 130,000 people had been displaced by the gang violence just in metropolitan Port-a-Prince.

Salvador, the U.N. envoy who just arrived in Port-au-Prince in April, said the gang violence "is expanding at an alarming rate." Homicides, rapes, kidnappings and lynchings have more than doubled to 1,647 in the first quarter of this year, from 692 in the same period in 2022, she said. She described the violent trend as "shocking."

The Haiti police force barely has 3,500 officers on the streets at any given time, she said, reiterating U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres' urgent call for the rapid deployment of a specialized international force to help cops counter the violence.

"The national police succeed in mounting some effective anti-gang operations, but holding these security gains is merely momentary," she said. "The need for urgent international support to the police to address the rapidly deteriorating security situation cannot be overemphasized."

Gangs massacres, government silence

Until this week, Haitian police, who have lost more than 20 officers to gang violence so far this year, appeared to have ceded control of the capital and parts of the Artibonite Valley to the gangs.

Despite a number of massacres, at least eight of which were documented by the human rights group National Human Rights Defense Network in its latest report, the government has remained largely silent, leading to demands for changes at the top.

James, a resident of Carrefour Feuilles, said Haitians are "outraged" by both the vicious cycle of violence and by the inability of Haiti National Police Chief Frantz Elbé and Prime Minister Ariel Henry to do anything about it. Neither man had personally addressed the population, either about the recent massacres or the vigilante killings, although Henry finally broke his silence Monday in a videotaped message Monday to commemorate May Day, and appealed to the population to work with the police.

"We are living in a country that doesn't have any safe space," said James, who declined to give his last name. He demanded that Elbé and Henry resign. "We are fed-up with the gang violence. We can't take it any longer because everyone is a victim."

Alix, who also lives in Carrefour Feuilles, said residents go to bed each night not knowing if their house will be the next one to be looted or burned by gangs, and if they too will have to flee from the encroaching sound of automatic gunfire.

"The poor cannot take it anymore. It's God who is giving us strength to stand up and fight back," he said.

A deadly price

But standing up to the gangs carries a price.

For months, the people of Source Matelas lived in fear of gang attacks, as armed groups operating in nearby Canaan and Titanyen, attempted to turn the nearby women's prison in Cabaret into their base.

After an attack last November left at least 72 people dead and 29 women and girls were gang raped, a citizen's brigade erected barricades to keep out gangs by blocking entry into their rural community off National Highway No. 1 connecting Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien.

It worked, for a while. Then on April 19 armed bandits once more attacked the Cabaret prison and then, traveling aboard three buses, raided Sources Matelas in broad daylight, setting homes on fire.

"They killed babies, they killed pregnant women," said a resident whose 87-year-old uncle was among the victims. "They killed everyone they crossed paths with."

Among the dead were members of the citizens' brigade, who after sounding the alert about the coming attack found themselves outnumbered. The National Human Rights Defense Network said it it appeared the deadly attack was retaliation because the residents had dared to erect barricades to protect themselves.

Haiti's Office of Civil Protection said at least 48 people were killed. Pierre Christian Jean, a government representative for the area, told the Herald that the death toll has now risen to at least 100.

Inspired by the rebellion against the gangs taking place around the country, he said thousands of residents of Source Matelas, joined by people in nearby Cabaret and the police, launched their own "Bwa Kale" movement Saturday to chase the gangs out. While two locals lost their lives, Jean said, at least five gang members were killed.

"The population isn't standing down," he said. "It's unacceptable that bandits are deciding what the population can or can't do. They are the ones who should be the run."

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