BY ONZ CHÉRY
This story is part of a special investigation into Haiti’s gang crisis and potential solutions. To view the full series visit our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look.
CAP-HAITIEN — After Jameson Davilma’s mother died from an illness when he was 13, the boy often counted on neighbors near his Cité Soleil home to survive. Sometimes, usually late at night, a neighbor might send him on en errand to buy food. Only then would Davilma have a bite from what the neighbor shared.
“Sometimes, I cried when I got hungry,” Davilma, now 30, recalls. “I’d wake up and couldn’t find even a piece of bread or a little coffee. I’d spent the whole morning with no food — couldn’t even buy a small marinad. Then by noon, my stomach was filled with gas.”
At the time, in 2005, a group of thugs who called themselves the “chimè” often hung out outside of their homes in Citè Soleil. Known as vociferous supporters of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the thugs also helped residents of the slum.
In fact, these chimè fed the hungry.
That’s what drew Davilma to the chimè. Soon enough, Davilma was hanging inside the thugs’ homes, running errands for them, riding in their cars and overall feeling useful. Once, Davilma recalls, he even picked up a handgun and handed it to James “Bily” Petit-Frère, then a renowned gang member, as the bandit left home.
However, before Davilma could get in any deeper, a friend helped him move into the home of an American in Pétion-Ville, then to Jacmel, where he currently resides.
“God did a lot for me,” Davilma said. “Friends help me too. That’s why I’m still here today. That’s why I’m not in trouble with the police.”
Unlike Davilma, scores of youth in Haiti’s poorest neighborhoods have gone much further with groups like the chimè, both then and now. Neighborhood groups that have evolved into “gangs” of varying affiliations that kidnap or kill at will, seemingly indiscriminately.
“They couldn’t move away from what was coming at them in life, they had no one to pull their ears — no mother, no father,” Davilma said. “But, they’re still outlaws, doing stuff they’re not supposed to do. Everybody knows where they belong — in jail or, if not, shot [dead].”
Rampant violence, or “insécurite” as Haitians call it, now plagues the Port-au-Prince region as neighborhood-based gangs fight to control the capital and its surrounding areas. By one count, at least 150 gangs exist in Haiti, according to Fondasyon Je Klere (FDJ), a human rights group. And according to the United Nations, between January and June 2022 alone, violence related to their battles have left more than 934 people dead.
In interviews with residents like Davilma, who have lived or worked in gang-led areas, and academic experts, many said joining these groups labeled as gangs was simply a way for younger people to support themselves as Haiti’s government failed to provide for its citizenry. But, the youngsters got caught up.
“If you can hold a gun and shoot, [and] not fall down, you’re old enough.”GUSTAVE JONAS, YOUTUBER / GANGS OBSERVER
Over time, the academics and experts say, Haiti’s gang crisis has become extremely alarming, creating an environment of constant fear in the populace. These groups now have access to powerful weapons in large quantities, exert full control over their territories and are in cahoots with police officers. Further, many gangs have forged political ties, giving them outsized influence on the country’s direction.
“Today, things are worse,” said Marie Rose Auguste Ducena, a program manager at the National Network of the Defense of Human Rights, or RNDDH. “Almost the entire political sector has a relationship with armed gangs.”
Duvalier started it — legally
Haiti’s version of gangs goes back decades, albeit in slightly different forms.
To many, Haiti’s first “gang” was the Volunteers for National Security Militia (VNS), the paramilitary force created in 1959 by then-President François Duvalier to suppress opponents. This group became better known as the “Tonton Makout,” tasked with protecting the state from supposed enemies.
Over their 28-year run, the Makout killed an estimated 60,000 people, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. They assaulted or tortured even more, causing countless Haitians to flee their homes for refuge abroad. The Makout, usually grown men who were prominent or respected in some capacity around the country, were seen as the country’s “bandi legal,” Creole for legalized thugs.
Their viciousness helped Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, remain in power until 1986. When the younger Duvalier’s was ousted that year, the group was finally disbanded.
About 15 years later, many said, the chimè emerged, playing a similar role of repression by helping squash opposition to Aristide.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, he [Aristide] armed young men in Cité Soleil,” said Zeke Petrie, an American who lived in Haiti from 1991 to 2012 and wrote a book about his experience, Reach and Fall. “I knew guys in Cité Soleil who used to get guns from an individual at the National Palace.”
As time passed, various politicians began using gang members during elections to ensure they “won” certain neighborhoods through force and intimidation. Ducena said human rights organizations denounced the wrongdoing but the people implicated were never sanctioned.
Unlike the Tonton Makout, the chimè of the early aughts were younger men who often grew up in impoverished neighborhoods, with no job or much parental supervision.
“They protected children in the area, never abused them,” said Davilma, whose own father, a tap tap driver, was often absent. “They protected grownups, protected their businesses. If you wanted to steal, you’d have to go somewhere else, not in Soleil 19.”
Meanwhile, the chimè also kidnapped people for ransom,stole frequently, killed and attacked Aristide’s opponents. One gang leader, Amaral Duclona, was accused of kidnapping and killing Claude Bernard Lauture, a Franco-Haitian entrepreneur who opposed Aristide, in January 2004.
The following month, Aristide was forced out. The United Nations then sent a peacekeeping force, the MINUSTAH, that eventually drove the armed groups to ground.
But after MINUSTAH left, new gangs emerged, beginning a new reign of terror.
Armed anew, gangs grow more powerful
By various counts, the model set by the chimè was enough to open the way. Over the years, neighborhood gangs have sprang up, with more weapons and ruthlessness, Petrie and Davilma said.
Where the Tonton Makout once carried batons to strike people and made opponents “disappear” under cover of night, today’s gangs carry high-magazine automatic guns and grab people in broad daylight from anywhere, including from church pews.
Joining a gang is rather simple too. And the perceived benefits, such as money for food, seem worth it.
“All you need is guts,” said Jonas “Ti Maroka” Gustave, a Youtuber, now based in the Dominican Republic, who blogs about Haiti’s gangs. “They might test you by giving you a gun to go steal a motorcycle or car, with other gang members.”
As far as age restrictions, there isn’t one.
“If you can hold a gun and shoot, you don’t fall, you’re old enough,” said Gustave, whose channel has garnered about 6,800 subscribers.
Kidnapping for ransom is the most lucrative of the crimes and has become ubiquitous . In 2021, the Croix-des-Bouquets gang, 400 Mawozo, gained international notoriety for kidnapping 17 American and Canadian missionaries.
Snatching a person, the gang members usually learn the target’s whereabouts and spy on the mark for a couple days before the kidnapping
Some gangs pay members after each crime, so a low-ranking street soldier might earn 1,000 or 2,000 gourdes after a crime, the equivalent of $7 or $15, Jonas said. The gang leaders take a portion to buy more weapons and bullets.
This pattern, repeated over time, has put Haiti in the 65th position for arms trafficking in the world, according to a Global Organized Crime Index.
Even the police force has had its own gang internally, called Fantom 509. In recent years, it became best known for setting government vehicles and buildings on fire to protest against poor working conditions at the Haitian National Police (PNH). In September 2020, the group claimed responsibility for setting the National Office of Identification (ONI) on fire twice to demand the release of police officer Jean-Pascal Alexandre, a suspected Fantom 509 member. Alexandre, who was arrested for arson and destruction of public property, was released nine days later.
Since then, gangs have taken over several police stations in their baz, or neighborhoods, and even the judiciary’s main courthouse complex. In their zeal to control territories, armed bandits have resisted PNH efforts to arrest them by shooting back during operations, leaving both suspected criminals and police officers dead.
Gangs as Haiti’s de facto leaders?
It’s enough to make some officers quit the force. Yet, PNH has continued to carry out various operations daily, promising to restore order in the country. This, if it receives enough equipment to continue mounting clean-up offensives.
Another gang that rose in notoriety in recent years is Force Revolution G9, led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier. Many residents and human rights advocates have said G9 operated under former President Jovenel Moïse and accused it of carrying out two massacres in areas that did not support Moïse — La Saline in 2018 and Bel Air in 2020.
Chérizier has denied those accusations, maintaining that G9 is rather a revolutionary group. Chérizier, a former police officer, often held Facebook Live streams and portrayed himself as a protector.
In November 2020, Chérizier held a livestream that featured Joseph “Kiki” Obed, a suspected murderer who had been wanted by police in the kidnapping, killing and dismembering of Evelyne Sincère, a 22-year-old student. Chérizier then announced he would hand over Obed to the police.
Chérizier has also taken on roles usually reserved for officials. In October 2021, he traveled to Pont Rouge to lay a wreath at a Jean-Jacques Dessalines monument to commemorate the 215th death anniversary of the nation’s first leader. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Henry did not lay a wreath because gang members fired on his motorcade while he was en route to the bridge. It was rumored that G9 members shot at Henry, an accusation Chérizier denied.
“Ariel didn’t make it to Pont Rouge,” Chérizier told The Haitian Times then, slightly raising his voice. “To shoot someone you have to see him. We were in Pont Rouge, [so] you can’t say we shot at Ariel Henry.”
Under Chérizier’s leadership, G9 grew so powerful that in November 2021, it seized control of Varreux, a port terminal where such goods as fuel come into the country, and demanded Henry’s resignation.
“The federation of armed groups G9 and allies is a big first in the history of crime in Haiti,” said Allermy Pierrevilus, executive director of the Haitian Human Rights Organization Platform (POHDH). “For me it is a big step in criminality in the country with the complicity of the government but also of the international.”
Other gang leaders such as Tilapli, Izo and Krisla have controlled access between Port-au-Prince and Haiti’s southern region since June 2021. The roadblocks, manned by armed bandits, have paralyzed many facets of residents’ lives, including commuting for school and work. It is now harder for entrepreneurs in the South to purchase and transport products and for residents to see loved ones on the other side of the roadblock.
Gang members have also been fighting for territories more frequently, forcing masses of residents to flee their homes. In one exodus in May, according to the United Nations, about 9,000 people fled from Tabarre, Croix-des-Bouquets, Cité Soleil, La Plaine and other areas around Haiti’s capital.
When a gang has control of an area it becomes easier for its members to fight the police there and they can use that territory to hold people they kidnapped captive, Gustave said.
“The more territory they have, the more comfortable they are,” Gustave said.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier made Joseph “Kiki” Obed confess that he killed Evelyne Sincère in a livestream. Obed confessed to the police.