Jimmy Cherizier rides through the Haitian capital on the back of a motorcycle, flanked by young men in black leopard-print masks and carrying automatic weapons.
As the motorcycle squad passes graffiti reading “Mob Boss” in Creole, sidewalk vendors selling vegetables, meat and used clothing stare at the ground or gaze curiously at it.
Cherizier, better known by his childhood nickname Barbecue, has become the most recognized name in Haiti.
And here on his turf, characterized by tin-roofed houses and the bustling streets of the La Saline informal settlement, he rules the law.
Internationally, he is known as the most powerful and feared gang leader in Haiti, sanctioned by the United Nations for committing “serious human rights abuses.” He was the man who late last year orchestrated a fuel blockade that brought the Caribbean nation to its knees.
But if anyone asks him, a former police officer with gun tattoos on his arm, he’ll say he’s a “revolutionary” fighting a corrupt government that has left a nation of 12 million people in the dust.
“I am not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnappings. I am not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social struggle,” says Cherizier, leader of the gang “G9 et Famille” (“G9 and family”). He spoke to The Associated Press sitting on a chair in the middle of an empty street, in the shadow of a house with its windows shattered by bullets. “I’m a threat to the system,” he adds.
As democracy withers in Haiti and gang violence spirals out of control, it is gunmen like Cherizier who fill the power vacuum left by a crumbling government. In December, the UN estimated that gangs controlled 60% of the Haitian capital, but today most Port-au-Prince street dwellers say that figure is closer to 100%.
In Haiti’s government, “democratically speaking, there is little or no legitimacy,” says Jeremy McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a think tank specializing in 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 victims of the conflict, politicians, analysts, aid organizations, security forces and international observers fear will worsen. Civilians, they fear, will bear the brunt of the consequences.
The history of Haiti has been tragic. Home to the largest slave uprising in the Americas, the country achieved independence from France in 1804, ahead of other countries on the continent. Yet Haiti has long been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and in the 20th century endured a bloody dictatorship that lasted until 1986, after causing the mass execution of tens of thousands of Haitians.
The Caribbean country has been plagued by political turmoil ever since. To make matters worse, it has suffered devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, and cholera outbreaks.
The latest crisis came into full swing after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021. In his absence, current Prime Minister Ariel Henry emerged as the country’s leader after a power struggle. Haiti’s nearly 200 gangs are taking advantage of the chaos, fighting for control.