Haiti: In the grip of the gangs
More than 150 gangs are active in Haiti, where they impose their law on a powerless state. Most of them are located in the capital Port-au-Prince, which they largely control. Massacres, stray bullets, kidnappings: everyday Haitians are the first victims of their violence. FRANCE 24's Observers investigated their abuses in this special programme: "Haiti: in the grip of the gangs".
"My whole life went up in smoke," said Jean Simson Desanclos, a human rights defender who lost both his daughters and his wife on August 20.
They were on their way to a university in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince when members of the 400 Mawozo attacked them. “The gang members wanted to kidnap them. They resisted, and the gang members opened fire on them,” Desanclos continued.
The tragedy touched many Haitians, who shared tributes to the young women and their mother on social media. The day after they were killed, Prime Minister Ariel Henry took to Twitter to reaffirm his “determination [...] to fight this crime wave”.
But reactions like Henry’s, from the highest level of government, are rare. Haitian authorities have been accused of remaining passive, even when gangs commit massacres on a large scale. From April 24 to May 6, in the Plain of the Cul-de-Sac, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, and then from July 7 to 17, in the commune of Cité-Soleil, clashes between gangs left hundreds dead. According to the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), a Haitian organisation, the authorities remained “silent” and the police adopted “a non-interventionist posture”.
Behind the scenes of our investigation
This special programme was produced entirely from a distance, due to the ongoing insecurity in Port-au-Prince. Journalists Chloé Lauvergnier and Maëva Poulet contacted dozens of Haitians, some of whom were already part of FRANCE 24’s network of Observers.
Several of them had left the country to escape the violence. Our team was able to gather testimonies from victims of gang violence. Most of the Haitians who agreed to speak to us wished to remain anonymous for security reasons: this is why their voices and first names have been changed in our programme.
Thanks to these testimonies and images published on social media – mainly by the gangs, but also by locals or the police – we have reconstructed several tragic events that took place throughout the year. Witnesses also sent us their own images: like these photos of bullets.
Since we depended on images circulating on social networks, we had to verify the dates and locations of these photos and videos. But the usual tools we use were stretched to their limits. Google Street View, which allows digital investigative journalists to recognise streets or buildings, covers only a few points of the capital Port-au-Prince.
We turned to Google Earth’s professional satellite imagery and online crowdsourced mapping tools such as Mapillary. We cross-checked information with local media reports and our Observers in order to authenticate the images we found.
We were able to map the main gang territories in Port-au-Prince by cross-referencing information with police, NGOs, local media and citizens.
Observers’ journalists did not interview any gang members in this report. Our investigation focused on the primary victims of the violence: civilians. Moreover, many gang leaders are wanted by national and international police forces.
Jimmy Cherizier (also known as "Barbeque"), who heads a federation of organised gangs called the "G9 Family and Allies", was specifically named by the UN Security Council in a sanctions regime put in place for Haiti. He was accused of engaging in “acts that threaten the peace, security and stability of Haiti”.
Seven gang members charged with kidnapping
On Monday, November 7, the United States charged seven gang members with kidnapping US citizens. The State Department is offering up to $3 million in rewards for information leading to the arrest of three of them: Lanmo Sanjou and Jermaine Stephenson, members of the "400 Mawozo" gang, and Vitel'homme Innocent, a member of the Kraze Barye gang.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Culture and Communication and the Haitian National Police. They have not responded to our repeated requests for interviews.
Our team would like to thank all the Haitians who helped make this programme possible, particularly by sharing their contacts and images, and by helping to verify information.
Special thanks to: Emmanuel Belimaire, Kinouvel Media, Jordany Junior Verdieu, Dévelopage INFO, Jules Dieulivens.