Gangs rule Haiti’s capital. Some say they’re ready to overthrow the government too

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) — From above, Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince still looks serene, its white-washed homes climbing steep green hills that encircle a glittering bay. But to step onto its cracked streets requires a careful calculation of risk and reward.

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Haitians protest in streets

Protestors poured into the streets of Haiti to express their frustrations with Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Source: CNN

Ruthless gangs have a stranglehold on the city, preying on the population, carving neighborhoods into warring criminal fiefdoms, and cutting Haiti’s international port off from the rest of the country.

In this city, the most-shared online videos are often torture footage, recorded and posted by gangs to spread horror and hasten ransom payments for thousands of kidnapping victims. Last month, within hours of landing at the city’s Toussaint L’Ouverture airport, a CNN team began to receive forwarded messages from contacts sharing the latest cruel footage – a bound woman twisting away from flames as her kidnappers jeered.

It was a glimpse into the viral daily torment of life in Haiti, where frequent civilian protests emphasize that the population has reached a breaking point. Gangs control 80% of the capital, according to UN estimates, and are fighting to seize the rest.

Since last week, Port-au-Prince has been gripped by a wave of highly coordinated gang attacks, with armed groups burning down police stations and freeing prisoners in what one gang leader described as a direct challenge to Haiti’s unpopular Prime Minister Ariel Henry. On Sunday, Haiti’s government declared a state of emergency after thousands of inmates apparently escaped from its largest prison.

“We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands. The battle we are waging will not only topple Ariel’s government. It is a battle that will change the whole system,” said Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier, a former police officer who styles himself as Robin Hood figure in his territory, in a statement reported by local media.

Henry’s whereabouts are currently unclear, after a visit to Kenya last week.

‘The country cannot continue like this’

Each year in recent memory has been worse than the last, each catastrophe another blow to the disintegrating Haitian state. In downtown Port-au-Prince, the country’s historic National Palace is still in ruins from Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. Now, multiple courthouses in the area have now been taken over and occupied by gangs.

Many Haitians blame their prime minister for rapidly ceding ground to the gangs over the past three years, while refusing to organize elections that would bring in a new government and give the country a fresh start. Henry and his allies say that the current insecurity would make a free and fair vote impossible, but such explanations do little to appease popular outrage.

Earlier this month, when rumors swirled in one Port-au-Prince neighborhood that a local police station would be closed, fed-up residents quickly spilled into the streets, toppling a bus and burning tires as they called for Henry’s ouster.

“Ariel Henry has to go,” one protester shouted. “We are living in total precarity. We’re living on trash, on sewage. I have nothing, I’m empty. I can’t go to work, I can’t support my family, I can’t send my kids to school.”

Even for some within the gangs, the brutality of the current situation has become unbearable.

“I see people dying in front of me every day,” one 14-year-old gang recruit from the city’s Martissant neighborhood told CNN, visibly distraught, in an interview last month. “The thing I hate the most is when (other gang members) kill someone and they make me burn the body,” he said.

One of his friends, also a gang member, was killed and burned a few days ago, he adds. “I don’t want that to happen to me.” CNN is not naming the teenager due to concerns for his safety.

“The sentiment on the ground is that the country cannot continue like this. The level of violence that people are exposed to is inhumane,” United Nations deputy special representative in Haiti Ulrika Richardson warned in a press briefing in New York Wednesday.

80% of Port-au-Prince controlled by gangs

On TikTok and WhatsApp, accounts flaunting guns and flashy cars tout affiliation with groups like the 5 Segond gang, 400 Mawozo (notorious in the US for the 2021 kidnapping of over a dozen foreign missionaries), and Kraze Barye, whose leader has a nearly $2 million bounty on his head from the FBI.

Haiti’s gangs were once seen as thuggish instruments for powerful politicians and business elites. But today, they seem to have slipped their leashes; the gangs overrunning Port-au-Prince have become independent “violent entrepreneurs,” according to a recent analysis by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

In an impoverished country with little to exploit, the gangs are treating human beings like commodities, snatching at least 2,490 people off the street last year to trade in a fast-growing kidnapping business, per UN figures.

Victims whose families cannot pay for their release are often killed, adding to the thousands of others who have lost their lives to indiscriminate gunfire, waves of arson, and other abuses. Haiti’s national homicide rate doubled last year, reaching 41 murders for every 100,000 people, the UN says – one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Haiti’s National Police, which boasts an aggressive new anti-gang unit, has seen some success in apprehending some criminal figures and holding back gang expansion in a key areas of the city, including next to the US embassy. But with nearly 100 growing gangs in the metropolitan area, the force just does not have the firepower or training to restore calm to the country, sources say.

According to UN figures, Haitian police are quitting en masse, with 1,663 officers leaving in 2023 alone.

As hunger spreads, popular anger grows

One recent morning in the neighborhood of Delmas, dozens of women from the nearby gang-controlled slum of Cité Soleil lined up to receive food handouts from the UN’s World Food Programme, distributed by Catholic charity St. Kizito.

Every person CNN approached said they had been brutalized one way or another; one recounted being raped by a gang member, showing scars on her arm from the attack. A widow said her husband had been burned alive inside their family home during a battle between gangs.

“I was at home with my family, when a rival group to our local gang attacked the neighborhood. I had the time to run with my child, but my husband was too slow behind us. They burned the house down with him inside.”

Over 300,000 civilians have been made homeless by inter-gang warfare, according to the UN.

On the other side of Haiti, in the southern coastal city of Jeremie, an administrator at St. John Bosco school told CNN that at least 20 new students had arrived from the capital with their families since the start of 2024, some fleeing in such a hurry that they brought no clothes or even identification documents.

But in rural areas, the threat is hunger. Gang control of key roads in and around Port-au-Prince has dramatically slowed the transport of vital imported food and fuel across the country. Exorbitant bribes are required for safe passage.

Prices are spiking unsustainably for a population where more than 60% of households live on less than $4 per day, according to World Bank estimates.

One market vendor in Jeremie told CNN that the wholesale price for a sack of sugar had now leapt from the equivalent of $50 to $150. The cost of a bag of rice, a staple in Haitian cuisine, has risen from $40 to $120.

The stress of trying to make ends meet in these conditions is fraying the social fabric. In January, rioters attacked the St. John Bosco school, trying to break down its gates and reach food stocks donated by the UN’s World Food Programme, according to the administrator.

The food was intended for impoverished students’ lunches – often their only meal of the day. But since then, the terrified kids have not come back.

Anger boils over

From the smoke-filled streets of the capital to farmworkers plunging their machetes into the fields in Jeremie, CNN’s team repeatedly heard an angry sing-song refrain: Ariel kraze peyi a, Ariel kraze peyi a. “Ariel is destroying the country.”

Prime Minister Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon by training, was appointed prime minister in 2021 with the backing of the United States, Canada and other key allies, following the assassination of former President Jovenel Moise.

The job was a poisoned chalice; even then, gangs were estimated to be in control of more than half of Port-au-Prince. Henry vowed to restore order and hold elections, but two and half years later, the world’s first free Black republic is further than ever from those democratic fundamentals. Haiti’s last elections were in 2016, so most terms have long since expired, leaving elected offices vacant – including the presidency and the entire legislature.

It’s a fertile landscape for political opportunists. Earlier this month, Guy Philippe, a rebel leader who was recently repatriated by the United States to Haiti after serving time for money laundering, called for a revolution. Accompanying him in some videos were members of the Haitian Environment Ministry’s security brigade (BSAP), raising fears of a state security force gone rogue.

“We are battling to change a system which is not working for any Haitian, in which no one can live, no matter who they are… We are loyal to the government, but it is not loyal to us,” one BSAP commander, Inspector Odric Octina, told CNN.

“Any revolution that can free the Haitian people from this dictatorship, we are ready to stand with it,” he said, adding the caveat that BSAP does not intend to turn their arms against the government and that his only action so far had been to participate in protests in Port-au-Prince.

The gangs meanwhile have shown no qualms about attacking government institutions directly.

As armed groups pounded the National Penitentiary, one of Haiti’s police unions posted a desperate message to X on Saturday, pleading for reinforcements. If the prison’s detainees are released to join gangs already at large, the union warned, “we are done. No one will be spared in the capital.” But by the end of the day, the prison had been opened; over 3,500 prisoners are thought to have escaped, according to UN estimates.

Violence continued throughout the weekend, with Haiti’s government on Sunday announcing a state of emergency in the West department, where Port-au-Prince is located, and a curfew from 6pm to 5am in an effort to “regain control of the situation.”

Hope in a foreign uniform

February 7 was the date that a new elected government should have taken power in Haiti, per an agreement between Henry’s government and a coalition of influential figures from Haiti’s civil society and business sector.

But the necessary elections were never held, so Henry last month could offer only a rare national address asking for patience as the deadline came and went, telling citizens it is time to “put our heads together to save Haiti.”

“The principal task of this transitional government is to create the conditions in which elections can be organized,” he assured viewers.

“My interim government is working hand-in-hand with the police to restore normal life in the country. We are aware that many thing have to change, but we need to make those changes together and calmly,” he also said.

A new transition deadline has already been proposed: Last week, the leaders of regional bloc Caricom said in a statement Henry had agreed to hold general elections no later than August 31, 2025.

Until then, Henry’s best hopes may rest on an outside solution over which he wields little control: The Kenyan-led “military support” force requested by his government last year and greenlit by the United Nations Security Council.

“The reason why the Prime Minister requested the UN resolution back in October 2022 is because the police department and other forces cannot challenge the gangs,” Henry’s advisor Jean Junior Joseph told CNN.

Anger toward the government for Haiti’s gangs problem is misplaced, he also said, emphasizing that the government has limited options.

“The situation is so complicated that the gangs have more ammunition than us,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s office declined CNN’s request for an interview.

Foreign military interventions are viewed with deep skepticism in Haiti, where UN peacekeepers are synonymous with sex abuse scandals and the deadly introduction of cholera. How exactly the Kenyan-led mission will operate and what kind of human rights precautions its forces will take remain unclear.

Still, Haitian security forces interviewed by CNN say they welcome the help. The United States – a top destination for Haitian migrants fleeing the country’s turmoil – has also eagerly backed the mission with a promise of $200 million.

It may be no coincidence that the latest wave of gang violence began while Henry was in Nairobi last week to sign an agreement underpinning the mission.

The stakes are high: If the promised 1,000-plus troops are delivered, the foreign muscle is expected to pose a serious challenge to gang control – potentially renewing hope for change in the country and buying time for the embattled premier.

But if the mission does not come soon, experts and government insiders warn that mounting pressure over Haiti’s unbearable violence is likely to explode.

CNN’s Leinz Vales and Sean Walker contributed reporting.