Gangs prevail in battle with Haitian police

“Can you see where it came from?” SWAT members held their breath and asked each other inside the armored vehicle. It provides only a small sliver of window onto the streets outside, which appear deserted one moment, the next filled with citizens trying to flee to safety.

In the last 72 hours, police have killed 400 Maojo gang leaders and rescued six hostages from him, he says. But the gang – one of dozens terrorizing the capital – has not been kicked off these streets.

“You see that red sign ‘SMS’? That’s them,” a SWAT officer said, pointing to the gunmen’s position. Like his team, he did not want to be named citing their safety. He pointed down the road to a small shack as dozens of people poured from a side alley onto the street.

“Go away,” he told the crowd through the armored car’s loudspeaker. “You’re too exposed. It’s dangerous.”

The officer ordered the vehicle to be moved to a new location. “When we get to the location, open anything that moves,” he said. A heavy gunfight ensued between the police and the gang members.

Injuries, shootings and panic are a common sight in dozens of neighborhoods controlled by gangs as Port-au-Prince descends into full-scale war between police and highly-equipped and organized criminal groups.

And it’s a familiar routine: the police investigate gang areas to show their reach, and the gangs respond with intense gunfire.

In the Cité Soleil region, more than 470 people were killed, injured or missing in ten days of violence in July, according to the UN, after the G9 gang tried to expand its reach in the area by wresting territory from rival gangs.

Social media video from inside the area shows gangs using a bulldozer covered with steel plates as shields to demolish houses, possibly rivals. Other houses were burned, with other videos showing dozens of locals fleeing the area on foot at night, during the height of the fighting.

Citizens fleeing Cite Soleil found little respite, with dozens receiving food handouts from the World Food Program and sheltering in the open air of the Hugo Chavez Recreation Park.

Flies blanket the rain-soaked concrete floor of the Sporting Amphitheater stage, where four-month-olds struggle to sleep exposed to the elements. One has bruises from the fall, the other a painful and ugly rash, but they are alive.

Here, Natalie Aristel angrily shows us her new, unsavory home.

“Here I sleep in a puddle,” she said, pointing to the water. “They burnt my house and shot my husband seven times,” she says, referring to the gang members.

“I can’t even go to see him [in hospital]. In this park, even if they bring some food, there is not enough for everyone. Children are dying.”

Others are missing. “I have four children, but my first one is missing and I can’t find him,” said another woman. “We have been completely abandoned by the state and have to pay even to use the toilet,” added another.

A little boy added: “My mother and father are dead, my aunt saved me, I wanted to go to school but it was torn away.”

Locals speak of a perfect storm of disasters – and warn that the country is on the brink of social collapse.

Residents of this neighborhood built a wall on a public road last month to stop gangs who kidnap residents for ransom.

The country’s emergency interim government, formed last year after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, has begun to crumble and has been mired in accusations of inaction. His successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has vowed to fight insecurity and hold new elections, but has so far shown little progress toward either goal.

Meanwhile, analysts calculate inflation in the country at 30%. Gas is scarce and the subject of angry queues at stations. The UN has warned that gang violence can put young children at risk of imminent starvation in areas of active conflict, as their parents cannot afford food or go to work.

A Haitian security forces source who spoke to CNN estimated that the gangs control or influence three-quarters of the city.

Franz Elbe, director general of the Haitian National Police, rejects the assertion. “It’s not a common problem in a metropolitan area,” he told CNN, declining to give a percentage.

Yet it is undeniable that key parts of the national infrastructure are now entirely in the hands of criminals. The city’s main port — Haiti’s main — is controlled by gangs, who dominate the streets outside. So is the main highway to the south of the country, meaning that a vulnerable part of the country that was hit by an earthquake last year is effectively cut off from the capital. Gangs are expanding their control in the east of the city, where Croix-des-Bouquets is located, and in the north, around Cité Soleil, observers said.

Kidnappings are rampant and indiscriminate — one of the few thriving industries in Haiti. Seventeen American and Canadian missionaries were kidnapped last year after visiting an orphanage in Croix-des-Bocquets and released only after a ransom of 400 was paid to the Maozo gang.

Police, often outgunned, are doing what they can, Elbe tells CNN.

“Gangs are changing the way they fight, first it was with a knife, and now it’s with big weapons, the police have to be well equipped, with the little we have, we do what we can to fight the gang. Members,” he said.

Director General of the Haitian Police Force Franz Elbe.

The challenge they face is revealed by a brief checkpoint set up in Croix-des-Bocquets, where a truck is dragged along the main road by gangs and set on fire.

Police bring in an armored military bulldozer to push the roadside, which is already littered with other truck carcasses. A bulldozer operator, when asked if he works under fire, replies: “Often.”

SWAT police set up a perimeter, scanning nearby rooftops. Locals and their vehicles are being stopped and checked. One man says the situation is “bad, very bad,” while another gives him a stern look.

He suddenly changes tone: “We know nothing.”

Fear is the currency of this war, though it’s unclear whether he’s afraid to talk to the press, or the police, or what the gang might say later.

However, escaping this fear requires more endurance. A short boat ride from the mainland is the island of La Gonave, a hub for human traffickers.

The lackluster pace and blue waters of a small inlet at La Gonave belie its poverty. Heat, garbage, hunger and the business of quitting dominate this world.

One, a smuggler who introduced himself as Johnny, calmly explained how his business worked.

The journey is usually one-way to the boat, so each attempt requires buying the boat outright at a cost of around US$10,000, he says. To cover that cost, Johnny needed at least two hundred customers who would pile into its tarnished hull.

Shreds of netting appear to plug any gaps between the hull and loose wooden planks that form the interior of the boat. Johnny shows where the pump and motors will eventually go.

“If we die we die, if we do it we do it,” he said.

He had hoped to pack his boat with 250 passengers, as he considered it to be in “good” condition.

The final destination is the United States, with Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Islands sometimes making accidental stops along the way.

And the International Organization for Migration from these three places reported the number of forced returns of Haitians in the first seven months of this year, with 20,016 so far, compared to 19,629 for 2021.

While some Haitians appear to be nearing the end of the journey, the US Coast Guard intercepted 6,114 Haitians between October and late June — four times as many between October 2020 and October 2021. Last weekend alone, more than 330 migrants were rescued by the US Coast Guard off Haiti near the Florida Keys.
A boat in La Gonave, Haiti.

The numbers are as staggering as the risks. Past journeys through this entrance have ended in disaster. Johnny is vague about the time of the last ferry, but precise about possible losses: a trip he recently organized resulted in the deaths of 29 people.

The boat had an engine problem. “The boat got water inside. We called for help, but they took too long. The boat sank while I was trying to save the people. When help came, it was too late.”

Although CNN could not independently confirm Jani’s account of the arrangement, two other locals who said they were involved in the smuggling independently described similar details. Authorities in the neighboring Caribbean nations of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos have repeatedly reported finding the remains of migrants after boats sank in their waters.

Despite the dangers, many Haitians are still desperate for a way out. Locals in La Gonave told CNN that at least 40 people aiming to try the boat trip are already on the island, and that the rest will follow from the mainland after Johnny says the boat is ready.

One prospective passenger, a university graduate who had once been a teacher, explained why he would risk everything to take the voyage.

“I worked as a teacher, but it didn’t work out. Now I cycle every day in the sun and dust, how can I take care of my family?”

He said he had saved up a year’s worth of money to make the trip and was not afraid of the unstable conditions of the boat. “I can get eaten by a shark or make it to America.”

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