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Port-au-Prince: between gangs’ proliferation and barriers’ multiplication

As gangs continue to wreak havoc in the Haitian capital, neighborhoods are being reconfigured on a daily basis. Lost, abandoned or coveted territories, the new borders are increasingly marked by defensive barriers. While in the past these were isolated initiatives in specific areas, they have today become a means for the inhabitants of the different neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince to fight against the attacks of armed groups who kill, burn, vandalize and rape with impunity.

Two people driving their motorbikes crossing the barrier at the main entrance to Haut Turgeau, east of Port-au-Prince. The neighborhood was the target of a gang attack in April 2023. CP: EFE / Johnson Sabin, February 2024.



On the corner of rue des Remparts and boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines, at the northern entrance to Port-au-Prince, the ruins of the Portail St Joseph sub-police station are still visible. The building was attacked by armed bandits in June 2021, before being completely destroyed days later. Three police officers lost their lives in the attack. Their bodies were burnt to a crisp. The few shopkeepers sitting among the piles of rubbish are hoping for the arrival of potential buyers, who are becoming increasingly rare on this artery, which is part of the saltworks. The presence of armed men is a must. This precarious district of the capital was the scene of a massacre that claimed the lives of over 70 people on the night of November 13 to 14, 2018. The first in a series that continues reconfiguring Port-au-Prince and its surroundings.

Two main armed gangs regularly clash for total control of La Saline: the Nèg Chabon group and the Kafou Labatwa group, two blocks of the neighborhood. While gang wars are not a new phenomenon in this hostile environment, the presence of defensive barriers, numbering around ten, dates to 2023. "Several barriers were erected in 2023 during the reign of gang leader Marc, who replaced Ti Junior at La Saline. Marc wanted to protect the area from these enemies", Claudia* explains, a long-standing resident of the neighborhood.

In La Saline, the installation of new barriers follows the carcasses, sandbags, walls, trenches, speed bumps and containers that are often placed on the main or even secondary roads, as protection against the imminent return or surprise attack of a rival gang. "Clashes between the two main groups in La Saline often follow the dislodging of the losing group. Now, Kafou Labatwa's men are in control of the area and are doing their utmost to prevent Nan Chabon's men from returning. Although the new armed coalition Viv Ansanm (Living Together, in English) is changing the situation", Claudia points out.

Dozens of murders, beatings, gang rapes and houses burnings are the result of various episodes of confrontation between armed groups in La Saline. The same is true of Tokyo and Rue Saint-Martin, two of its neighboring districts. Depending on the circumstances, these groups can be trusted allies or enemies. "Some of the barriers at La Saline were put in place because of an altercation with armed men from Rue Saint-Martin, who live opposite. La Saline has prepared for the possibility of war ", says Claudia.

Armed gangs as well as state authorities’ absence, bullet holes in houses and families languishing in misery, all the localities in this region of the capital have in common the presence of defensive barriers erected between 2023 and 2024. Delmas 2, a district to the east of Port-au-Prince, was the first to embark on this practice, followed by its neighbors Delmas 4, Delmas 6, Delmas 8 and Delmas 10. These territories are controlled by a former policeman Jimmy Chérisier, alias Barbecue, one of Haiti's most powerful gang leaders. The aim: to counter CIMO’s operations, a specialized unit of the Haitian national police headquartered near Delmas 2.

"CIMO entered and ransacked Delmas 2 in 2021 to avenge their brother-in-arms killed by one of the armed groups in the area. They did it again when the Delmas highway had to be unblocked to facilitate the resumption of activities at the Varreux terminal, the country's largest fuel distribution center, blocked in 2022 by armed men. To prevent further police penetration, barriers were erected", Stevens* explains, a resident of Delmas 2, pointing out that during the clashes between Barbecue's men and the police on March 15, the police destroyed the barriers at the entrances to Delmas 2, Delmas 4 and Delmas 6.

In addition, to fight the Haitian national police’s units, these neighborhoods, which follow one another along the Delmas highway, have another common opponent with whom their territories border to the south: the Bel-Air gang, even though there has been a period of peace since last year. It was during this ceasefire that the Delmas 2 gang took the opportunity to erect internal barriers. "The leaders didn't want Delmas 2 to be used as a passageway by the men from Bel-Air, who were involved in kidnapping. They said they wanted to protect their image as an armed gang not involved in kidnapping, unlike the other side", Stevens explains, pointing out that this situation prompted the Bel-Air gang to look for other territories that could serve as quiet passages. 

Opposing the quest for new territories

We are in Solino, a locality in Delmas 24, east of Port-au-Prince. On the western side of this popular district, the Bel-Air gang's attacks have left their mark. Some houses were even set on fire, along with their occupants. Carcasses of cars and motorcycles still litter the road. Kempès Sanon’s men, leader of the Bel-Air gang, have been swearing to control this locality with which their stronghold shares the border. Their last attack left some twenty people dead in January.

"They target Solino directly", Carl-Henry says, in his twenties. Then,facing with the various reasons put forward to explain the event, the young local resident is cautious. "Since I can't verify what people say about this situation , I wouldn't want to put flesh on them. Some versions are fuzzier than others", he explains.

Controlling Solino, a strategic area between Delmas and Bel-Air, in order to carry out kidnappings in complete tranquillity, far from the main roads, is the theory most often put forward and shared to explain the attacks suffered by the district since 2023. And to better resist the bandits' assaults, Solino’s residents have used surveillance brigades and new barriers. One of which has been erected at the eastern entrance to the area since 2023. With the sign "closed at 7 pm", it is constantly monitored and is barely opened. It serves as a first defensive curtain for the surveillance brigades. "There are several resident police officers in and around the area. There are so many of them that I wonder if there isn't a police academy nearby. They're the ones who respond to attacks by the Bel-Air bandits. They initiated the surveillance brigades before being joined by civilians from the area. I don't know why they're there alongside the police, but they're there", Carl-Henry explains.

Solino is one of the few neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince that continues resisting the attacks of  an armed criminal gang in search of new territories, while not being gang-controlled itself, whereas in the Haitian capital, thwarting bandit assaults is not an easy task. Previously, neighborhoods feared attacks by G-9, coalition led by Barbecue or by G-PEP led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre alias Ti Gabriel, a gang leader operating in Cité Soleil at the northern entrance to Port-au-Prince. Today, Viv Ansanm (Living Together) is the new threat.


Since February 29, 2024, G-9 and G-PEP have merged to form Viv Ansanm under Barbecue's orders. They attacked and set fire to several police stations and sub-stations in the capital. The Port-au-Prince civil prison and  the Croix-des-Bouquets’s one, some ten kilometers north of the capital, the country's two largest prison centers, were emptied of their population estimated at over 4,000.

Port-au-Prince civil prison, a few hours after the escape of some 3,000 prisoners. Photography: Woo-Jerry Mathurin, March 2024. 

Several districts of the capital were attacked by gangs armed. Others defend themselves, such as Haut-Turgeau, a few kilometers from downtown Port-au-Prince. "Turgeau was attacked in April 2023. We were able to resist. To protect ourselves better, we erected two large barriers on the main roads. Since the events on February 29, we've put up a third", says a met at the main entrance to the neighborhood, where a barrier has been erected. The barrier at the main entrance to the neighborhood used to be left wide open until 10 pm. But, since the creation of Viv Ansanm, it has been half-closed, we note. "People are now stationed close to the barrier and are searching those who use the road," the resident adds.

On this part of the fence, this is the closing and opening time for the neighborhood (Haut Turgeau). If residents arrive after this time, the fence will be closed and you won't be able to enter your home. Port-au-Prince (Haiti). Photography: EFE / Johnson Sabin, February 2024.

The Canapé-Vert model or self-defence strategy’s other face

In Port-au-Prince's perpetual battle for survival and prevention, anything is possible. From the simplest action such as contributing to the construction of new fenced borders or volunteering for the most risky surveillance brigades. And when gang members or suspected gang members are apprehended, they are executed. Their bodies burned in plain sight. The biggest example is Canapé-Vert, where members of the local population lynched nearly 14 alleged gang members in April 2023, thus launching the Bwa Kale movement. "After these people were burnt to a crisp, the people of Turgeau who were on the move found enough motivation to stay and resist the bandits' onslaught. They benefited from the support of Canapé-Vert. People realized that it was possible to resist,” recalls Arès, a resident of Canapé-Vert. 

Now, Canapé-Vert is one of the capital's most closely watched neighborhoods. At least six (6) barriers have been set up on its main roads. Others are under construction. Vigilance brigades abound. Local residents and visitors alike are regularly searched.  The population lives in fear of an attack by the gang, which has deprived it of 14 allied members. "People don't sleep at night. They're expecting an aftershock. Some have their suitcases to hand in case they have to run. Others have armed themselves with bottles and machetes, and swear by resistance. For the latter, the neighborhood is their only home. They have no intention of fleeing,” says Arès. 

Resistance and the hunt for bandits initiated by Canapé-Vert have prompted other localities in the capital to reactivate or create surveillance brigades, recalling the era of the first generation of zenglendos. Before G-9, G-PEP or Viv Ansanm, this criminal group specializing in burglary was feared in the late '80s and early '90s.

"Wealthy localities like Belvil and Vivy Mitchell [in Pétion-ville] resorted to gated communities. [In addition to the barriers placed at their main entrances], they include other protective measures such as video surveillance cameras, security guards, guard dogs and more", sociologist Djems Olivier explains.


Main entrance to Vivy Mitchell (gated communities). Photography: AyiboPost / Jean Feguens Regala.

In this new era of violence, he continues, the bulk of the population, who manage to survive as best they can, don't have the means to build themselves gated communities. Localities in Tabarre, Delmas and Pétion-Ville are erecting barriers instead. "Residents have had to resort to this strategy. It's a response strategy to what Emmelie Prophète [Haiti's resigned Minister of Justice and Public Security] calls 'lost territories'. From a certain criminological point of view, we can situate this initiative within a situational prevention perspective in the face of any form of external attack", he explains.

Gédéon Jean, a lawyer, sees the initiative as responding to a well-defined context. The Executive Director of the Centre d'Analyse et de Recherche en Droits de l'Homme (CARDH) maintains that Haitian citizens are in a situation where they must defend themselves against the cruelty of gangs. "Especially as the police have very limited human, material and technological resources, this mode of self-defense would be part of the Haitian population's repertoire of actions in the face of oppression. We've had Koupe Tèt Boule Kay [beheadings, house burnings], Pè Lebrun [burning people alive]... In each context, the target changes", he points out.

For the human rights defender, the Haitian people self-defense strategies follow decades of political violence. "The level of crime in Haiti today is fundamentally the consequence of the exploitation of vulnerable neighborhoods for political and economic benefits. Those who have run the country must be held accountable in general," says Gédéon Jean.

As a fence has not yet been erected, the neighborhood committee uses an iron assembly as a defensive curtain. Port-au-Prince (Haiti). Photography: EFE / Johnson Sabin, February 2024.

Basis of a future problem?

While the barriers are welcomed by many, some security specialists have reservations. This is the case of Jean Rebel Dorcénat, member of the Commission Nationale de Désarmement, de Démantèlement et de Réinsertion (CNDDR). According to him, while today the initiators are perceived as the protectors of the neighborhoods, reality may change from one moment to the next. "Tomorrow, members of the population will see them as neighborhood chiefs. A district chief can turn into anyone,” says Commissaire Dorcénat, announcing that this group, currently insignificant, will eventually come to the fore.

"I agree with the barriers since the Haitian state cannot ensure the protection of the population. But there's something else. No armed group establishes a gang in a neighborhood without the complicity of the residents. It's the neighborhood residents who turn them in", he continues.

Despite the risks involved, some parts of Port-au-Prince continue to deny access to their streets and cul-de-sacs. Because of the barriers, some main and secondary roads are a thing of the past. Ricardo Germain is a specialist in strategic studies, security and defense policy sees the barrier strategy as a form of reaction by the population to make up for the Haitian state's inability to ensure the country's internal security. In his opinion, instead of this substitution, collaboration should at least be observed. "Security is a regalian activity as long as it concerns internal and external security, or to put it simply, national security. But when it comes to public safety, security is everyone's business, insofar as citizens can be called upon to work alongside the forces of law and order to solve certain crime-related problems", he argues.

While fences enable citizens to control their neighborhoods through a collective security system, Mr. Germain believes that they are an obstacle to overall security. Thus, he believes this can have harmful consequences in a country where the problem of insecurity is characterized by crime and conflict. "The problem lies in the way things are done. Putting up barriers here and there on public roads, without any form of consultation with the authorities, also means getting in the way of public power, and further complicating security challenges. With the proliferation of these barriers, which go hand in hand with self-defense groups, we are at a stage where the conflict could spread to the point of engulfing the whole of Port-au-Prince - and consequently threatening the country's social and institutional foundations", the security specialist explains.

The little boundary between gangs and vigilante groups is Ricardo Germain's other concern. "These self-defense groups will try to arm themselves with weapons and ammunition. And if they are not supervised, they will end up being transformed, very probably in their turn, into groups of bandits", stresses the specialist in defense policy. He says he advocates a comprehensive and in-depth reform of the security and justice sector in Haiti. "And subsequently, the implementation of a counter-insurgency approach", Ricardo Germain adds.

James Boyard, for his part, talks of going beyond the surface factors of the problem. According to the security expert, poverty and unemployment need to be taken into account as structural factors, while emphasizing the lack of basic public service infrastructures in certain neighborhoods. "Severely disadvantaged neighborhoods such as Cité Soleil, La Saline and Bel-Air are victims of the urban relegation process. This means that they do not receive the same attention as neighborhoods in transition [orange zones] and neighborhoods in advantageous situations [green zones]. Their inhabitants have developed a kind of solidarity among themselves, and this solidarity has turned against the State and against all the other two categories of neighborhoods or other social groups that are better off", Mr. Boyard argues, adding that this situation gives them a kind of legitimacy to be nasty on the grounds that they have been mistreated and marginalized.

"Authorities’ absence in these neighborhoods has generated two dynamics of social fracture that explain the level of violence in these neighborhoods. Predatory violence. This is clearly seen in the predatory posture of bandits group who, for example, unload their weapons on a car with no regard for occupants", he continues.

In this quest to relocate violence, Mr. Boyard notes that neighborhoods in an advantageous situation, such as Pétion-ville, tend to be transformed into neighborhoods in transition. In other words, orange zones. "Neighborhoods like Belvil [gate communities] are no longer 100% protected and have been exposed, since the beginning of 2022, to periodic incursions by armed gangs. Today, there are no longer any protected areas," security expert James Boyard concludes.

*All interviewees' names have been changed for security reasons. Except specialists.

Jeff Mackenley GARCON


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