The deteriorating security situation in Haiti was starkly underlined on Sunday when the country’s prime minister and his security detail were forced to flee an official commemoration in the capital by heavily armed gang members who then paraded in the delegation’s place.
A day after a dozen US missionaries and their children were kidnapped in a brazen attack to the east of the capital Port-au-Prince, video circulating on social media and reports in the Haitian media showed the country’s most notorious crime boss, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, officiating at the ceremony to commemorate the assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s revolutionary founding fathers.
The annual ceremony in the Pont Rouge area of Port-au-Prince marks where Dessalines was assassinated in 1806 after defeating a Napoleonic army and abolishing slavery in the new Black republic.
La domenica, the prime minister, Ariel Henry, and his security detail reportedly tried to reach Pont Rouge to lay a floral wreath but were driven back by armed gang members firing their weapons.
Video from the event showed several official SUVs apparently leaving Pont Rouge amid the crackle of gunfire as other figures fled the scene on foot.
Later pictures showed Cherizier, a former policeman and notorious head of the G9 and Family gang alliance, dressed in a white suit and shirt with a wing collar – the dress code for officials on national holidays – with his armed followers making the floral offering.
Among Cherizier’s armed supporters were a number wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the late Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated earlier this year, and the slogan “Justice for Jovenel”.
While Pont Rouge has in recent years been a gang stronghold and no-go area, the demonstration on Sunday – the 215th anniversary of Dessalines’ death – was seen as a provocation and a show of strength barely 24 hours after the high-profile kidnapping of the US missionaries in a bus en route to the airport.
Cherizier, who has been accused of providing gang muscle for the late Haitian president who was shot down in his home by a hit squad which included Colombian mercenaries, has been under US Treasury sanctions over his alleged involvement in the 2018 La Saline massacre while he was still a serving police officer, along with two of Moïse’s officials.
According to the US Treasury website: “Throughout 2018 e 2019, Cherizier led armed groups in coordinated, brutal attacks in Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods.
“Most recently, in May 2020, Cherizier led armed gangs in a five-day attack in multiple Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods in which civilians were killed and houses were set on fire.”
The latest gang-related incident in the increasingly turbulent Caribbean state occurred as police continued to search for the 17 western hostages who are being held by another gang, il 400 Mawozo, which operates to the east of Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s gangs, which have become increasingly powerful and aggressive amid mounting social and political unrest, have long been associated with political parties and leaders for whom they provide deadly muscle.
Cherizier, in particolare, has been associated with the Parti Haitien Tet Kale of Moise and has been seen by some observers as manouevring into the vacuum left by Moïse’s high-profile murder.