A ceremony in honor of one of the fathers of Haitian independence was interrupted on Sunday (17) by a barrage of gunfire that forced the authorities present, including the prime minister, Ariel Henry, to leave the site.
It was another sign of the growing power of gangs in the Caribbean country, which, on Saturday (16), kidnapped a group of foreign Christian missionaries.
Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July and the earthquake that left more than 2,200 people dead in the country in August, Haitian gangs have grown more confident to commit crimes outside the territory they control, according to human rights activist Pierre Esperance.
“The government that took office three months ago is powerless in the face of this,” said Esperance, executive director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights. “There is no plan, no way to combat insecurity. The national police have not been strengthened.”
Sixteen US citizens and one Canadian were kidnapped during a visit to an orphanage on Saturday, the Christian Aid Ministries missionary group said in a statement. Security experts suspect the involvement of a gang known as the 400 Mawozo, who control Croix-des-Bouquets, a village about eight miles from the capital.
In April of this year, five priests and two nuns, two of them French citizens, were kidnapped in the same village — 400 Mawozo is also suspected to be the group responsible for the crime. The hostages were released in the same month.
This Sunday’s ceremony, in honor of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, was planned to take place at Pont-Rouge, the eastern entrance to downtown Port-au-Prince, where the national hero was assassinated in 1806 .
For years, however, authorities have struggled to hold the event there, given the presence of a coalition of gangs known as the G9, led by former police officer Jimmy Cherizier, known as the “Barbecue” (barbecue).
With difficulties in accessing the site, this Sunday’s event took place at the Museum of the National Pantheon of Haiti, but even so it was interrupted by the shooting.
The increasing number of kidnappings in the impoverished country adds to the worsening economic conditions and the growing diaspora of Haitians seeking better opportunities in other countries. The United States last month deported about 7,000 Haitians who had tried to enter the country via Mexico.
At least 628 kidnappings took place in Haiti in the first nine months of 2021, 29 of which involved foreigners, according to a report by the Haitian Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research.
But real numbers are likely much higher because many Haitians do not report crimes to the police, fearing retaliation from criminal gangs.
“The gangs are federated, they are well armed, they have more money and more ideology,” said the organization’s director, Gedeon Jean. “We are moving towards a protostate. The gangs are getting stronger while the police are getting weaker.”