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Violence plagues Haiti as gangs seize control. A reporter unpacks the chaos


We're going to spend some time now talking about the frightening news and images coming out of Haiti recently. We're talking about businesses shuttering their doors, masked police officers flooding the streets on motorcycles, firing rounds into the air to protest a slew of killings of fellow police officers amidst spiraling gang violence. And the images on social media are even worse of kidnappings and tortured bodies. Chaos seems to be overtaking the Caribbean nation, all part of the ongoing political instability that's ensued since the killing of President Jovenel Moise back in 2021. Many legislators have fled the country and there haven't been national elections since 2016. In a recent statement, the U.N. humanitarian chief in Haiti said close to 60% of Port au Prince, the capital, is dominated by gangs who seem to be gaining more control every day.

Megan Janetsky covers Cuba and the Caribbean for the Associated Press. She recently spent two weeks in Haiti, where she was actually able to sit down with one of Haiti's most feared gang leaders, Jimmy Cherizier, or, as he's internationally known, Barbecue. Megan Janetsky, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MEGAN JANETSKY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So just - if you just start by just setting the scene for us about what's currently going on and how it seems to have escalated over the past month.

JANETSKY: Absolutely. So, you know, the U.N. has the estimate of 60% of the city is controlled by gangs. If you ask Haitians there, they're going to tell you it's more like 100%. These gangs have a very firm grip on society right now. You walk in the street and there's just a feeling that anything could happen at any moment, which is just how Haiti is nowadays. You have rampant kidnappings with ransoms up to a million dollars. You have horrifying stories of gang rapes, people getting caught in the crossfire between gangs and police that are incredibly underequipped to handle the situation. And now, you know, with what some people describe as a de facto dictatorship - basically a skeleton government in Haiti - you have these gangs kind of assuming a role of even, like, a government in a lot of these areas. They're the ones that control the day-to-day lives of most Haitians now, where the government is absent.

MARTIN: As I said earlier. Your team was able to secure an interview with Jimmy Cherizier, aka Barbecue, which is kind of disturbing on its face. So here's a little bit of what he said.


JIMMY CHERIZIER: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: He says, "I'm not a thief. I'm not involved in kidnapping. I'm not a rapist. I'm just carrying out a social fight to claim a better life." So tell me a bit more about how he sees himself.

JANETSKY: Yeah. This is a man that is sanctioned by the U.N. He has accusations of masterminding massacres. His group, the G9, is one of the most powerful gang federations in Port au Prince. And late last year, he was the one behind the fuel blockade that basically paralyzed Port au Prince for two months. And, you know, he - the way he pitches himself to the world now is basically this revolutionary. He tries to show himself as, like, someone that's advocating for the people against a corrupt government and a corrupt system. But, you know, just spending time with him - so much of what he told us was just, you know, heavily spun and very clearly trying to project something that wasn't real. For instance, you know, we were surrounded, when we interviewed him, by men with machine guns and masks, and we were not allowed to film any of it. All he would let us film was him showing off the good he's done for this neighborhood, where he's accused of perpetrating a massacre.

MARTIN: How did people - like, are kids going to school every day? How do people get groceries, their basic needs met? I mean, are the banks open? How are people getting their basic needs met?

JANETSKY: It really, truly depends. I've talked to many parents there that kind of have stopped sending their kids to school. We were there when there was a big protest by rebel police officers protesting gang killings of police, which have been mounting in numbers and quite grisly. And that just shut down the entire country for two days. Markets were closed. Banks were closed. Everything was closed. So sometimes you're able to get things. Sometimes you're able to send your kids to school. Sometimes it's just impossible. And if you think about it, you know, it doesn't even just extend to markets. We were in hospitals in the gang blockade a few months ago. You know, people couldn't get basic medical services because it was just too dangerous to walk out on the streets.

MARTIN: The police protests that shut down the country for two days - you described them in an article as rebel police officers. So how is law enforcement functioning in this environment?

JANETSKY: You know, it's really not. You know, the police force is incredibly depleted. And in the past few months, you've seen a growing level of targetings (ph) of police officers. The protests this past - these past few weeks were due to these grisly killings of six police officers. Following their killing, the gangs mutilated their body. There were really horrifying videos of it. And you have this group that is kind of like a confusing mix of active police officers, inactive police officers and some even say there may be gang members mixed in. But it's a group that is basically demanding that these grisly killings of police stop and that - you know, if you talk to police officers, they just want more supplies and reinforcements to, you know, take on the gangs in the country. And right now, they just don't have that.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, in your reporting, you talk about how one of the police officers' family members are trying to navigate this kind of horrific situation. They're waiting to see if they'll be approved for a visa to travel to the U.S. Can you just - what is their story? Tell us.

JANETSKY: I spoke to one officer - the wife of an officer who was - disappeared in a recent attack. And they are scared now. They want to leave Haiti because they seem to assume, you know, he was killed. And their husband spent years fighting these gangs and feel that they could get targeted, too. They, a few years ago, applied to try and get a visa and get out of Haiti and were never approved for anything, and now they're just kind of in limbo. Like a lot of Haitians, they want to leave but have no way to do it. You know, it's an island.

MARTIN: Megan Janetsky is the Cuba and Caribbean correspondent for the Associated Press. She was recently in Haiti, reporting on the growing influence of the gangs there. Megan Janetsky, thanks so much for talking to us and sharing this reporting with us.

JANETSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.