Coming face to face with Haiti’s most notorious gang leader

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While he was in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, waiting for the chance to interview its most notorious gang leader — Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier — Giles Clarke heard semi-automatic gunfire from what felt like just two or three blocks away.

“I looked over at the group of locals, wondering if they might respond, but they barely moved a muscle,” the photojournalist recalled. “It was just another day in (the neighborhood of) Delmas 6, and the constant volley of bullets flying over the nearby building were seemingly nothing unusual.”

Every few minutes, there would be another burst, followed by return fire.

This is life now in Port-au-Prince, where gangs control 80% of the city, the UN estimates, and continue to fight for the rest.

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Hundreds of Haitians who fled the gang violence live in tents outside a displacement center in Port-au-Prince.

A gang member affiliated with Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier’s G9 alliance holds a rifle in Port-au-Prince. Gangs control 80% of the capital, the UN estimates.

Haitian police inspect documents at a checkpoint on a street leading from the city center to the port. It is one of the rare places controlled by police, photojournalist Giles Clarke said.

Haiti has been in a state of unrest for years now, but multiple security sources in the capital have told CNN that the most recent surge of gang violence — which has targeted police stations, the international airport and the national penitentiary — is unprecedented.

Haiti’s government declared a state of emergency Sunday, citing the “deterioration of security” and “increasingly violent criminal acts perpetrated by armed gangs,” including kidnappings and killings of citizens, violence against women and children and looting.

Armed groups attacked the country’s two largest prisons on Saturday, and a United Nations source said around 3,500 prisoners are believed to have escaped the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince over the weekend.

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Pheguens, a 29-year-old school bus driver, was shot in the back last month. Clarke saw many wounded civilians while in Haiti.
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Glass is cracked inside one of the police department’s anti-gang armored personnel carriers.

Meanwhile, more than 300,000 Haitian civilians have been forced to flee their homes because of the gang violence, according to the United Nations.

“All the displacement sites that I went to back in September have probably doubled in capacity now,” said Clarke, a New York-based photojournalist who has been visiting the Caribbean country on and off since 2011.

Clarke went back last month to document the unrest in Port-au-Prince. He witnessed more distressing scenes, including a hospital where he saw countless people suffering from gunshot wounds.

“Many of them were civilians hit in gang crossfire, and most of them near the markets. It’s people just going about their day,” Clarke said. “Doctors were overwhelmed. There were a lack of supplies.”

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A funeral procession takes place in the Grand Cemetery in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Morgues were also overflowing in the city.

“You could smell it on the street,” Clarke said. “I remember I asked (my guide) Joe, ‘What is that?’ And he said: ‘Dead people.’”

Clarke said many of them were victims of gang violence whose bodies hadn’t been claimed by families.

“If you don’t claim them or nobody pays, these bodies are just going to sort of rot,” he said. “There’s very little refrigeration.”

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A coffin lies in a morgue downtown.
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Cherizier, center, walks the streets of the capital. He leads an alliance of gangs in the city.

While he was in Haiti, Clarke also managed to come face to face with Cherizier, a former police officer who leads an alliance of gangs in Port-au-Prince.

Cherizier has made it clear that his goal is to bring down the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

He told Clarke the gangs want to change the current system and come up with a new Haiti. While Cherizier’s men wore balaclavas to protect their identities, he did not.

“He’s often the only one not wearing a mask — a defiant face of Haitian resistance,” Clarke said.

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An armed gang member in the Delmas 3 neighborhood.

Gherisse, 42, recovers at the General Hospital two days after she was caught in gang crossfire and shot in the neck. She was working as a food vendor downtown.

Violet, 63, lies on the floor at the General Hospital after being shot twice in the arm. She says her 34-year-old daughter was killed as two warring gangs swept through their neighborhood just an hour earlier.

Henry, who took leadership of the country after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in 2021, was supposed to hold elections and transfer power by February 7. But last month he said he couldn’t step down because conditions in the country weren’t safe enough to stage an election.

“My interim government is working hand-in-hand with the police to restore normal life in the country,” he said in an address to the nation. “We are aware that many thing have to change, but we need to make those changes together and calmly.”

That isn’t acceptable to Cherizier, who on Friday reiterated his demand that Henry be arrested.

“We ask the Haitian National Police and the military to take responsibility and arrest Ariel Henry,” he said. “Once again, the population is not our enemy; the armed groups are not your enemy. You arrest Ariel Henry for the country’s liberation. … With these weapons, we will liberate the country, and these weapons will change the country.”

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Cherizier and his dog, Barbie.
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A young girl stands on the tiered seating of a former school sports arena that is now a displacement center. She is one of over 600 children now living at the crowded shelter, Clarke said.

Cherizier has faced sanctions from both the UN and the United States Treasury Department. The UN has accused Cherizier of human rights abuses including the orchestration of deadly attacks against civilians over the years, saying his actions “have directly contributed to the economic paralysis and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.”

Clarke visited him in late February at his somewhat unassuming house on the top of a hill in Delmas 6.

“We actually did the interview in the abandoned building opposite him,” Clarke said. “Word is that he didn’t want lots of people living so close around him.”

After a very brief interview where Cherizier laid out his vision for Haiti, Clarke walked with him through the streets. Clarke remembers how much quieter it was when he was with Cherizier. “There was no shooting because (the men) were all with Jimmy,” he said.

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A view from inside a Haitian police armored vehicle.
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A man stands on the back of a truck while crossing into the Delmas 6 neighborhood.

To try to restore order in his country, Henry has called for military assistance. The deployment of a Kenyan-led multinational security force was greenlit by the UN Security Council last fall and Henry recently visited Kenya to finalize the details, but it’s not clear when those troops might arrive.

The United States has agreed to provide $200 million to the mission, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling the situation in Haiti “one of the most urgent challenges we face as an international community.”

Henry adviser Jean Junior Joseph told CNN that the government has limited options right now.

“The gangs have more ammunition than us,” he said.

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A man and woman, displaced by gang violence, now live in a former school building in the Delmas 4 neighborhood.

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