The men fighting gang leader Barbecue for power in Haiti

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An ex-cop who likes to give news conferences while wielding a high-powered rifle and a young criminal as fond of starring in rap videos as he is of trafficking arms and drugs.

These are just two of the gang leaders blamed for the surge in violence which has engulfed the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and led to the resignation of Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

Add a former rebel fresh out of jail in the US who plans on becoming president and you get an explosive mix.

With the country in limbo awaiting the creation of a transition government, we take a closer look at some of those jostling for power in Haiti.

Gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Chérizier

Former police officer Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, and leader of an alliance of armed groups, uses a walkie talkie after addressing the media, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 11, 2024.
Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier is the most visible gang leader but others have more men under arms

The 47-year-old former police officer may not be the most powerful gang leader in Haiti, but Jimmy Chérizier has emerged as the most visible face of the recent unrest.

Fond of speaking to journalists while clad in his trademark bullet-proof vest, the man widely known as Barbecue leads an alliance of gangs called G9.

Barbecue has been one of the most outspoken enemies of Ariel Henry, demanding his resignation ever since the latter was sworn in as prime minister.

The G9 leader likes to portray himself as someone who fights for the common people and against the oligarchy.

But not only has he been accused of leading a massacre in 2018 in which scores of people where killed, he was also behind the 2021 blockade of the Varreux fuel terminal.

G9’s attacks on water and food deliveries caused severe shortages among Haiti’s poorest. The lack of fuel caused by the blockade meant hospitals struggled to keep their generators running to provide crucial care.

“Barbecue has made vague demands of a more just and equitable system, but of course the irony of this whole situation is that the armed groups in the capital and around are creating the hell that people are living through,” explains Haiti expert Michael Deibert.

Barbecue claims to have united Port-au-Prince’s notoriously quarrelsome gangs in a coalition called Viv Ansanm (Live Together).

It is hard to verify that claim. But while so far no rival gang leader has denied it, any alliance is likely to be short-lived, according to Michael Deibert.

“These groups feud mercilessly with one another all the time,” the journalist, author and researcher at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE) explains.

Mr Deibert says that the gangs appear to have found a “modus vivendi” while they try to tear down the pillars of the state. “To what end I’m not exactly clear,” he adds.

Chillingly, Barbecue warned last week that a “civil war” could erupt should Mr Henry return to Haiti. The leader of the G9 has not yet spoken since Mr Henry said he would step down as soon as a transition council has been created.

But judging by his previous warnings that Haitians should be left to decide Haitian affairs without any outside interference, the planned deployment of a multi-national security force to Haiti will not go down well with him.

Romain Le Cour, an expert at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), says that Barbecue derives a lot of his power from controlling the capital’s port and fuel terminal.

Should international police forces be deployed to retake these key installations, Barbecue could see his influence diminish, Mr Le Cour argues.

Both Mr Le Cour and Mr Deibert warn that Barbecue is not even remotely the most powerful gang leader in Haiti, just the one who is most accessible to the media.

“A lot of the most powerful characters are people who don’t give interviews to journalists,” Mr Deibert points out.

Gang leader Johnson André, aka Izo

Screengrab from YouTube music video by Izo
Izo is one of the gang leaders who has been increasing in power

One of the gang leaders thought to wield more power than Barbecue is a 26-year-old known as Izo.

Izo differs from Barbecue, a former police officer, in that he came up through the gang hierarchy to lead the Vilaj de Dye – 5 Segonn gang, explains Romain Le Cour.

The two gang leaders share a love of the limelight, but Izo tends to use social media to publish music videos rather than to air his political views.

The young gangster has released a number of rap videos and was even awarded a prize by YouTube for getting 100,000 followers.

But behind the gangster bling façade is a ruthless criminal whose gang engages in rape, kidnappings, drug and arms trafficking, according to the United Nations.

He is also accused of obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Romain Le Cour, who has been studying Haiti’s gangs for years, says what makes Izo stands out is the fact that he has managed to gain control of maritime routes in Port-au-Prince Bay.

That allows him to circumvent territory held by other gangs and lets him to move weapons quickly.

According to the UN, Izo has also exploited Haiti’s “fragile security environment” to make money through drug trafficking with some shipments reportedly arriving directly from South America in the Vilaj de Dye neighbourhood he controls.

In its report on Haiti’s gang crisis, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) traces Izo’s attempts to expand his territorial control beyond the capital.

His gang’s incursion into Mirebalais, 35km north of the capital, triggered deadly clashes between members of his 5 Segonn gang and vigilantes in which 30 people were killed. According to the report, at least 800 families fled their homes in the resulting violence.

Mr Le Cour points out that Izo’s drug trafficking and arms smuggling network will be particularly tough to break down as it is very diverse, so much so that he does not even flinch from selling weapons to his rivals.

Former rebel Guy Philippe

Guy Philippe talking to Reuters via Zoom
Guy Philippe, a rebel leader turned politician, told Reuters news agency he wanted to be president

Guy Philippe is another former police officer gone rogue. The 56-year-old helped lead the coup against President Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

In 2016, he ran for the Senate in Haiti and won. But days before he was sworn into office – which would have given him immunity from prosecution – he was arrested on drug-trafficking charges and extradited to the US.

He admitted taking bribes to protect narcotics shipments to the US while he was working as a senior police officer.

Philippe was repatriated to Haiti in November after serving his sentence, a move Michael Deibert describes as “pouring gasoline on an already raging fire”.

It did not take Philippe long to share video messages on social media in which he called for a “rebellion” against Mr Henry.

Guy Philippe has openly expressed his desire to be Haiti’s next president.

Asked whether his jail term could prove a stumbling block on the way to the presidential palace, he said: “[Former South African President Nelson] Mandela was in prison. [Former Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez was in prison. [Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] Lula was in prison… And so if my people believe and trust me, I will be their leader. It’s up to my people, no-one else.”

Mr Deibert points out that Philippe is not the only one to have expressed his presidential ambitions amid the chaos that the gang violence has created.

“The group that seems to be forgotten in this is the people of Haiti,” he says, drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis which has left an estimated five million out of Haiti’s 11 million people facing acute hunger.

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