3 things to know about the current crisis in Haiti

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MEXICO CITY — Haiti is entering its second day of a state of emergency, after gangs attacked the capital city’s most important prisons over the weekend, releasing thousands of inmates. The country’s airport is under siege and on Monday evening it was still not clear whether Haiti’s de facto prime minister had made it back into the country.

Monique Clesca, a well-known activist in Haiti, says the weekend represented “three days of terror.”

“Gangs paraded throughout Port-au-Prince with their arms openly,” she told NPR. “It wasn’t done at night and the police was nowhere to be found.”

Almost three years after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haiti has been in freefall. Elections haven’t been held since 2017, so the term for every elected official has expired; security services are overwhelmed and millions are going hungry.

Here are three things you should know about this latest bout of violence in the country.

It marks the overt involvement of gangs in politics

Robert Fatton, who studies Haiti at the University of Virginia, says other bouts of violence in Haiti were marked by fights between gangs.

This time, he says, the gangs in Haiti have forged an alliance and at least one of the big gang leaders, Jimmy Chérizier, who is nicknamed Barbecue, has said explicitly that the point of this violence is to overthrow the government.

Leader of the “G9 and Family” gang, Jimmy Cherizier, better known as Barbecue, in Haiti on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022

Matias Delacroix/AP

Fatton says working together the gangs have flexed a powerful muscle. They already controlled most of the capital city, but over the past week, they shot at airplanes at the international airport in Port-au-Prince. International airlines stopped their flights, something that rarely happened in the past. The gangs also overpowered police at two of the main prisons and managed to release thousands of inmates.

This is a critical moment for Haiti, Fatton says.

“The situation is on the verge of a real collapse of any and every institution that remains in the country,” he said.

In other words, he said, there is a possibility the gangs could become the dominant force in Haiti.

Haiti’s de facto prime minister is not in the country

Haiti’s de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry traveled to Kenya last week. Last year, the East African country agreed to lead a multinational force in Haiti, but Kenyan courts have delayed the deployment. Henry was in the country trying to close that deal.

When the violence broke out, it was Patrick Boisvert, the country’s finance minister who was acting as prime minister, who signed the emergency declaration.

Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry gives a public lecture at the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday March. 1, 2024. Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry said elections in his country need to be held as soon as possible in order to bring stability to the troubled Caribbean nation.

Andrew Kasuku/AP

At a press briefing, the U.S. State Department said Henry was “returning to the country.”

“We think it’s important that he do so and that he be allowed to do so,” State Department spokeman Matthew Miller said, declining to say more.

Kenyan police are still seen as the way out of this crisis

Speaking to reporters the State Department’s Miller said the crisis “underscores the urgency” of finalizing the Kenyan-led mission.

Monique Clesca, who was part of a civil society group that has promoted a holistic approach to ending the Haitian crisis, says part of the problem is that Prime Minister Henry has been solely focused on a military solution. Henry, she said, could have ordered a state of emergency from the time he came to power, allowing the police to bring the gangs under control and at the same time plan for elections.

“Instead, a few months after [he came to power], he went to the United Nations and said ‘send me some troops’ and then crossed his arms,” Clesca said. “And that’s all they did – wait and wait and wait.”

On Friday, Henry and Kenyan President William Ruto witnessed the signing of a bilateral agreement authorizing the deployment of police officers to Kenya. The government of Kenya believes the agreement satisfies the objections of the Kenyan courts, which had stopped the deployment.

“It is a mission for humanity,” Ruto said. “It is a mission in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Haiti.” Ruto said the signing of the agreement was the “final step” and that his police force would “be there at the earliest opportunity that is possible.”

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