Flaming tires, burning buildings, chaos. Haiti’s struggle against powerful gang attacks on weak government institutions.
Flaming tires seen early on February 11, 2019, in the streets of Hinche in the center of Haiti. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018%E2%80%932022_Haitian_protests)

Who is Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, The Haitian Gang Leader at the Center of Haiti’s New Crisis?

On October 21st, the United Nations Security Council imposed individual sanctions on Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer turned gang leader in Haiti. For weeks, the coalition of gangs headed by Cherizier, known as the G9 Friends and Allies have imposed a blockade on the main fuel terminal in Haiti. Fuel is now getting more scarce by the day, with prices surging to as much as 20-dollars a gallon. This is exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation, with parts of Port au Prince experiencing what the United Nations deems catastrophic food insecurity. Meanwhile, amidst the chaos and fighting, a new cholera outbreak is sweeping through neighborhoods of Port au Prince.

In this episode, we are joined by Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean Correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a longtime reporter covering Haiti, to discuss the biography of Jimmy Cherizier before having a longer conversation about Haiti’s recent gang wars and the relationship between gang violence and politics in Haiti.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

Who is Jimmy Chérizier?

Jacqueline Charles [00:00:00] Blocking the flow of food, of potable water is plunging people deeper into misery — it’s having the opposite effect of what he claims his actions are meant to do.

Excerpted News Reports [00:01:21] “Protesters have taken to the streets after dozens of people were killed in a week of gang violence, insecurity and unrest.” “The United Nations Security Council is sanctioning Haitian gang leaders. It comes as the international community pushes to bring an end to surging violence in the crisis hit Caribbean country.” “The UN Security Council now targeting gang leaders and their supporters, considering travel bans and arms embargoes on anyone threatening the peace, security or stability of Haiti.”

Jacqueline Charles [00:03:46] Jimmy Chérizier, who is better known as Barbecue, is a former Haitian national police officer turned gang leader. I’m told that the nickname Barbecue has to do with that they basically would barbecue people, would burn them. He basically is the front man for a very powerful gang known as the G9 Families and Allies. And I say front man because he’s the guy that we hear a lot from. He’s very articulate. There’s a certain charisma to him.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:21] He gives a lot of media interviews.

Jacqueline Charles [00:04:23] Exactly, he’s got his media savvy. You could tell that he’s not just some schmuck off the street. And in a country where the state is essentially nonexistent and gangs have stepped into the vacuum, he is popular in a very weird sort of way. I don’t think that there’s anybody in Haiti today who doesn’t know who Barbecue is. But when you listen to him, he will tell you, for instance, this is a revolution, and I’m doing this because we want to have health care. We want to lift people out of poverty.

Jimmy Chérizier in Excerpted News Reports [00:05:02] “We are fighting for another society, another Haiti. It’s not only for the 5% of the people who keep all the wealth, but a new Haiti, where everyone can have food, clean water, so they can have a decent house to live in. Another Haiti where we don’t have to leave the country.”

Jacqueline Charles [00:05:17] But they’re using fiery barricades to block access in and out of the country’s main fuel terminal. One would argue that this very act of blocking the flow of fuel, blocking the flow of food, potable water is plunging people deeper into misery. It’s having the opposite effect of what he claims his actions are meant to do.

What is Jimmy Chérizier’s life story?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:42] So how did he go from a police officer to gang leader to want-to-be revolutionary?

Jacqueline Charles [00:05:50] What we do know in terms of police in Haiti is that there is an issue of corruption inside the police force. It’s not difficult for somebody to go from police officer to gang leader. We’ve heard lots of reports in terms of the police being infiltrated by a number of officers who are involved with gangs. We’ve heard reports that when Chérizier moves, he moves with police officers, that he is aware of the police moves. There have been attempts to arrest him, attempts to take him out, and he always seems to be one step ahead of everybody else.

Why did the UN Security Council put a travel ban on Jimmy Chérizier?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:29] So Jimmy Chérizier became the first individual in about five years to have sanctions slapped on him by the U.N. Security Council, which voted unanimously to issue a travel ban and asset freeze. Why is the Security Council suddenly focused on him as an individual?

Jacqueline Charles [00:06:53] Well, you know, that’s a very interesting question, because a lot of Haitians who had a lot of high hopes for these sanctions that were coming out of the United Nations, were really expecting to have a list of individuals that the U.N. would announce that they were now sanctioning because they were involved in gang activities or destabilizing Haiti. But instead, what we saw was that in this resolution that was passed, there was an annex, and then the annex, Chérizier had been highlighted. The Security Council hasn’t really explained why, of all the individuals, they decided to highlight him. If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that Jimmy Chérizier was also sanctioned by the United States back in 2020 in connection to the 2018 massacre in a working-class neighborhood of Port au Prince called La Saline, dozens of people were killed in that massacre. At the time, two other Haitian government officials who were working for President Moise, were also implicated, and also sanctioned in that massacre. And so, there were investigations, investigations were done by a local human rights organization in Haiti, as well as by the U.N. itself. You would follow the Security Council updates on the situation in Haiti, and you would hear I remember the ambassador to France saying, why hasn’t Jimmy Chérizier been arrested? They were well aware of the La Saline incident. So, if we were to consider that and the decision now in terms of announcing sanctions, he has become emblematic of the Security Council, the reason for them taking this direction in terms of sanctions. I think there’s a recognition, in a part of the international community, that the security situation in Haiti is not improving. It’s getting worse. They wanted to send some sort of a clear message or get some sort of a mechanism in place that they can begin to crack down on gang leaders, but also individuals who are financing them and who are arming them. But there was disappointment, I can tell you, among people who follow Haiti closely, that of all the individuals that this particular person who the only one highlighted and that there wasn’t a list of other individuals.

Why has gang violence escalated in Haiti recently?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:14] Yeah, it usually is the case that when the Security Council passes a sanctions resolution, there’s an annex, and the annex contains like a bunch of names. But this was the only name. I want you to take listeners back to this summer when gang violence seemed to sharply escalate. Jimmy Chérizier as you said is the leader of the G9 Friends and Allies coalition of armed groups of gangs. And they apparently launched an offensive this summer. Can you explain what happened and why gang violence escalated so sharply over the past several months?

Jacqueline Charles [00:09:55] So actually, before this summer incident involving the G9, we also saw a massacre that happened in the eastern part of Port au Prince involving a couple of different gangs. And it was in area’s called Croix-des-Missions, Croix-des-Bouquets, Tabarre and Tabarre is significant because it’s where the international airport is located, but it’s also where the United States embassy in Port au Prince is also located. And this gang violence broke out, ironically enough, after the arrest of another powerful gang leader, Yonyon, who was actually in prison in a national penitentiary. So, the United States basically brought him here to the U.S. to stand charges on kidnaping in relation to the abduction of 16 Americans who were kidnaped. They were among a total of 17 missionaries who were kidnaped a year ago October. And so, the U.S., interestingly enough, will say when we arrested Yonyon and brought him here, that sent a clear message to the gangs on how serious we are and I always counter that by saying no, after the arrest of Yonyon, the situation with 400 Mawozo, which is the gang that he headed from prison, controlled from prison, it didn’t improve. It actually got worse because we saw a bloody gang war that went on for weeks on end in the eastern part of the capital. So that took place around April and May and then after we saw this situation in Cite Soleil which is the largest slum in the Haitian capital in Port au Prince. And according to people that I interviewed and spoke to, what they said was that Jimmy Chérizier’s gang, G9 Family and Allies, attacked another gang coalition inside Cite Soleil that’s known as G-Pèp. So, it was positioned as kind of a gang war, a turf war, but according to the U.N., there were over 470 individuals who were killed or injured or have gone missing as a result of the vicious clash between these two gangs. And another thing that happened that people weren’t paying attention to, but we’re now starting to see the results of that, was the lack of potable water. Because of the gang fighting, you could not get humanitarian aid inside Cite Soleil and in this particular neighborhood called Brooklyn, where the attack took place, water trucks could not deliver water, they stopped delivering water. Garbage trucks stop going in to try to collect garbage. So, people literally have been living on top of filth and drinking soiled water, and then this month, what did we see? We saw that the first cases of cholera that were reported in Haiti after more than three years were confirmed out of the Brooklyn neighborhood, the very neighborhood where this gang attack took place in July.

How is Haiti’s recent cholera outbreak affecting children?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:02] And you wrote an article just today, and we’re speaking Tuesday, October 25th, in The Miami Herald about the toll that this cholera epidemic, which is sourced to this neighborhood in Port au Prince that’s inaccessible to water trucks and sanitation, is having just a devastating effect on children right now.

Jacqueline Charles [00:13:23] Yes, UNICEF says that half of the cholera cases that are suspected are children under the age of 14 years old. And we’re talking just about the capital, because the reality is, is that aid groups, including U.N. organizations, have not really been able to get access outside of Port au Prince because of the gang violence, because of gangs blocking roads, because of these sporadic protests, because of looting and attacks that have happened on U.N. warehouses, including WFP. And so, a lot of the focus has been on Port au Prince, but I’ve been hearing reports from people about possible cholera in their communities.

Why is Jimmy Chérizier’s gang G9 blockading the key fuel port in Haiti?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:59] So meanwhile, exacerbating the situation is the fact that G9, Jimmy Chérizier’s group, is essentially blockading the key fuel port in Haiti. Are they making political demands on Prime Minister Ariel Henry? Do they seek the resignation or the ouster somehow of Ariel Henry? And what’s the sort of connection to politics of this all?

Jacqueline Charles [00:14:32] Yes, so he has basically demanded that Henry needs to resign. We’ve heard other politicians say that when Henry resigns, that the Varreux fuel terminal will be unblocked. I mean, what’s been clear in this is that people have definitely been trying to take advantage of this for their own means. You know, the question is, is Chérizier acting on his own or is he a stand in for others? Is he a stand in for other individuals who have been trying to get the removal of Ariel Henry? You know, I think it’s no secret to anyone in Haiti that there are various groups, different groups that would like to see this prime minister removed. He wasn’t elected to be put there. We’ve heard from individuals who say, hey, this country needs to undergo a two-year transition. It needs to be led by civil society members. You heard the international community say that economic interests have basically penetrated these protests that are based on real frustrations but seeking to take advantage of it because they’re not happy at the fact that the government not only wants to get rid of the fuel subsidies, but at the same time the government has been cracking down on a minimum of $600 million in uncollected customs duties at the port. There are very powerful individuals who basically have been importing products but not paying the true value of those taxes, and as a result, Haiti loses about $600 million minimum in uncollected duties. And why is that important? This is a country of 12 million people. Its budget is basically $2 billion a year. It receives more money out of the diaspora, three plus billion dollars, which it really needs but it’s throwing $1,000,000,000 away in fuel and in uncollected port taxes.

Who is Ariel Henry?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:19] So do you see any connection between the circumstances in which Ariel Henry became prime minister and the current crisis that Haiti is in today?

Jacqueline Charles [00:16:30] So a lot of people may just be coming to this Haiti crisis or crises post the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise a year ago in July of 2021. But prior to his assassination, President Jovenel Moise was the target of a lot of anti-government protests, demands for his ouster, questions about when his mandate as president actually ended. Opposition groups, legal scholars were saying that was February 7th, 2021; the United States and others said, no, it’s February 7th, 2022; and so there was an Organization of American States delegation that went down to Haiti to meet with President Jovenel Moise and basically said, look, we need to take this country to elections because President Moise was under one man rule, meaning there was not a functioning parliament in Haiti and he was it. The buck stops with him, which led to some people saying that he was trying to become Latin America’s next dictator because he was passing these new laws by executive degree, like he created this secret intelligence agency similar to a CIA, but even worse again, under presidential order. And so, as a result of the pressure that he was getting from the U.S. and others in this hemisphere, he tapped Ariel Henry to be his next prime minister. At the time, he had an acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, who was also the minister of Foreign Affairs, but he tapped Ariel Henry who was a neurosurgeon, previously served as chief of Cabinet in the Ministry of Health under the late President Rene Preval, ironically, when cholera first broke out. But Henry was more remembered by a lot of people as having been interior minister and the head of Social Services Ministry under President Michel Martelly, who was the predecessor to Jovenel Moise, and who basically essentially tapped Jovenel Moise to follow him as president. So that made Henry controversial in a sense because people could not separate him or would not separate him from former President Michel Martelly, or his political party known as Repons Peyizan. So, while he may have been tapped by Jovenel in response to the OAS, saying, ‘We need you to get somebody that’s not on your team, that’s not in your political circle, you know, someone who can gather people around the table because they have different political views,’ not everybody saw that with Henry. They disregarded the fact that he may have been a social Democrat and he’s belonged to several different political parties through the decades. But his nomination as prime minister was not made public right away and I think a lot of people did not realize that that he was tapped by Jovenel Moise way before Moise was killed. But it didn’t come to light until just days before the president was assassinated. So Jovenel Moise is killed in the middle of the night in a brazen attack on the 7th of July, and there is a power struggle between the acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, who’s there, and Ariel Henry, who is the prime minister designate but hadn’t been sworn in before President Moise’s death. And so, there are these meetings that are going back and forth about this. It was a very awkward moment in time. There were a lot of things that weren’t clear. A president has been killed. Is this country going to be taken over by gangs; are we under martial law; who’s in charge? All of these things were happening. And then at the end of that, Henry is the one who emerges as the prime minister, because this was the choice that this president made prior to him being killed, under pressure by the international community that has insisted that he was still president at the time of his death, contrary to what other people were arguing. And so, you have people who did not agree with that, who still do not agree with that, and as a result of this, what you find is Henry today, if not elected, does not have a president in Haiti. There’s not a functioning parliament. And there’s these questions about what’s next for Haiti. You know, should it go under a longer transition? Does it need to go to elections? The international community, led by the U.S. and the U.N. has been saying, well, you guys need to have a Haitian solution, put your heads together, come up with the governance plans for moving this country forward into getting the country to elections. And so far, we have not seen that happen.

Why do gangs have so much power in Haiti?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:13] Given the current crisis that Haiti is under and also the political chaos of the last year, what does this moment tell you about the relationship between gangs, political power, and wealth in Haiti?

Jacqueline Charles [00:21:33] I think what this moment tells you: it’s not about gangs, political power, and wealth in Haiti, what it tells you is what happens when you don’t have institutions in a country, when you don’t have strong institutions, when you don’t have a strong government in the country, when you have a weak police force. I mean, the police, not for lack of trying, have been trying to take back control of these key infrastructures from the gangs, but they haven’t been able to. Why? Not just because there are 12,000 individuals, they’re ill equipped. The gangs have automatic weapons, and the police have pistols; they have nine millimeters. They don’t even have bulletproof vests in some cases. If they do, they don’t have plates in their bulletproof vests. I mean, let’s not fool ourselves. This is a country that is under a U.S. arms embargo. So, while weapons and ammunition are flowing freely into Haiti illegally and ending up in the hands of gangs, the police, they don’t have access to this. I always point to this incident where you had five police officers who went in an armored vehicle, into a slum in Port au Prince called the prestigious village of God, better known as a kidnaping lair, so it’s a complete maze in there. Well, their bodies still have never been retrieved out of there. They were ambushed when they were in there. So, this is the reality that you have, and so when Jovenel Moise was president, there was still a gang problem. There was still a kidnaping problem. When I talk to people on the ground in terms of the international community, what they confide in me is the fact that what keeps them up late at night is that every day these gangs are increasingly becoming free agents. We talked about the collusion of politicians with gangs and who may be pulling the strings of this gang or that gang but what you are increasingly seeing when you follow this issue is that gangs that previously were not in communication with each other, they are in communication with each other. When somebody gets kidnaped today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that gang is holding them in their lair. They could be held by another gang that’s in another part of the capital. So, you’re starting to see these larger coalitions built and you’re starting to see gangs acting on their own. So at some point, are we going to reach a point in this country where you can’t just pick up a phone and call the politicians and say, hey, I know you’re close to this gang and this is a problem and I need you to release this person or release this blockade; I think that is the fear and the reality that the Haitian National Police, which was put in charge of security of this country today, needs help. Who should help and how that help should look? Well, that’s the current debate.

Will the United States and Mexico intervene in Haiti’s crises?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:10] Well, I wanted to ask you about that debate given the deteriorating security situation you just described, and the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by lack of access to water and sharply increased fuel crisis, there have been calls and some movement for some sort of international intervention in Haiti. I know the United States and Mexico have been circulating this idea at the U.N. Security Council. International intervention has a very sort of problematic history in Haiti. What are you hearing from the Haitians you’re speaking to about the prospect of some sort of international presence in Haiti? And how realistic is that as an actual option that might ameliorate the situation to a degree?

Jacqueline Charles [00:25:02] So is it international intervention or is it assistance for the police? Because let me take a step back. There’s a country called Jamaica that is not far from Haiti, and it has a gang problem. And you have the Jamaican military that they run anti-gang operations with the Jamaican Defense Force, their official name. But they are the military aspect and they run anti-gang operations with the Jamaican police all of the time. When you look at what’s being proposed and what’s being requested, this is exactly what the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez is requesting. The way that this has been played by different groups, because it is a very sensitive topic right now, is that it’s international intervention or it’s international invasion. Let’s go back in history: Haiti had an army; that army at their request, and the push by the United States was dismantled. Under Martelly and Jovenel Moise, they resuscitated it, but the army and the police are ill equipped. The army is almost nonexistent. I mean, you have a couple of guys there, but they’re really not equipped at all. And so where is that help going to be? So, the Haitian government in place has asked for a specialized, rapid reaction force to come in and to assist the police. UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez has put forth a proposal supporting that as well as what do we do after? Here are the options, the security options. I think that there’s a recognition today on the part of the international community that the Haitian police still needs assistance, that when the U.N. pulled out of Haiti and this idea that people were arguing that the HNP, the Haitian National Police, could take care of the security problems of this country today. There is this real realization that they are not there yet, and so the U.N. has a basket fund that has been set up, I think, requesting $28 million. It only has 11 million, 1 million came from the Haitian government itself. Another 10 came from Canada, maybe 14, I think the US gave 3 million. But the reality is that it’s been slow in terms of getting other countries in the international community to step up and to provide that financial assistance. And now the US has a resolution where it is supporting this idea of deploying a rapid reaction force to Haiti to go with the Haitian National Police. They will be the frontline entity, but to take back the seaport, the fuel terminal, key access roads, to get some sort of measure of stability there so you can get fuel and food and water flowing again in that country but it’s just a Band-Aid. It’s a temporary because then the question becomes, what do you put in place so that the next time you have these gangs stepping into the political vacuum, the police are able to respond; the state is able to respond?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:04] In the coming weeks, you know, as this situation is poised to deteriorate even further on the security and humanitarian front, are there any trends or inflection points or anything in particular you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how the situation might unfold?

Jacqueline Charles [00:28:22] The inflection point, what I’ll be looking for as a reporter is the situation in Haiti right now, it’s dire. We are in week seven of this gang blockade so how worse does it get? What is the concern with the cholera? Does it spread beyond suspected cases to confirmed cases, to confirmed deaths? And I think for Haiti’s regional neighbors, does Haiti increasingly or actually become more of a regional security threat? I mean, that is the concern: is there spillover of Haiti’s multiple multidimensional crises? Today, we are in the largest boat migration crisis of Haitian refugees trying to get to the United States since 2004. Over 7000 have made that journey, some have died along the way; most of them have been returned back to Haiti. Are there going to be more people risking their lives once fuel maybe gets available? And do we start seeing this exporting of the gang violence elsewhere in the region? That’s a concern, too, when you talk to members of CARICOM. It’s a concern that this will no longer just be confined to Haiti or the island of Hispaniola.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:35] Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciated it.

Jacqueline Charles [00:29:38] Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:46] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.