Gangs forced out the government in Haiti

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Signs of the city’s dysfunction were evident within the Kraze Baryé stronghold.
But the man on the gold sofa preferred to talk about a brighter future – one that he claims Haiti’s gangs are prepared to usher in.
To sit down with one of Haiti’s gang leaders is controversial in the country, given the suffering and terror that armed groups have long sown.
The gangs and the oligarchs Innocent, 37, portrays the broad alliance of gangs attacking Haiti’s institutions as a progressive venture.
The relationship continues today – though Haiti’s gangs are increasingly acting independently to amass money and power, according to experts, “Yes, I have an armed group.
She was robbed by Kraze Baryé members in June last year, she says, then kidnapped and brought to meet Innocent himself.
Kraze Baryé employs around 100 men and women, according to Innocent’s lieutenant and cousin, the bleach-blond Dezod Augustin, 34.
But Haiti’s gangs maintain they deserve a seat at the negotiating table.

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The image of Vitel’homme Innocent on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list of fugitives portrays a crazy man with bare teeth and wide, wild eyes. The image is what one might anticipate from a gang leader who is wanted for $2 million for allegedly kidnapping people, claims to be protected by God, and is accused of causing instability in a country.

He gives a different impression when he’s in person, at least to visitors. Powerful, yes, surrounded by armed acolytes who jump at his glance – but also carefully solicitous, with a cooler full of sandwiches for his visitors, and a tendency to wax philosophical in conversation.

CNN spoke with Innocent, whose armed group Kraze Baryé is one of the allied armed groups that have thrown Haiti into a state of lawlessness, earlier this month after weeks of negotiations inside the country’s gangland. He is a well-known voice among the nation’s gang leaders and is of the opinion that harmony needs to be restored. And in what circumstances?

During our recent visit to the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we followed a truck that took us through a maze of winding dirt roads and past checkpoints manned by armed guards wearing Halloween masks and balaclavas. We passed through a neighborhood that was once home to wealthy people; tall walls were still adorned with pink bougainvillea, and a verdant soccer field offered breathtaking views of the city below.

It’s nearly a ghost town now. Motorbikes and cars with masked drivers and long guns sticking out of the windows started to follow our vehicle. A motley diplomatic convoy included some cars with fluttering red and blue Haitian flags.

A gold car approached and stopped in front of them after about forty-five minutes. The innocent person left. With a cross around his neck and a tangle of gold chains around his neck, he was small and seemingly unarmed. He was wearing a soft loafer and a brightly striped batik suit. He led the way into a rococo mansion with ornate gold velvet couches and chairs, crystal display cases, and plastic flower arrangements hinting at the previous owners.

We sat and talked about the future, moving stuffed teddy bears from the seats to create more space.

Speaking softly in Haitian Creole, Innocent remarked, “The Haiti we had, Haiti, the pearl of the Antilles that we grew up in, could still return to being the most beautiful.”. “Someone might enjoy an ice cream cone while sitting in Champ de Mars one day. “.

The famous Champ de Mars park in the capital is now a battleground between gangs and law enforcement. A record-breaking wave of gang violence that has virtually closed down Port-au-Prince last month brought Haiti’s misfortune to a breaking point following years of political unrest, institutional neglect, and a string of horrific natural disasters.

The main airport and seaport in the city are both dark. As refugees from gang attacks, they have taken over government ministries. In the streets, bodies are strewn among abandoned trash, and vigilantes driven by fear have taken to killing and setting suspicious outsiders on fire in neighborhoods that are still free of gang rule.

Within the Kraze Baryé stronghold, there were indications of the dysfunction of the city. The air was still and hot inside Innocent’s large home as his foot soldiers toiled to start a generator so that a fan or air conditioner could run. The wrecked sedan with its four flat tires and blown-out windows was still sitting next to the pool; no one had bothered to remove it.

However, the man seated on the gold sofa would have rather spoken about a better future, one that he believes Haiti’s gangs are ready to bring about.

Given the agony and terror that armed groups have long sown, it is controversial in Haiti to have a conversation with one of the gang leaders. The United Nations has documented at least 438 kidnappings, including 21 child abductions, and at least 1,660 gang-related killings in the first ninety-nine days of this year alone. Experts claim that arson and collective rape are favoured gang tactics used to crush civilians.

The UN has sanctioned Innocent for the widespread violations of human rights that Kraze Baryé carried out while he was in charge. The Haitian National Police are searching for Innocent for ransom, kidnapping, murder, rape, armed rape, theft of a vehicle, theft, and property destruction. His group has a reputation for going straight after the Haitian National Police and has attempted to take control of some of Port-au-Prince’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Innocent acknowledged making mistakes in his first interview with foreign media, but he did not refute the murders, arson, rapes, or kidnappings carried out by the city’s affiliated gangs. However, he presented the deadly street violence of the past few months as unintentional consequences. He makes the point that deaths—both unintentional and extrajudicial—have also been brought on by the police, saying they won’t have a conversation.

He claimed that getting involved in politics is the only thing he regrets.

The mafia and the wealthy individuals.

The broad coalition of gangs attacking Haiti’s institutions is portrayed as a progressive endeavor by Innocent, 37. Viv Ansanm, or “Live Together,” is the name of the gang coalition he spoke of. “Our dream is to get rid of the oligarchs who prevent the country from progressing.”. “.

Viv Ansanm initiated an unparalleled attack on the Haitian government in February, targeting police stations, prisons, government buildings, hospitals, the national palace, the national library, cargo ships, and the public electricity company. Attacks took place at the same time that former prime minister Ariel Henry visited Nairobi to discuss Kenya’s leadership of an international security force to support Haiti’s National Police.

Innocent claims that although Henry eventually submitted his resignation as demanded by Viv Ansanm, the gangs are now against the interim governing council that was established to take his place.

To which Innocent replied, “Sit and hear Viv Ansanm.”. “.

“There will be a resolution as soon as possible,” he then hinted. “.

Like many others in Haiti, he says it’s time for the old political elites to retire and criticizes the governing council for being more of the same. However, the nation’s authorities and gangs have long coexisted peacefully, with the former using armed groups to intimidate rivals through kidnapping and other forms of attacks.

Although experts note that Haiti’s gangs are becoming more autonomous in their pursuit of wealth and power, the relationship still exists today.

Sure, I do possess an armed group. When questioned about Kraze Baryé’s involvement in kidnapping, Innocent responded, “I direct them.”. But when you really think about it, do these guys really have any idea who to kidnap and who not to? Not at all. “.

“Representing the nation at CARICOM are essentially the same individuals seated there. They will call us and say, “I have such and such a job… Fix it for us,” if you decide to block them. You then find out that so-and-so has been abducted. He states, “Or so-and-so has been kidnapped.

He claimed that today’s gangs receive their weapons and ammunition from dishonest officials.

“Let’s look at an obvious example. We can’t make the trip. Importing is not possible. There’s no way for us to export. But weapons are always entering the scene. There are bullets everywhere. Furthermore, the border is unmanned by any representatives of ours. There aren’t any representatives from us at customs. However, all of these materials pass via these exact channels. He asks, “How do they get to us?”.

The corruption he speaks of is not uncommon. In terms of global corruption perceptions, Haiti is currently ranked 172nd out of 180 nations. Along with several other prominent Haitians, former prime ministers and presidents have been charged with corruption and funding gang activity in Haiti over the course of the last year due to sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada.

As he guided CNN through his territory, Innocent recalled how, in the 1980s and 90s, when he was a young man, the elders in the area used to farm in Tabarre. “It goes without saying that we were able to harvest then.”. Currently, he attributes Haiti’s reliance on imported food to the upper class’s mismanagement of the nation, depriving the general populace of all economic opportunities.

He states that prior to taking up arms, strong local business interests destroyed his own legal businesses, which included a construction company, hotel, and car rental company.

“If you’re attempting to defend the people, why attack regular people?”.

Renowned radio and television journalist Marie-Lucie Bonhomme Opont, 55, who formerly resided in Tabarre, has an alternative interpretation of what caused the neighborhood to become the abandoned area that it is today.

She claims that in June of last year, she was robbed by members of Kraze Baryé, after which she was abducted and taken to see Innocent. “I was asleep in the middle of the night when all of a sudden I heard a tremendous commotion downstairs,” she remembers. I was robbed of everything in my house, including food, by about thirty armed individuals. “.

After requesting payment, the robbers seemingly left without taking her with them. Opont estimated that they drove for roughly forty-five minutes.

Bandits breaking into my house terrified me so much. The thought that this could occur in my own house shocks me. I am aware that they are rapists and that they have committed horrible rapes in addition to other crimes,” she declares.

In the darkness, they eventually stopped. Opont tells CNN that Innocent asked her if she recognized his voice when he later approached her car. She responds, “Obviously, I did.”. “He was very active on social media and used to do press conferences. “.

He addressed Opont by name, as if he recognized her as well. She responds, “He knew who I was, of course.”. “That’s our house, as everyone in the neighborhood knows.”. However, I am unsure of why they took me. I still ask myself these questions. She was taken out early the following morning without being given any reason.

She did not receive the same treatment when her husband was abducted a week later. Pierre-Louis Opont, who had been detained for several days without access to his medication, was only set free by Kraze Baryé after they demanded a substantial ransom from his family, according to her.

They made their immediate exit from Tabarre. Regarding her former neighborhood, she explains that it is a “territoire perdue” in Haitian language.

“It’s a danger area,” Opont clarifies. “After my husband was abducted, gang members took up residence in a house close to the main road and started shooting at passing cars a few days later. “.

Gang leaders’ claims to be fighting for Haiti’s freedom are beyond what she can stand.

She queries, “If you’re trying to stand up for the people, why attack regular people?”. Armed bandits terrorize the entire neighborhood on a regular basis. Given that they engage in kidnappings and that numerous women have suffered horrendous rapes, how can gangs claim to be working for the good of the nation?

“A predator and a defender.”.

Through the media and social media, a number of Innocent’s classmates have developed public personas. Jimmy Chérizier, a.k.a. Barbeque, is an ex-police officer who considers himself to be like Robin Hood. Izo, a member of the “Five Second” gang that hangs out close to the nation’s main port, is also a musician who uploads music videos to the internet. Leader of the 400 Mawozo (400 Idiots), Lanmo Sanjou, was recently seen smoking cigars with a social media influencer.

The Viv Ansanm alliance does not imply friendship, even though they are allies and occasionally meet via video conference. Leading CNN to the boundary of his domain, Innocent revealed to us a wide riverbed and verdant, tree-lined area beyond. As his soldiers dispersed in sneakers and flip-flops, equipped with a disorganized array of firearms, he cautioned us repeatedly not to stay too long.

Later on, we would find out that 400 Mawozo, who have allegedly collaborated with Kraze Baryé on kidnappings and attempted to kill Innocent over a land dispute, were located on the other side of the riverbed, according to two security experts in the nation.

In another part of his community, Innocent was eager to demonstrate his leadership among the locals. This stance is similar to the “predator and protector” role that UN experts characterize as being played by Haitian gangsters, who extort money from nearby businesses in order to pay their salaries.

According to Innocent’s cousin and lieutenant, 34-year-old bleach-blond Dezod Augustin, Kraze Baryé employs about 100 men and women. Several gang members were wearing custom t-shirts with teddy bears on the front and the words “Tabarre Area Security Unit” in lettering on the back on the day that CNN visited. “.

Strolling leisurely along an unpaved road teeming with street vendors, Innocent looked like any politician attending a neighborhood get-together. He made a point of tending to the hurt foot of an old market vendor and introduced CNN to two blind men he had taken under his protection, accusing the Haitian government of providing inadequate care.

But our group started carrying bottles of liquor and beer as the night curfew drew near. At a roadside food stand, where Innocent halted our procession, he ordered mounds of shared fried plantains and stewed pork. The middle-aged vendor complied silently, not reacting in any way to the foreign guests or Innocent’s armed aides.

Haitian human rights experts caution against accepting acts of community leadership at face value.

As a human rights analyst in Port-au-Prince who has been following the rise in gang kidnappings for years, Gedeon Jean warns that “gang leaders talk about liberation and representing the people in order to attract popular support.”.

However, their only goals are increased authority and a government that supports their criminality. “.

An island in American gangland.

There is the US Embassy, less than a mile away, with soldiers stationed on its roof to keep an eye on the surrounding scrubland. Approximately 150 people were shot in the heart and forced to flee their homes by Kraze Baryé members who attacked a nearby civilian neighborhood just last week, according to an eyewitness.

Kraze Baryé is the formidable regional force that rules the neighborhoods of Torcell, Tabarre, and Delmas, which Americans must pass through to get to their embassy. The diplomatic complex, an island inside Innocent’s territory, is an opposite of Haiti’s relationship with the US.

Moreover, because of its awkward location, Innocent is positioned between Washington and the other Haitian gangs. Rumors about Washington’s willingness and ability to use force to quell the bloody pandemonium in Haiti are endless.

The US has made an effort to avoid getting involved militarily in Haiti thus far. Rather, in March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the United States would provide $300 million for a multinational security support effort in the nation. However, only $18 million has been placed into a UN-managed Trust Fund for the mission thus far; the US has contributed $6 million, Canada has contributed $8.7 million, and France has contributed 3.2 million.

Concerns about Haiti’s political instability have put the Kenya-led mission—which would also include personnel from the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Chad, and Jamaica—on hold.

And even though Kraze Baryé is on Innocent’s “Most Wanted” list, or maybe because of it, he still seems to want to maintain a cordial relationship with the embassy. As Innocent put it, “It’s an honor when a country has its embassy in our neighborhood; it means it wants to work with us.”.

A high-risk operation that would have been easily overturned by any Kraze Baryé member with a few rounds was carried out by dozens of helicopters last month during a series of emergency evacuation flights for US citizens. However, the flights happened without any problems.

In response to questions concerning his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of over a dozen US and Canadian missionaries in 2021—among them were small children—and in the 2022 attack on the home of an elderly American couple, which resulted in the death of one of the victims and the kidnapping of the other in exchange for ransom before the victim’s husband was eventually freed, Innocent plays it off.

All that Innocent says is that he would be prepared to defend himself in court, but the legal system has not allowed him the opportunity to respond to the US accusations.

We respect the law. We want to exercise due process, speak with legal counsel, and make the best decision possible,” he states.

He asserts that as long as the corrupt elite in Haiti does the same, he would be prepared to face the legal system. “We are prepared to confront our nation’s legal system in addition to eliminating the oligarchs’ system, so that we can uncover the hideout of the greatest evil. “.

CNN reached out to the State Department for comment or to speak with US Ambassador to Haiti Dennis Hankins, but he did not respond.

How much would giving up arms cost?

Experts say that despite their occasional displays of violence, Haiti’s gangs have a shaky hold on the country and their soldiers are often ill-trained and untrained. A small, specialized fighting force, perhaps a few hundred Marines, would be all that is needed, according to many long-time observers, including former US Ambassador Rick Barton, to end the crisis and set the stage for a larger multinational security mission to arrive and start supporting Haiti’s police.

Since being sworn in on Thursday, Haiti has had a transitional government. The appointments of a new prime minister and cabinet, the organization of the arrival of a multinational security force to retake the capital, and the eventual holding of long-overdue elections are still outstanding.

However, the gangs in Haiti insist that they should have a place at the negotiation table. Innocent warns that Viv Ansanm will use other means to express its opinion if they do not receive it.

“When you realize that planes are not able to fly, you will understand that.”. Upon realizing that investors are unable to enter. When you look into it, you find that there were many foreigners with projects who were already in the nation but were compelled to leave to wait for stability in their home countries,” he claims.

The human rights specialist Jean claims that the resignation of former Prime Minister Henry in March, which came at the request of the international community, was a grave error that led Innocent and others down an impassable path.

Henry’s resignation appeared to support gangs’ arguments that they are legitimate political actors; according to Jean, they feel underappreciated now.

He says, “They believe that because we forced Henry to resign, we ought to be part of the political transition. Giving them that, though, would only serve to confirm their claims. “.

According to Innocent, the gangs’ demands include amnesty under any future administration and a strategy for what will happen to the numerous youth who are currently carrying out his instructions. Members of the governing council have also brought up these concerns.

“We need to be aware that our state will provide a framework for the future once we lay down our weapons. Not at all, Innocent responds. “Can I tell someone to drop his weapon and take a rock to eat?”.

Rachel Clarke of CNN in Atlanta provided the editing.

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