PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Old cars, used tires and barbed wire block access to Port-au-Prince’s largest neighborhood.
Armed gang members have robbed, raped and murdered innocent people. Weak or corrupt police and officials have done little or nothing to stop it.
Now the people are taking action and a brutal wave of justice into their own hands is rocking Haiti, concentrated in this capital of approximately 1 million people. Residents with weapons close off the neighborhoods. They stone and often chop off suspected gang members, decapitate them and set them on fire, sometimes while they are still alive.
The vigilantes have killed at least 164 people since the so-called “bwa kale” movement began in April, according to the United Nations. The name means “bare wood” in Haitian Creole and hints at masculine dominance and power in street slang.
“If you’re not from here, we’re going to kill you,” said Leo, a community leader who granted The Associated Press access to the Turgeau neighborhood so reporters could see how the neighborhood responds to gangs that an estimated 80% control. from Port au Prince. He did not provide his last name to protect his family.
Banners reading “We are tired of kidnapping” and “Take care of each other” are hung all over the city, and many neighborhoods have erected barricades like the ones closing off Turgeau.
On a recent afternoon, Leo and his neighbors stood guard over one of four makeshift barriers blocking the streets leading to their hilltop community, populated by doctors, nurses, pastors, lawyers, street vendors and engineers.
People who wanted to enter had to show their identification, open their bags, lift up their shirts to reveal if they had any gang tattoos, and, if they didn’t live there, explain where they were going. At night, those who wanted to enter Turgeau were also required to provide a password, which the community changes every week.
Haitian police do not keep reliable crime statistics. But gang-related killings and kidnappings have declined because of bwa kale, say human rights activists, who are also concerned about gruesome violence and that innocent people may be killed.
Weslander Al Cégaire, a round-faced, grinning cook in the southern city of Les Cayes, told the AP that his cousin was recently killed by bwa kale participants while riding with a motorcyclist who was targeted.
“It’s a good move, but at the same time, the innocent pay for the guilty,” said Cégaire, adding that he left Port-au-Prince because he feared gang violence and the bwa kale movement.
Turgeau is under siege by a gang known as the “5 Seconds,” because that’s supposedly how long it takes to kill someone. The bwa kale movement gained momentum in Turgeau after residents said the gang launched a pre-dawn attack in late April that killed nearly a dozen people.
“They burned motorcycles. They burned houses. They burned people. They raped. They looted,” said Kenson Dimanche, a volunteer manning one of the barricades.
Kettia, a resident who gave only her first name to protect herself and her family, said gang members kidnapped her husband, forced him out of the neighborhood and used him as a shield while exchanging fire with police. He survive.
Kettia, a short woman with a kind demeanor, tries to stay strong for her 1 and 4-year-old children, but they still wonder if the gang will return.
“If the people who make bwa kale hadn’t fought back, it could have been worse,” he said.
More than 1,630 people were killed, injured or kidnapped in Haiti in the first three months of the year, an increase of almost 30% compared to the previous quarter, according to a report issued in May by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti. More than 600 people were reported dead in April alone, compared to a total of 846 murders in the first three months of the year.
In October, Prime Minister Ariel Henry called for the immediate deployment of an international military force to quell gang violence, but neither the UN Security Council nor the United States or Canada have acted.
María Isabel Salvador, the UN special envoy for Haiti, told The Associated Press that “Haiti really can’t take it anymore.”
“The world has to respond,” he added.
The Haitian National Police has only about 9,000 active police officers for a country of more than 11 million people. Police have arrested more than 2,700 suspected criminals and seized dozens of weapons since launching an operation dubbed “Tornado” in January targeting gangs, but are often overwhelmed. Both police and civilians are fighting some seven major gang coalitions operating in Haiti, along with some 200 affiliated groups.
In Turgeau, some villagers walked with sharp machetes, like Réné Mizak, 63, who said he was a former Tonton Macoute, a private militia that terrorized Haiti during the dictatorships of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude.
“I bought it to defend myself,” said Mizak, a tall, lean man with a relaxed walk. “We seek justice in our own way.”
Mizak, who also declined to provide his full identity for fear of gang members, said he recently cut off one man’s arm and burned another’s face with gasoline because no one in the community recognized them, adding that bwa kale participants in Turgeau they have killed at least three people suspected of being gangsters.
The bwa kale movement began when police arrested 13 suspected gang members for a traffic violation in Port-au-Prince in late April.
“We took them from the police and finished them off,” said Israel Bien-Aimé, adding that he helped stone and set fire to the group that day. “This is the only movement that can give us a solution to the gangs in Haiti.”
Bien-Aimé, a tall man with an athletic build, vowed to continue.
“If we found a bandit right now, we would stop him, beat him up and kill him,” he said.
The murders have become increasingly macabre.
Just a couple of blocks from Turgeau, a man on a motorcycle carried a decapitated head as the crowd chanted, “Bwa kale! Bwa kale!” The incident was seen in a video that has been shared on social media and discussed among international observers.
Gangs have yet to respond to the bwa kale movement, though some neighborhoods are preparing for revenge. In a recent video on TikTok, a man who claimed to be a member of the gang that controls the Grand Ravine area, southeast of Port-au-Prince, said he is waiting for the bwa kale movement to arrive in the area.
Wearing a black ski mask covering his face and a belt of .50 caliber bullets around his neck, the man said his gang will give Haitians a taste of their own bwa kale in due time.
“We are very relaxed,” he said. “We are not going to rush. We are not going to make a drama. We’re just going to wait.”
Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.
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