Haiti's gang violence worsens humanitarian crisis amid political turmoil
The 'Bwa Kale' movement is a vigilante force intent on taking on the gangs.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- When handing out machetes on the streets of Haiti to people who've never really used them, it's important to wrap up the blades.
They're really sharp, and it's easy to hurt yourself, says Mertil Marcelin, a 35-year-old with a thick black beard who calls himself 'The Machete Man.' Though hurting people is kind of the point.
The Machete Man vibes around this Port-au-Prince neighborhood with an intense, ephemeral energy. He chats people up but he doesn't stay for long. There's work to do, after all, doling out melee weapons to the neighbors free of charge, so long as they promise to use them for one thing: protection from gang members.
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"One machete for every Haitian," he told ABC News. "It's the only thing the gangs are afraid of."
"Bwa Kale," he said to one woman.
"Bwa Kale," she said back.
In Haitian Creole, Bwa Kale is crude slang for "erection." It is the kind of word that gets kids in trouble if said in front of their mothers.
In summer 2023, it's a catch-all term for a vigilante movement intent on reclaiming Haitian streets from the worst gang violence the country has ever known.
Gangs have long been an issue in Haiti but their power and the accompanying violence has exploded over the last two years.
Haitian law enforcement believes there are currently seven major gang coalitions operating across the country, made up of some 200 affiliated groups. That assessment comes from an internal Haitian National Police intelligence document obtained by ABC News.
They are well-armed, violent and determined to increase their own power. In many areas, gang is no longer a sufficient term as they run their own fiefdoms with iron fists, and often with total impunity.
Nearly two dozen armed gunmen stormed a Doctors Without Border hospital near the airport earlier this month, looking for a gunshot victim that had just been brought in for surgery. They pushed their way into the operating room, forcing doctors and nurses to stand aside mid-operation as they carried the victim out of the hospital. A Haitian police source told ABC News it is clear the attack was gang-related.
"There is such contempt for human life among the conflicting parties, and such violence in Port-au-Prince, that even the vulnerable, sick and wounded are not spared," said Mahaman Bachard Iro, head of Doctors Without Borders programs in Haiti. "How are we, the health workers, supposed to be able to continue providing care in this environment?"
The country has become paralyzed as these warring groups clash over territory, eager to earn more money through extortion, kidnapping and drug smuggling. The violence has left thousands of dead, many of them innocent, according to various counts from Haitian human rights groups. More than 850 civilians were killed in Haiti during the first four months of the year—that figure higher than that of Ukraine during that same timespan, according to the U.N.
A Haitian law enforcement source estimates at least 80% of Port-au-Prince, a city of about 2.5 million people, is firmly under gang control.
That means there is no real government presence in those areas. The gangs are judge, jury and executioner.
The law enforcement source added the percentage of the city under gang control could soon change. Police believe a recent "truce" between several of the larger gang coalitions could lead to attempts to expand their territory even further.
Haiti's government, what remains of it after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, is either unable or unwilling to do anything to fight back. The police force, without enough funding or leadership, has been decimated. Dozens of officers have been killed fighting gang violence in the past few years, including 22 this year alone, according to the internal Haitian National Police intelligence document.
So the vigilante movement has begun to fill the void.
Scores of neighborhoods now figuratively fly the Bwa Kale banner, with checkpoints manned by ordinary men springing up everywhere. The idea is to catch the gang members in the act—be it robbery or kidnappings or murder—and when they think they've caught someone, apply mob justice. That's where the machetes come into play.
The movement was responsible for the high-profile killings of more than a dozen suspected gang members in the Canape-Vert neighborhood in late April. Citizens overpowered police—or the police stood by, depending on which account you believe—stoning and burning the gang members to death. The movement has committed hundreds of murders since then, according to the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Some victims belonged to gangs, some were innocent, but all were extrajudicial killings. They show no signs of slowing down.
Where Haiti is today is the culmination of a decades-long downward spiral that went into overdrive on July 7, 2021, the day Moïse was shot and killed in his bedroom. His wife, Martine Moïse, was also shot multiple times but she survived.
At least 17 suspects have been arrested in connection with the assassination, including two U.S. citizens, identified by authorities as James Solages, 37, and Joseph Vincent, 57.
In June, Haitian-Chilean businessman Rodolphe Jaar was sentenced to life in prison by a Florida judge for providing weapons used in the assassination of Moïse. Jaar is the first person who has been convicted and sentenced in connection to Moïse’s death as others await trial.
The assassination sent an already-reeling Haitian government into a tailspin. Dozens of arrests have been made but no mastermind or motive has been revealed–and while the crime itself is an inflection point, it's just part of a centuries-long history of foreign oppression, corruption and violence that has led to the crises of today.
Since the former slave colony won its independence from France in 1804, the country has been plundered and exploited by richer, whiter countries. It was forced to pay tens of billions of dollars in reparations to France, a debt that took 122 years to pay back.
The U.S. didn't officially recognize Haiti until after the Civil War, fearful that doing so would inspire its own slaves to revolt. It helped block Haiti's access to international markets, violently occupying the country from 1915 to 1934 and controlling its public financing until after World War II. The U.S. siphoned off roughly 40% of Haiti's national income each year to service debt repayments. Decades of a brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship under the Duvalier family regime followed while U.S. agricultural interests in products like rice undercut the ability of many Haitian farmers to earn a living.
Even attempts to help have gone horribly wrong. A U.N. peacekeeping force from 2004 to 2017 was blamed for introducing cholera and for rampant sexual abuse among its soldiers.
Haiti is a country that has never really seen its own people govern themselves without constant foreign intervention, while only its elite class has reaped the benefits.
For politicians, members of the country's economic and social aristocracy, and leaders in law enforcement, graft was and is the rule, not the exception.
As they enriched themselves, tacit agreements between the elite and the capital city's gangs ensured that certain neighborhoods voted a certain way, worked in certain industries or, at a minimum, kept protests in check.
National elections have not been held since 2016 for a variety of reasons but prior to the assassination of Moïse, those tenuous bonds between gangs and the elite kept the country functioning at a basic level. Ordinary people did not live well but, generally speaking, they could at least live.
That's no longer guaranteed.
After Moïse's assassination, things quickly fell apart. Members of the political and social elite fled the country. There still have been no elections and right now, there is not one elected official serving in office at any level of government in Haiti–no president, no legislature, and no local mayors. The terms of anyone elected in 2016 have long since expired.
Haiti's government is currently led by a deeply unpopular, unelected prime minister in Ariel Henry who has himself been implicated in Moïse's assassination. Henry has denied any involvement in the assassination.
Tens of thousands of middle-class Haitians, mostly anyone who could, migrated to the U.S. or elsewhere.
Businesses closed-up shop, never to reopen, and civil society groups kept their heads down for fear of being a target of violence.
The country's police force proved more and more ineffective, crippled by a lack of resources and a subsequent lack of resolve. A few days after the assassination, the Minister of Elections said his daughter, a police officer, had fled to the U.S., "for her own safety."
The net effect of all this is that Haiti risks becoming a failed state. Some argue it already is.
"There is no magic solution for this crisis," said Etzer Emile, a Haitian economist and political scientist at the University of Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince. "As bad as things have been, it's never been like this before."
Port-au-Prince today is littered with checkpoints, marked by roadblocks set up by the Bwa Kale movement. They're made of a mish mash of whatever's at hand—boulders, trees, rebar. Burned out cars seem to be a favorite.
Cars serpentine through barricades in areas that nobody was driving in just a few weeks ago. The Bwa Kale movement has slowed gang activity around the capital but nobody believes the lull will last forever.
-ABC News' Etant Dupain, Brandon Baur and Aicha El Hammar Castano contributed to this report.