Haiti crisis: What we know about the massive gang takeover that has killed dozens and displaced 15,000

Haiti is spiralling further into chaos after armed gang members freed thousands of prisoners, burned government buildings, and forced the prime minister out of the country.

Dozens of people are dead and roughly 15,000 have been forced to flee their homes due to gang raids, according to the Associated Press, with many now facing dwindling supplies of food and water.

The violence escalated on 29 February when Haiti’s powerful criminal gangs, which already controlled large parts of the economy and most of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, launched a series of attacks on police stations, prisons, and other government buildings.

With all the capital’s international airports now seized by gangs, prime minister Ariel Henry is trapped outside the country and facing both domestic and international pressure to resign.

The US has airlifted in extra military muscle to guard its embassy in Port-au-Prince, while Caribbean leaders are meeting in Jamaica to find a solution to the crisis.

So how exactly did this happen?

Gunfire, mass jailbreaks, and an absent prime minister

The heightened upheaval this month began while Prime Minister Ariel Henry was travelling to Kenya to push forward a United Nations deal that would bring 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti to help restore security.

On 28 February, leaders of Caricom — a trade bloc comprised of 15 Caribbean countries or territories — announced that Henry had pledged to hold elections by mid-2025, after promising and then failing to do so twice before.

We don’t know exactly why Haiti’s powerful criminal gangs chose that moment to strike. But one day later, they unleashed a wave of violence that killed at least four police officers and forced airports, businesses, and schools to close and numerous Haitians to flee their homes.

In a recorded video, gang leader and former police officer Jimmy Chérizier — known by his childhood nickname, “Barbecue” — declared that he planned to capture various government ministers and prevent Henry from entering the country.

“With our guns and with the Haitian people, we will free the country,” said Chérizier, who has previously claimed that he is a “revolutionary” rather than a mere crook.

Former police officer Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier, leader of the ‘G9’ coalition in Haiti


On Saturday night, gangs led a mass jailbreak at Haiti’s national penitentiary, reportedly releasing nearly all of its roughly 4,000 prisoners. Three people were found fatally shot outside the facility, while the other Port-au-Prince prison, which held 1,400 people, was also taken over.

Several prisoners and prison staff members were injured in the two raids, Haitian government officials said in less than reassuring statement.

“Our police officers, on the scene of several operations – facing the rampages of heavily armed criminals wanting at all costs to free people in custody, particularly for kidnapping, murder and other serious offenses, and not hesitating to execute civilians, burning and looting public and private property – thanks to various collusions, did not succeed in preventing the bandits from bringing out a large number of prisoners,” the statement read.

Only a small portion of inmates did not flee. Among them were reportedly the 18 Colombian mercenaries accused of orchestrating the assassination of a previous Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, in 2021. Their attorney, Samuel Madistin, told The New York Times they remained in the prison out of fear for their lives.

Police officers run holding their guns while confronting a gang during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government and insecurity, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1 March 2024


Since Mr Moïse was killed, Haiti has faced widespread violence at the hands of gangs. According to a UN report, there were nearly 5,000 homicides in 2023 — twice as many as the prior year.

Haiti’s finance minister Michel Patrick Boisvert, who is acting prime minister while Henry is away, declared a state of emergency and imposed an evening curfew.

But by Sunday 10 March, the government was still struggling to quell the violence, with sporadic gunfire audible across Port-au-Prince while ordinary Haitians run low on basic supplies.

What happens next?

Henry is currently stuck in the US territory of Puerto Rico, having been refused entry by the Dominican Republic (Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, which shares a land border with it).

Chérizier and other gang leaders are dead set on removing him, and have promised to temporarily stop the violence if he agrees to resign.

“We are going to call for a truce just to evaluate the situation,” Chérizier told ABC News. “Everywhere around Port-au-Prince that is currently blocked or inaccessible will be reopened and we will automatically stop the attacks on the police stations.”

A growing number of government officials within Haiti are also calling for Henry to resign, although according to the Associated Press he has rejected these calls.

On Monday US secretary of state Antony Blinken arrived in Jamaica for an urgent Caricom summit aimed at resolving the crisis. Whether Henry was allowed to attend this meeting is unknown.

One possible solution on the table: Henry could resign and be replaced by a transitional council, which would select an interim president and arrange the country’s first elections since 2016.

However, it’s hard to imagine how free and fair elections could take place under the current conditions of violence, in a country where armed groups have usurped such power from the government.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has approved an intervention plan that would send 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti to help restore order. But with Kenya’s highest court having ruled that plan unconstitutional, it’s unclear when or how this will happen.

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