They arrived unannounced, brandishing heavy artillery as they scaled the rooftops of houses, firing shots and setting homes ablaze.
While some residents managed to escape amid the billows of black smoke and tear gas, others became trapped and died inside their burning houses. The Thursday assault on residents inside the poor, pro-opposition neighborhood of Bel Air in Haiti’s capital was the third large attack in less than two years.
It occurred within walking distance of Haiti’s presidential palace and was perpetrated by gang members affiliated with Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a fired policeman-turned-powerful gang chief who is wanted in several massacres, including the slaughter of dozens of men, women and children in a 2018 attack in Port-au-Prince’s La Saline slum.
Chérizier, who is also accused of being behind a November 2019 attack in Bel Air, called a press conference Friday where he assumed responsibility for the latest assault, casting it as a response to attacks committed against his powerful gang alliance known as G-9 and Family and Allies.
“Everyone knows that once there is an action, there will be a reaction,” said Chérizier, claiming that six of his members were killed during Thursday’s incident before rattling off their names.
In December, Chérizier and two former Haitian government officials were sanctioned by the United States for the La Saline massacre. Despite the sanction and his being wanted by the Haiti National Police, he continues to walk free.
On Friday, as the gunshots resumed and fleeing residents prepared to spend another night exposed to the elements on the sprawling Champ de Mars public plaza outside the presidential palace, it was still unclear how many had been killed or injured, and how many homes had been torched.
“We know that there were a lot, a lot of people who were forced to abandon the area,” said Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, one of several groups investigating the bloody assault. “There are people who were injured, houses that were burned down, but it’s difficult right now to have a tally.”
Marie Yolene Gilles, who runs Fondasyon Je Klere, or Eyes Wide Open Foundation, said getting into the community remained impossible. Her initial investigation revealed that some residents had been burned while still inside their homes.
“It’s not prudent for people to go in there,” Gilles said, adding she could hear the shots all the way across the capital shortly after 6:30 p.m.
Gilles and Esperance, along with a community leader, said the attack had nothing to do with gang infighting. They all said it was to break the resistance of Bel Air, which is considered an opposition stronghold, and to prevent residents from taking to the streets in anti-government protests, which have increased in recent weeks.
“The attack in Bel Air is a repeat of a series of attacks by gangs close to the power in place that have been done against Bel Air. They want … to take control of Bel Air and prevent those who are resisting the government from doing so,” Gilles said.
The attack is also the result of the impunity that Chérizier and his fellow gang members have come to enjoy under the administration of President Jovenel Moïse, Gilles added. “They have never pursued them, they have never arrested them, they have never judged them for the crimes they have committed and they have never condemned them.”
During his press conference Chérizier defended himself against charges of human-rights abuses while also lashing out at journalists, members of Haiti’s opposition and the business sector, which he said was not interested in seeing change in Haiti. He said if one member of the alliance is attacked, then all are attacked.
Chérizier also pushed back against allegations that he and his federation of gangs wanted to take control of Bel Air for the Moïse government. He accused Haiti’s opposition of supplying guns and cash to Bel Air so residents could attack his alliance. Human rights groups have accused the government of doing the same with Chérizier and his alliance, which have been accused of being behind Haiti’s widening insecurity and alarming spike in kidnappings.
“We are not into fighting among us, we are not into kidnapping,” Chérizier said. “We made peace so that we could finish with the fighting in the ghettos. It’s because we made peace to end the fighting in the ghetto, it’s the reason why there are some… who to have political capital, are trying to destabilize G-9.
“What happened in Bel Air has nothing to do with fighting for territory, to take control of Bel Air and that’s why we attacked Bel Air,” he said, before fielding questions from journalists.
Two residents who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said Thursday’s attack had been escalating for several days and came to a head when the armed men invaded the community. Both residents had their homes torched.
“They attacked us, they set houses on fire, it wasn’t just a little damage that was done in Bel Air,” said a mother of two.
The woman said her sister was forced to run during the incident when a gang member grabbed her, threatened to rape her and the woman responded she’d rather be killed instead. “The gun got stuck and my sister ran,” said the woman, describing how the gang member tried to shoot her sister.
She refuted claims that Thursday’s assault was the result of an attack against the G-9 alliance.
“We are not involved in anything, we practically don’t go out, even to the protests,” she said. “Since the 31st of August, they started attacking us. I don’t know why.”’
A spokesperson for Haiti’s National Police did not respond to a Miami Herald request for comment. Last year, the United Nations issued a report focused on a three-day outbreak of gang violence in Bel Air on Nov. 4-6, 2019. U.N. investigators accused Haitian police of failing to protect residents from corrupt officers and gang leaders.
At least three people died in the violence while six others were injured and 30 families were left homeless after their houses were set on fire, the U.N. said. Investigators also noted that the attacks also allegedly involved three active members of the Haiti National Police.
The U.N. accused Chérizier of being behind the attack, even though he denied involvement while offering to compensate victims who lost their homes.