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Vigilantes in Haiti strike back at gangsters with brutal street justice

by The Associated Press | June 5, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Nertil Marcelin, leader of a community group, goes door-to-door to distribute machetes to residents in an initiative to resist gangs seeking to take control of their neighborhood, in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, May 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Old cars, used tires and barbed wire block off the biggest neighborhood in the capital of Haiti.

Gun-toting gangsters have been robbing, raping and murdering the innocent. Weak or corrupt police and officials have done little, or worse.

Now, the people are taking action and a wave of brutal vigilante justice is roiling Haiti, concentrated in this capital of about 1 million. The vigilantes close off neighborhoods. They stone and often chop off the limbs of suspected gangsters, behead them and set them afire, sometimes while they are still alive.

Vigilantes have killed at least 164 people since the movement dubbed "bwa kale" began in April, according to the United Nations. The name means "peeled wood" in Haitian Creole and insinuates male 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 AP access to the Turgeau neighborhood so that journalists could see how the neighborhood is responding to the gangs estimated to control 80 percent of Port-au-Prince. He did not provide his last name to protect his family.

Banners that read, "We are tired of the kidnapping," and "Watch out for one another," are strung throughout the city, and many neighborhoods have erected barricades like those closing off Turgeau.

On a recent afternoon, Leo and neighbors guarded one of the four makeshift barriers blocking roads into their hilly community of doctors, nurses, pastors, lawyers, street vendors and engineers.

People who wanted to enter had to show their IDs, open their bags, lift their shirts to reveal any gang tattoos, and, if they didn't live there, explain where they were going. At night, those seeking to enter Turgeau also had to provide a password, which the community changes every week.

Haitian police don't keep reliable crime statistics. But gang-related killings and kidnappings have dropped because of bwa kale, say human-rights activists, who also worry about the gruesome violence, and that innocent people could be killed.

Weslander Al Cégaire, a cook in the southern city of Les Cayes with a round face and easy smile, told the AP his cousin was recently killed by bwa kale participants while riding with a motorcycle driver who was targeted.

"It's a good movement, but at the same time, the innocent are paying for the guilty," Cégaire said, adding he left Port-au-Prince because he feared the gang violence and the bwa kale movement.

Turgeau is under siege by a gang known as "5 Seconds," because that's supposedly how long it takes them to kill someone. The bwa kale movement gained momentum in Turgeau after residents said the gang launched a pre-dawn attack in late April, killing nearly a dozen people.

"They burned down motorcycles. They burned down houses. They burned people. They raped. They looted," said Kenson Dimanche, a volunteer who controls one of the barricades.

Kettia, a resident who provided only her first name to protect her and her family, said that the gang snatched her husband, forced him to lead them out of the neighborhood, and used him as a shield as they exchanged fire with police. He survived.

Kettia, a short woman with a soft demeanor, tries to stay strong for her 4-year-old and 1-year-old, but they keep wondering if the gang will return.

"If the people doing bwa kale didn't stand up, it could've been worse," she said.

More than 1,630 people were killed, wounded or kidnapped in Haiti in the first three months of the year, a nearly 30 percent increase compared with the previous quarter, according to a report issued in May by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti. In April alone, more than 600 people were reported killed, compared with a total of 846 people slain in the first three months of the year.

In October, Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested the immediate deployment of an international military force to quell gang violence, but neither the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. or Canada has acted.

María Isabel Salvador, the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, told the Associated Press that, "Haiti truly can't take it anymore."

"The world has to respond," she said.

Haiti's National Police has only some 9,000 active 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 to target gangs, but they are often overwhelmed. Both police and civilians are fighting against an estimated seven major gang coalitions that operate in Haiti, along with some 200 affiliated groups.

In Turgeau, some vigilantes walked around with sharpened machetes, like 63-year-old Réné Mizak, who said he was a former Tonton Macoute -- a private militia that terrorized Haiti during the dictatorships of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude.

"I bought it to defend myself," said Mizak, a tall, slender man with a relaxed gait. "We are seeking justice our way."

Mizak, who also declined to provide his full identity due to fear of gangsters, 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 have killed at least three people in Turgeau who were suspected gang members.

The bwa kale movement began when police detained 13 suspected gang members during a traffic stop in Port-au-Prince in late April.

"We took them from the police and finished them," recalled Israel Bien-Aimé, who said 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 hold them, beat them and kill them," he said.

The killings have grown increasingly grisly.

Just a couple of blocks from Turgeau, a man on a motorcycle carried a decapitated head as the crowd yelled, "Bwa kale! Bwa kale!" The incident could be 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, although some neighborhoods are bracing for revenge. In a recent TikTok video, a man who said he's a member of the gang that controls the Grand Ravine area southeast of Port-au-Prince said he's waiting for the bwa kale movement to come to the area.

With a black balaclava covering his face and a belt of .50-caliber bullets draped around his neck, the man said his gang will give Haitians their own taste of bwa kale in due time.

"We are very relaxed," he said. "We're not going to rush. We're not going to fuss. We're just going to wait."

photo People line up outside of the passport office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
photo A no firearms allowed sign hangs on a fence at an emergency room run by Doctors Without Borders in the Cite Soleil district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The international medical humanitarian organization had temporarily suspended activities due to the escalating violence in the Haitian capital. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
photo A health worker holds a toddler at the Fontaine Hospital Center which treats malnourished children in the Cite Soleil area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, May 29, 2023. Two U.N. agencies have warned of rising food emergencies including starvation in Haiti due to restricted movements of people and goods. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

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