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This screen grab taken from AFPTV shows tires on fire near the main prison of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 3 March 2024, after a breakout by several thousand inmates. At least a dozen people died as gang members attacked the main prison in Haiti's capital, triggering a breakout by several thousand inmates, an AFP reporter and an NGO said on 3 March. (Photo by LUCKENSON JEAN/AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images)

Gangs Attack Jails in Haiti, Releasing Thousands of Prisoners

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry signed a “reciprocal” agreement on 1 March to deploy police from Kenya to lead a UN-backed law and order mission in Haiti. By 3 March, Haiti was under a 72-hour state of emergency order after armed gangs stormed a major prison in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, leaving 12 people dead and allowing 3,700 inmates to escape. Gang leaders say they want to force Henry to resign, and the crime wave has forced businesses and schools to close and airlines to cancel flights.

This is the latest in a longstanding security spiral in Haiti, where gangs have taken over broad swaths of the capital and many other parts of the country. Kenya previously offered to provide up to 1,000 personnel to help address the violence, but the move has been challenged in Nairobi courts, Al Jazeera reported.

More than 8,400 people were victims of gang violence in Haiti in 2023, including killings, injuries, and kidnappings—a 122 percent increase over 2022, the United Nations reported in January. More than 80 percent of the surge in killings and injuries happened in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti’s national police—a force of approximately 9,000 officers tasked with securing the island nation’s population of 11 million—is routinely overwhelmed and outgunned by the gangs.

On 29 February, gangs in Haiti unleashed a wave of gun violence in the capital, and a powerful gang leader, Jeremy Chérizier or “Barbecue,” declared he would try to capture the country’s police chief and government ministers, prevent Henry from returning to Haiti from Kenya, and force his resignation. Barbecue has allegedly developed a coalition of gangs intended to bring down Henry’s administration, according to the Associated Press. Gangs currently control around 80 percent of Port-au-Prince.

There are currently no elected leaders in Haiti; Henry was sworn in as prime minister following the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Under a political deal, Henry was meant to hand over power to elected officials by 7 February 2024, but that did not happen.

On Thursday, gunmen launched coordinated assaults in Port-au-Prince, shooting at the main international airport, vandalizing the national soccer stadium, and setting fire to a police station. The violence continued over the weekend, when gangs stormed a major Port-au-Prince prison and another one in nearby Croix des Bouquets. Other police stations were attacked to distract authorities before the coordinated attack on the jails. Only around 100 prisoners out of 3,800 remained in the prisons after the assaults, largely choosing to remain in their cells to keep out of the crossfire. Gang members boasted on social media about police casualties they had inflicted, The New York Times reported.

A government statement said the acts of “disobedience” were a threat to national security, and the government instituted an immediate nighttime curfew in response, the BBC reported. The 72-hour state of emergency went into effect as the government said it would find the killers, kidnappers, and criminals who escaped the prisons.

The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince halted all official travel to the country and urged Americans to depart as soon as possible. The French embassy said it was closing visa services as a “precaution.”