Police in Haiti struggle against gangs storming prison in latest surge of violence

A police aims during clashes with gang members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

A police aims during clashes with gang members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Police in Haiti urgently appealed for help Saturday night as they struggled to hold back gangs trying to storm the country’s main prison in a major escalation of violence sweeping the troubled Caribbean nation.

“They need help,” a union representing Haitian police said in a message posted on social media bearing an “SOS” emoji repeated eight times. “Let’s mobilize the army and the police to prevent the bandits from breaking into the prison.”

A police officer told The Associated Press that the gangs had overwhelmed security forces but were not yet in control of the prison, where several gang leaders were being held. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The armed clashes follow a string of violent protests that have been building for some time but turned deadlier in recent days as Prime Minister Ariel Henry went to Kenya to salvage a proposed security mission in Haiti to be led by that East African country and backed by the United Nations.

Henry took over as prime minister following the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise and has repeatedly postponed plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections, which haven’t taken place in almost a decade.

As part of coordinated attacks by gangs, four police officers were killed Thursday in the capital when gunmen opened fire on targets including Haiti’s international airport. Gang members also seized control of two police stations, prompting civilians to flee in fear and forcing businesses and schools to close.

The penitentiary targeted by gangs is notorious for its extremely crowded and unhygienic conditions. Among its high-profile inmates are several gang leaders and 18 former Colombian soldiers accused in Moïse’s killing.

As a result of the violence at the airport, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince said it was temporarily halting all official travel to Haiti.

Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people, according to the U.N. The officers are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned by powerful gangs, which are estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince.

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks. He said the goal was to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Henry’s return.

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, has shrugged off calls for his resignation and didn’t comment when asked if he felt it was safe to return home.

He signed reciprocal agreements Friday with Kenyan President William Ruto to try and salvage the plan to deploy Kenyan police to Haiti. Kenya’s High Court had ruled in January that the proposed deployment was unconstitutional, in part because the original deal lacked reciprocal agreements between the two countries.

The violence has complicated efforts to stabilize Haiti and pave the way for elections. Caribbean leaders said Wednesday that Henry had agreed to schedule a vote by mid-2025 — a far-off date likely to further enrage Henry’s opponents.

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