The “BBQ” man.. How did an influential gang leader become in power in Haiti?

After days of Haitian gangs taking control of the streets and strategic headquarters, while Prime Minister Ariel Henry was on a trip outside the country, it seemed that one man was now in power: the powerful gang leader, Jimmy Chérizier, nicknamed “Barbecue”.

The name of Chérizier (46 years old) emerged strongly in the days after the gangs exploited the absence of Henry, who was in Puerto Rico, and the former came out to publicly declare that the current chaos would lead to a “civil war” unless the prime minister resigned, which is also a demand of a segment of the population.

Indeed, he achieved his stated goal, as Henry announced his resignation on Monday, following the Jamaican meetings of leaders of Caribbean countries, which were attended by US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken.

“BBQ” had announced in a clip posted on social media platforms before the outbreak of violence that the armed groups were working in coordination “to get Prime Minister Ariel Henry to step down.”

The warlord, considered one of the most powerful figures in the country at the moment, was “as present and outspoken as Henry was absent and silent, stranded in Puerto Rico,” in the words of the Economist magazine.

Since the beginning of March, the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, has witnessed clashes between the police and armed gangs that have attacked strategic locations, including the presidential palace, police stations, prisons, courts, and hospitals.

As a result of this chaos, the government declared a state of emergency in the western province, which includes Port-au-Prince, and a night curfew that is difficult to implement, while the situation has become beyond the capacity of the police.

At least 15,000 people fled parts of the most affected capital, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, warned on Wednesday that the situation was “no longer tolerable” with 1,193 people killed as a result of the violence.

The UN Security Council expressed its concern about the deteriorating situation, and some of its members called for the deployment of a UN mission there as soon as possible.

For his part, Henry said, on Monday evening, that “the government that I head has agreed to form a transitional presidential council” and will leave “as soon as the council is formed.”

With the announcement of the resignation, relative calm prevailed on Tuesday in Port-au-Prince, while the Prime Minister remained stranded in Puerto Rico, after being unable to return to the country.

The President of Guyana, the current Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Mohamed Irfan, said in a press conference at the conclusion of the Jamaica meetings that he was “happy” to announce “an agreement on transitional governance that paves the way for a peaceful transfer of power.”

The spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that the latter called on the parties concerned in Haiti to “act responsibly” and move towards implementing the agreement “in order to restore democratic institutions in the country through peaceful, fair and inclusive elections.”

“He has political ambitions”

In light of this situation, it appears that the influential gang leader “has political ambitions,” according to the Economist.

As foreign leaders discussed the features of a transitional government, Chérizier warned that decisions made outside the country would plunge Haiti into “more chaos.” He claimed that his armed groups “will look at how to get the country out of the misery it is in now.”

But history says that he himself played a role in the misery that his country was experiencing. The former police officer led a gang alliance known as the “Group of Nine” that was involved in major acts of violence.

Jimmy Chérizier called on the Prime Minister to step down

Gangs have controlled several neighborhoods around the capital, Port-au-Prince, for years.

The United Nations said that even before the recent security chaos, there were about 300 gangs controlling 80 percent of the capital.

Chérizier was allied with Jovenel Moïse, the president of Haiti, who was assassinated in 2021, before Henry was appointed.

The Insight Crime Foundation reported that the Chérizier gangs received half of their income from Moïse, but he also benefited from the vacuum left by his death, after the collapse of the state during the reign of Henry.

Haiti has not witnessed an elected president or parliament since elections in 2016. The last term of Haitian senators ended at the beginning of 2023.

Henry, who was appointed by Moise before his assassination, was supposed to leave office in early February.

Henry, considered corrupt by many Haitians, has repeatedly postponed the elections, saying security must first be restored.

With no elected officials, many Haitians called for the prime minister to step down, which Chérizier echoed. In doing so, he was able to present himself as “a champion of the people… and portray himself as a revolutionary, like Robin Hood or Che Guevara,” according to the Economist.

The youngest of eight children, Chérizier grew up in a slum in Port-au-Prince.

He says that his father died when he was a child, and that his mother sold fried chicken in the streets to support the family. (This is the origin of his nickname, “Barbecue,” according to some, and not because he set enemies on fire.)

He then joined the Haitian police, before being expelled from service in 2018 due to violations, the most famous of which was his participation in the massacre of the poor neighborhood of La Saline in the capital, where gangs killed at least 71 people and burned 400 homes.

The United Nations imposed Sanctions against him for acts of violence he committed, including the La Saline massacre and “multiple other massacres…participation in acts that threaten the peace, security and stability of Haiti, and planning, directing or committing acts that constitute serious human rights violations.”

Throughout 2018 and 2019, Chérizier led armed groups in “brutal coordinated attacks” in neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, and in May 2020, he led armed gangs in a five-day attack in several neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, in which civilians were killed and homes were set on fire.

After Henry steps down, the Economist says, Chérizier will have to deal with a transitional government, and perhaps with the arrival of a security mission authorized by the United Nations, but the latter does not seem possible after Kenya refuses to participate.

The US Secretary of State announced, on Monday, that the United States would provide an additional $133 million to support resolving the crisis in Haiti.

Speaking during the Jamaica meeting, he said the out-of-control situation demonstrated the urgent need to deploy a multinational force, to which the United States would contribute an additional $100 million, while $33 million would be provided for humanitarian assistance.

Other countries have announced contributions in financial or logistical aid, including Benin, France, Germany, Jamaica and Spain, according to US officials.

The United States and Canada ruled out sending troops to Haiti.

Last October, the UN Security Council agreed to send a multinational force to Haiti, led by Kenya, to assist the police in confronting gang violence.

But the Kenyan government decided to suspend sending the mission, and a senior Foreign Ministry official said: “There has been a radical change following the complete collapse of the general situation and the resignation of the Prime Minister.”

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