Haiti’s infamous gang leader Barbecue says his troops are ready for a long fight

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti’s gangs cannot be ignored. This weekend they took to the streets in their neighborhoods with a show of force. NPR saw dozens of heavily armed men, some wearing balaclavas in the blazing Caribbean heat, carrying pistols, carrying assault rifles with machetes.

And Jimmy Chérizier, known as Babekyou in Haitian Creole or Barbecue – is one of the most powerful and notorious gang leaders. He heads the G9 federation of gangs.

He is the man who convinced many gangs in Haiti to stop fighting each other and start fighting the government. The alliance of rival gangs is known as Viv Ansanm, or ‘Living Together’.

Over the past two months, they have attacked government installations, toppled a prime minister and nearly paralyzed the capital. The Haitians have been largely left to fend for themselves.

The U.S. Treasury Department placed him on a sanctions list in 2020 and the United Nations sanctioned him in 2022. He is accused of human rights violations, including participation in massacres, among other charges.

Who is barbecuing?

Barbecue met with NPR in Delmas, the neighborhood he manages in the capital Port-au-Prince, and spoke for more than an hour. He arrived in a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser and had a boy on his knees cleaning his slippers.

Barbecue, 47, was a police officer. He worked for a crew called the Unite départementale de maintien d’ordre. He led operations against gangs and was responsible for quelling unrest. Members of the unit were accused of shooting demonstrators dead.

But in the interview he said he eventually “woke up.”

He claims the system made him who he is. As a police officer, he said, he learned that politicians created the gangs, that they used them and the police to do their dirty work, to attack their business rivals and their enemies. And so he started fighting the political elite in an attempt to change the system.

What did Barbecue say about his role in the violence?

Much of the interview focused on his part in the violence and chaos. According to a recent UN report, approximately 2,500 Haitians were killed or injured by gang violence in the first months of 2024.

Barbecue argues that the gangs are fighting the rich, who have exploited Haiti.

But that’s not exactly what NPR saw and reported. The gangs extort poor people, women are raped, houses are set on fire. He has not refuted this.

“Everything you say now is true,” he replied. “But all the extortion and all the abuse is the result of the government allowing these things to happen.”

Essentially, he said, the government and Haitian elites allowed this situation to happen — to create chaos and stay in power.

He also had a message for Washington. He said the U.S. government bore some “responsibility” for the situation in Haiti because it did not let Haitians decide their own future.

The US, the association of Caribbean countries known as CARICOM and other regional powers helped establish a nine-member transitional council to pave the way for elections. The US called the council’s installation a “critical step toward free and fair elections.”

But according to Barbecue, “the transitional council is not the will of the Haitian people. This is what Washington wants,” he said, “and this is what they have imposed.”

Barbecue on the impending arrival of the Kenyan-led multinational force

Barbecue said the gangs are preparing for a long fight. He said he expects much bloodshed and that international forces will eventually tire and leave.

When asked if he expects to survive, he said: “My life depends on God and my ancestors.”

“If Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines were worried about his life,” he said, “Haiti would not be free today.”

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