PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Before the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the commute from Pélége François’ home to his auto parts supply business was straightforward.
He’d board a bus in the southern district of Martissant, pay 40 Haitian gourdes (about $0.38), and arrive in downtown Port-au-Prince about 15 minutes later via the main highway. But nowadays, getting to work costs François 1,000 gourdes (about $9.50) and can take up to an hour because he takes a longer, more treacherous route on a motorcycle taxi.
“The road is so dusty that I have to stop at a friend’s house to have a wash before I go into the office,” François says, as he adjusts his backpack and hops on the back of a motorcycle. “But the most important thing is that I get to work safely and come back home alive.”
The instability caused by the assassination of Haiti’s president has led to an increase in insecurity, forcing commuters to take extreme and more costly measures for their safety. The violence is mainly carried out by armed gangs, which have taken advantage of the country’s lack of a strong government and security force.
Around 95 gangs are vying for control of much of Port-au-Prince, and their violence has affected 1.5 million people, according to a 2021 United Nations report. The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a human rights organization based in the United States, says the violence has displaced about 19,000.
‘On the Streets, We Are Prey’click to read
One of the main sources of income for gangs comes from kidnappings. A report by the Center for Analysis and Research on Human Rights found that at least 225 kidnappings had occurred between January and March, an increase of 58% compared to the same period in 2021.
The security situation has worsened since Moïse’s assassination, and violence has increased in the capital. In Martissant, gangs occupy sections of Route Nationale 2, a major highway that links four of the country’s departments, or provinces, and runs from Port-au-Prince to the city of Les Cayes. They terrorize commuters with shootings, killings, rapes and kidnappings for ransom. Locals call it “route de la mort,” the road of death.
According to a report published in February by Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, a human rights group based in Port-au-Prince, there have been 3,294 murders in the last four years.
“The growing level of insecurity results from the failure of authorities to ensure the safety of the population,” says Pierre Esperance, the group’s executive director.
Roselore Occéan, a shopkeeper who traveled on Route Nationale 2 nearly every day for more than 20 years to buy merchandise for her business, experienced the terror firsthand. One day in December, she was on a public bus to Port-au-Prince.
“Although we were worried, the atmosphere in the vehicle was very lively,” Occéan says. “We were talking, joking and laughing.”
When they got to Martissant, they hit a traffic jam. Suddenly, they heard gunfire from afar. The traffic kept moving, but the bandits began shooting vehicles at random. A bullet hit the woman next to her, killing her instantly. Occéan dropped to the floor between seats. The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital bed with a bullet wound in her right hip.
“I am so lucky to be alive,” Occéan says. “Since that day, I’ve advised people not to go through Martissant. It’s better to take the longer route to be safe.”
Stanley Jean Julien, the secretary general of Chemin Lumière, Unités et Changements sur 65 Formes, a civil rights organization based in Haiti, says he’s sad to see what Martissant has become. It used to be a quiet suburb where people were free to go out as they pleased, he says. “We need to promote all kinds of initiatives that can help people to feel safe again.”
There is no indication that Haiti’s insecurity will end anytime soon. The country’s police force is too weak to go after the heavily armed gangs, Esperance says. Police haven’t been spared by the violence either. Since 2018, there have been 153 murders of police officers. Of those, 54 occurred in 2021.
‘The Young Entrepreneurs Who Refuse to Leave’click to read
“The police can’t tackle the insecurity problem on their own,” Esperance says. “What we need is a strong and incorruptible judicial system, a sound government, and a state under the rule of law. We don’t need any help from overseas.”
Some, like schoolteacher Jean-Mary Ferney, say it’s difficult to imagine Haitians defeating the gangs without outside assistance. “The gangsters are better armed than police,” Ferney says. “The countries who claim to be our allies should answer our cry for help.”
But foreign occupation of Haiti is controversial. In the last three decades, troops from the United States, France and the United Nations have attempted to create stability. Their presence has often made things worse. For example, 13 years of U.N. troops led to reports of rampant sexual abuse, and the spread of a cholera outbreak that killed thousands.
François, the auto parts dealer, says he doesn’t know how long he can afford to pay 2,500% more for his daily commute. His income is based on how much he sells. Some days, he makes just 1,000 gourdes, which means no profit.
“All we want is to feel safe again and free to go about our lives like we used to,” he says. “We’re no longer free. Our children have been deprived of their freedom.”
For now, François has no choice but to continue going to work to keep his business running.