Fed up with gang violence, Haitians are hunting down people they suspect of being connected to these infamous armed groups, not hesitating to kill them. The movement – called Bwa Kale – began on April 24 in Port-au-Prince and quickly spread around the country. Dozens of people have been killed by vigilante mobs, often after very brief questioning.
On April 24, Haitian police stopped a minibus carrying 14 men with weapons and ammunition who were driving through the Canapé Vert neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince.
News of their arrest circulated quickly, as many suspected the armed men were going to join a gang carrying out an attack nearby. Residents gathered in the area, lynching and burning the suspected gang members as police looked on.
— Michele B. Duvalier (@mbduvalier) April 24, 2023
Video shot in the Canapé Vert neighborhood of Port-au-Prince on April 24. The arrested men are lying on the ground, surrounded by tires, which will be used to burn them.
The incident sparked the “Bwa Kale” movement, named after a Creole expression meaning “uprising”. The movement refers to locals who are hunting and capturing people they suspect of belonging to gangs, beating and killing them with machetes or batons.
Currently, more than 150 armed groups operate in Haiti. They control most of the capital Port-au-Prince.
‘We saw a roisterous crowd, with guns and weapons’
James (not his real name) lives near Canapé Vert. He stayed home on April 24 before coming out the days that followed. He wanted to remain anonymous for his safety.
On April 26, I went out with my brother on a motorcycle. At Caravelle Street, we saw a boisterous crowd, with guns and weapons. People were hunting a suspected gangster. They looked really aggressive. I asked my brother to take me home because I was very worried. Then, on the road, we saw a person who had been set on fire. I closed my eyes, because it was very shocking. The violence reached its peak.
The Bwa Kale movement spread to different neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, and then to other cities in the country. From April 24 to May 4, our team identified 18 incidents in which people suspected of being linked to gangs were killed, cross-referencing images and information published on social networks and by local media. Dozens of people have been killed.
Rosy Auguste Ducena, programme manager at the National Human Rights Defence Network (RNDDH) explained that gang members are not the only ones being targeted by vigilante violence.
It’s not just a hunt for armed gang members, but also for anyone who is suspected of having links with the gangs.
For example, we have seen cases of women who have been executed – women who have allegedly had romantic relationships with the gang members.
Haiti’s infamous gangs are known for carrying out massacres, armed attacks and kidnappings. But Haitian authorities have been accused of remaining passive, even when gangs commit atrocities on a large scale.
>> Watch our full report: Haiti: In the grip of the gangs
But our Observers told us the Bwa Kale movement isn’t the solution to Haiti’s gang problem, and may even make it worse. Ducena explained:
Generally speaking, the people being executed are only subjected to very superficial questioning. They are simply murdered. So that means that these are people whose right to due process is not being respected.
The second thing is that, in fact, there is a huge risk of mistakes, that innocent people will be murdered because they didn’t give the right answers to save their lives.
‘They killed an innocent man, accusing him of being a gang member‘
An error seems to be exactly what happened on April 29 in the north of the country. That day, Malorbe Saintil, a resident of Gonaives, took a motorcycle taxi to run an errand for his father in Gros-Morne. But on the way, a crowd stopped him and a friend, taking them to a police station.
We spoke to Malorbe’s father, Matthieu Saintil:
They decided to send them to Gros-Morne, where their phones and other things in their bags were searched. They found only a candle and a lighter, nothing suspicious, no weapons.
Then the police let two people enter the police station, and they grabbed them and took them out. They killed them, decapitated them, then burned their bodies.
They killed an innocent man, accusing him of being a gang member. Malorbe was my fourth child. He died at 28 years old.
He was born in Gros-Morne, but he rarely went there. He and his friend were killed because of their hair [Editor’s note: many victims of the Bwa Kale movement have dreadlocks, which some Haitians have said made them “suspicious”]. Since the Haitian justice system is failing, I can’t prosecute the perpetrators, but justice will triumph one day.
Threats of retaliation
In early May, gang leaders began threatening the population with reprisals in videos posted on social networks. Izo, the leader of the “5 Seconds” gang, declared that he was going to launch the “Zam Pale” (“let the weapons speak”) movement. In Fort Jacques, in the south of Port-au-Prince, people have also been executed by gangs in revenge.
As for the authorities, Prime Minister Ariel Henry waited until May 1 to respond to the Bwa Kale movement, when killings had been occurring daily since April 24. He asked residents not to take the law into their own hands and to cooperate with the police.
This story originally appeared on France24