“Can you see where it came from?” SWAT members wondered breathlessly inside the armored car. It provides only a small window onto the streets outside, which seem deserted one moment, and are full of civilians trying to flee to safety the next.
In the past 72 hours, police have killed a leader of the 400 Mawozo gang and rescued six hostages from them, they say. But the gang, one of dozens terrorizing the capital, has not been evicted from these streets.
“Can you see that red ‘SMS’ sign? That’s them,” a SWAT officer said, indicating the position of the gunmen. Like his team, he declined to be named, citing his safety. He pointed the way to a small shack, as dozens of people spilled out of a side alley onto the street.
“Get out,” he told the crowd, over the armored car’s loudspeaker. You are too exposed. It is dangerous.
The officer ordered the vehicle to be moved to a new position. “When we get to the scene, open up anything that moves,” he said. Intense gunfire between police and gang members followed.
It’s a common scene of injuries, gunshots and panic in one of dozens of gang-controlled neighborhoods as Port-au-Prince seems to be descending into full-blown warfare between police and increasingly well-equipped and organized criminal groups.
And this is a familiar routine: the police investigate gang areas to show their reach, and the gangs respond with intense volleys of bullets.
Social media video from inside the area shows gangs using a bulldozer covered in steel plates to act as armor demolishing houses, presumably those of rivals. Other houses had been burned, and another video showed dozens of locals fleeing the area on foot at night, during the height of the fighting.
Civilians fleeing Cité Soleil found little respite as dozens received food from the World Food Program and took shelter in the open at the Hugo Chavez recreational park.
Flies cover the rain-soaked concrete floor of the sports amphitheater stage, where children as young as four months struggle to sleep, exposed to the elements. One has bruises from a fall, another a painful, ugly rash, but they’re alive.
Here, Natalie Aristel angrily shows us her nasty new home.
“This is where I sleep in a puddle,” he said, pointing to the water. “They burned down my house and shot my husband seven times,” she says, referring to the gang members.
“I can’t even afford to go see him [in hospital]. In this park, even if they brought some food, there is never enough for everyone. Children are dying.”
Others are missing. “I have four children, but the first one is missing and I can’t find it,” said another woman. “We have been totally abandoned by the state and have to pay even to use a toilet,” added another.
One child added: “My mother and father are dead. My aunt saved me. I want to go to school, but it was demolished.”
Locals speak of a perfect storm of calamity and warn that the country increasingly feels on the brink of social collapse.
What remains of the country’s emergency interim government, created last year after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, is beginning to unravel and is littered with accusations of inactivity. His successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has vowed to combat insecurity and hold new elections, but has so far shown little progress towards either goal.
Meanwhile, analysts estimate inflation in the country at 30%. Fuel is in short supply and is subject to angry queues at stations. The UN has warned that gang violence may put the youngest children in areas of active fighting at risk of imminent starvation, as their parents are unable to access food or go to work.
A Haitian security force source who spoke to CNN estimated that the gangs control or influence three-quarters of the city.
Frantz Elbe, Director General of the Haitian National Police, rejects the claim. “It’s not a general problem in the metropolitan area,” he told CNN, declining to give a percentage.
However, it is indisputable that vital parts of the national infrastructure are now completely in the hands of criminals. The city’s vital port, Haiti’s main port, is controlled by gangs that dominate the road outside. The same goes for the main road to the south of the country, which means that the fragile part of the country that was hit by an earthquake last year has been effectively cut off from the capital. The gangs are also expanding their control in the east of the city, where Croix-des-Bouquets is located, and in the north, around Cite Soleil, observers said.
Police, often outgunned, are doing what they can, Elbe tells CNN.
“The gangs are changing the way of fighting. It used to be with knives, and now it’s with big guns. The police need to be well equipped. With what little we have, we will do what we can to fight the gang. members,” she said.
The challenge they face is exposed at a brief checkpoint set up in Croix-des-Bouquets, where gangs dragged a truck down a main road and set it on fire.
The police bring in an armored military bulldozer to push the remains to the side of the road, which is already littered with other carcasses from trucks. The bulldozer operator, when asked if he works under fire, replies, “Often.”
SWAT police set up a perimeter, scanning nearby rooftops. The premises and the vehicles in which they travel are stopped and controlled. One man says the situation is “bad, very bad,” before another gives him a stern look.
Suddenly he changes his tone: “We don’t know anything.”
Fear is the watchword of this war, though it’s not clear if he’s afraid to talk to the press, the police or what the gang might learn, he said later.
However, running away from this fear requires enduring more. A short boat ride from the mainland is the island of La Gonave, a hub for human traffickers.
The lackadaisical pace and blue water of a small cove in La Gonave belie its poverty. Heat, garbage, hunger and the business of leaving dominate this world.
One, a smuggler who introduced himself as Johnny, calmly explained how his business works.
The voyage is often one-way for the ship, so each endeavor requires the ship to be purchased outright, at a cost of around US$10,000, he says. To cover that cost, Johnny needs at least two hundred customers, who will snuggle into his scruffy helmet.
Fragments of netting seem to plug the gaps between the hull, and loose planks of wood will make up the ship’s interior. Johnny shows where the pump and motors will eventually go.
“If we die, we die. If we make it, we make it,” he said.
He added that he expected to fill his boat with 250 passengers, as he considered it to be in “good” condition.
The final destination is the United States, with Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Islands sometimes making accidental stops along the way.
And it is from these three places that the International Organization for Migration has reported a growing number of forced repatriations of Haitians in the first seven months of this year, with 20,016 so far, compared to 19,629 for all of 2021.
The numbers are as staggering as the risks. Previous trips from this cove have ended in tragedy. Johnny is unclear on the timing of the last ship, but he is accurate about possible losses: a recent voyage he organized led to the deaths of 29 people.
“The boat had an engine problem,” he said. “Water got into the boat. We called for help, but it took too long. The boat was sinking while I was trying to save people. By the time help came, it was too late.”
Despite the risks, many Haitians remain desperate for a way out. Locals from La Gonave told CNN that at least 40 people who intended to attempt the boat trip were already on the island and the rest would follow from the mainland once Johnny said the boat was ready.
One potential passenger, a college graduate who was once a teacher, described why he would risk everything to take the trip.
“I worked as a teacher, but it didn’t work out. Now I ride a motorcycle every day in the sun and dust. How will I be able to take care of my family when I have one?”
He said that he saved a year’s money to make the trip and that he was not afraid of the precarious conditions of the ship. “I can be eaten by a shark or make it to America.”