Haiti’s government declared a state of emergency on Sunday, following several days of violence in the capital culminating in an attack on the country’s main penitentiary which left most of its inmates at large.

It said a curfew would be enforced from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. through Wednesday in the Ouest region, which includes the capital Port-au-Prince, and added that both the state of the emergency and curfew periods could be extended.

Police told to ‘use all legal means’ 

Haiti’s Economy Minister Patrick Michel Boisvert signed the government statement, deputizing for Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

Security forces had “received orders to use all legal means at their disposal to enforce the curfew and detain those who violate it,” the government said.

Gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer, has claimed responsibility for the recent violent attacks that he says aim to  oust Prime Minister Henry.

They began as Henry went on a trip to Kenya, seeking to salvage a deal for the African country to lead an international peacekeeping mission in the country.

Asked in Kenya when he felt it would be safe to return to Haiti, Henry did not comment.

What do we know about the jailbreak?

The violence came to a head overnight on Saturday with an attack on the country’s largest prison.

Inmates gather inside the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, March 3, 2024.
Some of the facility’s inmates have chosen to stay in the prison for now Image: Odelyn Joseph/AP/picture alliance

Prison gates were open on Sunday, with no security personnel in sight. Many families of prisoners held at the facility rushed there to check on loved ones.

The facility, built to hold 700 prisoners, had some 3,687 inmates locked up as of February last year, according to the rights group RNDDH. Fewer than 100 were believed to still be inside the facility after the attack, according to NGO workers. 

They included 18 retired Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise.

In a statement on social media on Sunday, the Ministry of Communication said the attack on the prison “sought to release those who were imprisoned for acts of murder, kidnapping, and other serious crimes.”

The ministry acknowledged the failure of police forces to prevent the escape of many prisoners, saying the attack left many inmates as well as prison staff injured.

Haiti’s growing gang violence

The armed clashes between gangs and police come on the heels of a flurry of violent protests that were simmering for some time but ramped up in the last few days as Henry visited Kenya.

Henry, who came to power after Moise’s assassination, had previously said that he would step down by early February.

An armed vehicle is seen near the National Penitentiary following violent clashes in the capital Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 3, 2024.
The attack on the largest prison comes amid intesified gang violence in the countryImage: Ralph Tedy Erol/REUTERS

He said later that security must first be re-established to ensure free and fair elections.

According to the UN, Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for the country’s more than 11 million inhabitants.

The Kenyan policing mission followed months of failed efforts to find a country willing to lead the operation.

UN and Western-led deployments are viewed skeptically in Haiti, following past cases of child sexual abuse and a 2010 cholera outbreak that was traced back to a barracks in a country that had previously eradicated the disease.

How the world destabilized Haiti

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Haiti’s troubled history

A key outpost for Christopher Columbus and later both a Spanish and French colony, Haiti became the first Latin American or Caribbean country to become an independent nation in 1804.

However its lucrative plantation and slave-based economy was maintained by the winners of its war of independence.

The country also faced a century of international ostracism and crippling compensation payments to France.

It was occupied by the US from 1915 to 1934 and then spent decades under the corrupt and autocratic rule of the Duvalier family. It only began to emerge and start seeking to establish a more democratic political system in 1986. 

The country also endured a 2004 coup and a massive 2010 earthquake centered to the west of Port-au-Prince that killed around a quarter of a million people. Unpaid labor is still a practice in Haiti.

msh, rmt/wd (AP, Reuters)


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