PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – When a police truck carrying uniformed men stopped in a poor neighborhood of the Haitian capital, locals thought it was a problem. an official operation.
Perhaps the police were finally trying to end the war between the gangs that run protection rackets on the market next to the vast collection of cinder blocks and low social housing.
Then the men opened fire. Joined by local gang members dressed in black, they went from house to house with shoulder guns and machetes, dragging unarmed people into narrow alleyways and killing them all at once. with machetes, witnesses told The Good Non Profit.
"When I saw them, I thought they were providing security, but then I realized that they were shooting at the people."
"When I saw them, I thought they were providing security, but then I realized that they were shooting at the population," said Marie-Lourdes Corestan, a 55-year-old resident. "They were shooting, and I was running to save my life."
Witnesses, a human rights group and a Catholic charity collecting the bodies after the November 13 massacre told The Good Non Profit that at least 21 men had been killed in the night. 24 hours in the neighborhood of La Saline.
Some residents and local rights groups said the killers were gang members working with corrupt police to seize the territory of the La Saline gang war. But others accuse Haitian government officials of orchestrating the massacre to ward off anti-corruption protests that often start in the neighborhood, an opposition stronghold.
What is certain is that the murders reveal an alarming erosion of security in Haiti since US peacekeepers ended their 13-year term in October 2017 because the situation on the island is was apparently improved.
The residents of Port-au-Prince interviewed by the PA said that the number of neighborhoods in the capital considered "prohibited" areas controlled by armed gangs had increased by at least half a dozen since the departure of the heavily armed United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
"These lawless areas are multiplying," said Marie-Yolene Gilles, head of a local rights group, Fondasyon Je Klere, which killed 25 people.
"The authorities did not say anything," said Gilles. "They did not even condemn this massacre."
The US force was sent to Haiti in 2004 after the overthrow of President Bertrand Aristide. He was replaced in 2017 by a smaller mission in the United States, which continued its police training program, which brought the number of Haitian officers under 4,000 to Aristide to more. of 15,000 today.
However, the police are widely perceived as corrupt, inefficient and ill equipped to tackle heavily armed gangs that often serve to reinforce Haiti's fragmented political forces.
US officials said they hoped to investigate the murders in the coming weeks.
"There have been disturbing episodes of violence in some of Port-au-Prince's most notorious neighborhoods, areas where state authority is limited," said Helen Meagher La Lime, chief of the United Nations Mission for Justice in Haiti, which replaced the peacekeeping of the UN. force, said the UN Security Council last month. "Authorities and human rights organizations continue their investigations and our human rights department also uses them to determine what happened."
Thousands of people live in La Saline, many work in the nearby market that stretches for more than one kilometer and where vendors sell everything from trucked products from the countryside to clothing. opportunity imported from South Florida.
Residents live in breeze block houses with tin roofs, many of which are barely big enough to hold just one mattress. They cook over fires in the aisles so narrow that two people can not pass without touching each other's shoulders.
Gangs of armed young men control the neighborhood, often removing guns to solve local quarrels. The main income of the gang comes from the premiums paid by the sellers of the market and the importers anxious to keep the road leading to a neighboring port, making the control of La Saline a precious franchise.
Police are generally considered corrupt, ineffective and poorly equipped to tackle heavily armed gangs that often serve to reinforce Haiti's fragmented political forces.
Armed gangs have bought or stolen unspeakable amounts of Haitian police equipment in recent years, so the degree of official involvement in the La Saline massacre remains unclear.
National Police Chief Michelangelo Gedeon said an investigation into the killings portended a gang brawl, and he had suspended two officers accused by local civil rights groups. to be involved in the massacre.
"If police are involved in gangs, we will fire them," he said. "If they are involved in human rights violations, we will bring them to justice."
One of the officers, Gregory Antoine, was shot dead last week in a crime attributed to rival gangsters, family members told a local radio station.
The office of President Jovenel Moise has not responded to AP's requests for comment.
Joel Noel, a 28-year-old man who describes himself as a community leader, said the gunmen had arrived in a truck bearing the insignia of a tactical police unit special formed by the UN and created under the former president Michel Martelly, ally of Moses. .
Corestan said some were wearing ski masks and wearing machetes when they went down to the neighborhood at 3 pm.
She said she ran for her life when the attack began, leaving behind her son, Edaud-Pierre, 24, aspiring DJ, unarmed and practicing song mixing. She said the neighbors had told her that the gunmen had killed her in cold blood.
There are two police stations in La Saline and the surrounding area, but witnesses said neither of them sent police officers to intervene.
Gedeon, the chief of police, said the police arrived after dark and surrounded the area, but could not move because it was dark. The police have since arrested in this case, he said.
Morelle Lendor, a 33-year-old street vendor, said she was hiding in her booth with a man she knew as Wuanito when two men knocked on the door.
She recognized them as gang members from a neighboring neighborhood, dressed in unmarked black uniforms, wearing a black cap and wearing shoulder arms.
She added that they had seized Wuanito, who was not armed, and had killed him at one go. Three weeks later, the stain of blood remained on the wall of his hut.
Another resident, Miliana Louis, said her 22-year-old son James had been killed with a machete.
"The majority of the dead were innocent," said Raphael Louigene, social worker at St. Luc Foundation, a Catholic charity working in the slums of Port-au-Prince.
"It's a political fight …. After taking control of the area, they went to people's homes, took them out and executed them. "
He stated that he and two members of the clergy had collected 21 sets of men's remains in the streets of La Saline in the days following the massacre, while neither the police nor the judicial authorities wanted to enter the building. district. He added that the victims had been wounded by gunshot or machetes and that only eight bodies had been found, most of them burned or given to pigs.
Residents said that at least one woman would also have been among the victims. Belande Louis, 33, said her 28-year-old sister Sandra was missing on 13 November. Neighbors said she was killed by men armed with machetes.
Louigene said the massacre appeared to result from a fight for the right to extort merchants from the market after one gang chased another.
"The group that was evicted came back in search of revenge," Louigene said. "The police can not afford to fight the gang guys."
For some in La Saline, the explanation is more sinister.
President Moise is largely unhappy with his inability to pursue allegations that his ally, former President Martelly, has been embezzling more than $ 2 billion in revenue from a Venezuelan program providing the Haitian government with oil. sharply reduced that he was reselling with a considerable profit.
La Saline has long been a rallying point for anti-government demonstrations and the massacre took place four days before long-planned national protests against corruption charges.
Some residents and local rights groups have accused Haitian government officials of orchestrating an attack by a rival gang in order to intimidate residents of La Saline and prevent protests.
"It's a political fight," said Noel, the local leader. "After controlling the area, they went into people's homes and took them out and executed them."
Good Non Profit reporter Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.