PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—In the days after Haiti’s president was shot to death, Jimmy Cherizier, leader of a powerful alliance of gangs here that calls itself the G9, issued an exhortation on YouTube, calling on his followers to rise up against the country’s oligarchs and seek justice for the assassinated leader.
“We are ready for war,” said Mr. Cherizier, a former police officer dressed in an olive drab military-style uniform and a camouflage baseball cap. “We are only warming up.”
Mr. Cherizier’s call to arms highlights a defining feature of modern Haitian politics: The ties between the Caribbean nation’s politicians and often-violent gangs that, according to the United Nations, human-rights groups and residents, effectively control swaths of the country.
U.N. officials warn the July 7 killing of the president, Jovenel Moïse, threatens to intensify what they say is already the worst wave of gang violence in years, making shootings and kidnappings part of daily life. The U.N. children’s agency Unicef says at least 18,000 people have been displaced by fighting, most since the beginning of June.
“The situation was bad before the pandemic but got worse during the pandemic and is now getting even worse because of the political situation and upscale in violence,” said Bruno Maes, Unicef’s Haiti representative. “We are only at the tip of the iceberg. This situation is worsening by the moment.”
Gangs have long been a fact of life in Haiti, but their influence expanded sharply in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, with gang leaders portraying themselves as more effective in meeting people’s needs than government institutions.
“The government had no recourse but to try to tap into them,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a scholar at Florida International University who studies Caribbean countries. “If you wanted to do anything in any neighborhood, you really had to work with the gang structure. You had no effective police that could go into neighborhoods.”
In December, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned two senior Moïse administration officials for providing arms and financing to armed groups accused of killing 25 people in the capital’s La Saline slum to quell demonstrations against the government. Also sanctioned was Mr. Cherizier, who goes by the alias Barbecue, and who the Americans also said was involved. Haitian and U.S. officials accuse Mr. Cherizier of homicide, but rights groups say he continues to operate unimpeded.
Mr. Cherizier didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone or respond to text messages sent on WhatsApp.
Mr. Cherizier, who identifies himself as leader and spokesman for the G9, portrays his organization as part of a revolutionary movement against the wealthy Haitian elite, whom he has termed a “stinky bourgeoisie.”
G9, the group of gangs he heads holds sway over some 1.2 million residents—more than 10% of the national population—in the crowded slums of southern Port-au-Prince, according to Louis-Henri Mars, director of the nonprofit Lakou Lape. G9 blocks roads and chokes off fuel as well as humanitarian aid supplies in a continuing territorial dispute, said Mr. Mars, whose organization has tried to broker peace talks between gangs, civil society groups and business leaders.
Their territorial control at times also makes them attractive partners for politicians. “Having military control over a neighborhood means they can control how people are going to vote,” Mr. Mars said.
Scars of the conflict can be found around this city. The window at the entrance of Port-au-Prince’s courthouse is riddled with bullets, with the word “justice” spray painted on top. It sits in a neighborhood dominated by a gang that calls itself “Five Seconds”—the amount of time its members say it takes to kill their foes.
Gangs mostly make their money through kidnappings and extortion, charging communities and street vendors commissions in exchange for leaving them alone, people who know the gangs say. The more territory they hold, the more they earn.
One owner of a manufacturing firm explained how gang members armed with assault rifles fired bullets at his office and dumped barrels of feces on his doorstep, demanding that he make monthly payments to keep his business running. As a resolution, the businessman said he had to install portable toilets at the armed group’s slum, which lacked plumbing.
“You have to get into a symbiotic relationship,” said the businessman.
But many poor Haitians, caught between gangs and police, have had no choice but to flee to refugee centers that they are running low on food and medicine.
Jucelene Jean, 57 years old, said gang members killed her two sons after she didn’t pay protection money they demanded to allow her to run a small grocery shop in Cap-Haïtien, a port city in northern Haiti. She declined to identify the gang involved. Then, last month, she said, police set fire to her shantytown neighborhood because they said it had been infiltrated by gangsters.
“There is no hope, no future. Only God can save us now,” said Ms. Jean, who now sleeps on the floor of a school-turned-shelter with her seven grandchildren and 500 others. She spoke to a reporter last week while feeding her 2-year-old grandson watery bean purée from a wash bucket. “My life is just tears all day long.”
Another resident of the center, Guerlens Dieu, who used to sell motor oil on the streets, lost his prosthetic leg when he, his pregnant wife and their 5-year-old daughter had to cross a ravine to flee gunfire as their neighborhood was set ablaze by police in their battle with gangs.
“Everything we had is gone,” Mr. Dieu said, holding himself up on a crutch. “If you’re a state government you should go after the criminals, not burn down the whole village.”
A spokeswoman for Haiti’s National Police didn’t respond to requests for comment.
—Arian Campo-Flores in Miami contributed to this article.
Write to Kejal Vyas at email@example.com
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