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Haiti's notorious gang leader, Barbecue, says his forces are ready for a long fight

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The gangs in Haiti can't be ignored. This weekend they took the streets in their neighborhoods in a show of force. NPR saw dozens of heavily armed men, some wearing balaclavas in the blazing Caribbean heat, with handguns, with assault rifles with machetes.

And Jimmy Chérizier, known as Babekyou in Haitian Creole — or Barbecue — is one of the most powerful and notorious gang leaders. He heads the G9 federation of gangs.

He is the man who convinced many of Haiti's gangs to stop fighting each other and start fighting the government. The alliance of rival gangs is known as Viv Ansanm, or "Living Together."

Over the past two months, they've attacked government installations, brought down a prime minister and nearly paralyzed the capital city. Haitians have largely been left to fend for themselves.

The U.S. Treasury put him on a sanctions list in 2020, and the United Nations sanctioned him in 2022. He stands accused of human rights abuses, including taking part in massacres, along with other charges.

Who is Barbecue?

Barbecue met with NPR in Delmas, the neighborhood he controls in the capital of Port-au-Prince, and talked for over an hour. He arrived in a brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser and had a boy on his knees cleaning his flip-flops.

Barbecue, 47, used to be a police officer. He worked for a squad called the Unité départementale de maintien d'ordre. He led operations against gangs and was responsible for quelling unrest. Members of the unit were accused of shooting protesters dead.

But in the interview, he said eventually he had "an awakening."

He claims the system made him who he is. As a policeman, he said, he learned that politicians created the gangs, that they used them and the police to do their dirty work, to target their business rivals and their enemies. And so he started fighting against the political elite to try to change the system.

What did Barbecue say about his role in the violence?

Much of the interview focused on his part in the violence and mayhem. According to a recentU.N. report, in the first few months of 2024, approximately 2,500 Haitians were killed or injured in gang violence.

Barbecue argues that the gangs are fighting against the rich, who have exploited Haiti.

But that's not exactly what NPR has seen and reported. The gangs are extorting poor people, women are getting raped, houses have been burnt. He did not refute this.

"Everything you say right now is true," he replied. "But all of the extortion and all of the mistreatment is because the government allowed those things to happen."

Essentially, he said, the government and Haitian elites have allowed this situation to happen — to create chaos and to remain in power.

He also had a message for Washington. He said that the U.S. government carried some "responsibility" for the situation in Haiti, for not letting Haitians decide their own future for themselves.

The U.S., the association of Caribbean nations known as CARICOM and other regional powers helped establish anine-member transitional council to pave the way for elections. The U.S. called the installation of the council a "critical step toward free and fair elections."

But in Barbecue's view, "the transitional council is not the will of the Haitian people. This is what Washington wants," he said, "and this is what they have imposed."

Barbecue on the imminent arrival of the Kenyan led multinational force

Barbecue said the gangs are preparing for a long fight. He said he expects a lot of bloodshed and eventually, the international forces will get tired and they will leave.

Asked if he expects to survive, he said: "My life depends on God and my ancestors."

"If the Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines worried about his life," he said, "Haiti wouldn't be free today."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.