Haiti is beset by the rising power of super-violent gangs. Not even local priests are safe.
This article is part of ifa's Online Magazine, which provides a platform for stories from civil society in the Global South and in Germany. The articles of the magazine are created either through direct commissioning of CrossCulture Programme (CCP) alumni or during various journalistic trainings offered by CCP.
Gunfire shattered the serenity of those who had just attended mass at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in the town of Pernier, not far from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Six motorcycles carrying armed men sped along the dusty, rocky road in front of the church, chasing a car.
The driver, a member of the Fatima congregation, managed to accelerate and save himself and his wife. He was both lucky and unlucky. He got away, but the gangsters had mistaken him for someone with exactly the same type of vehicle: Father Antony Jean-Baptiste, the parish priest.
The emergence of brutal gangs in Haiti
The emergence of brutal gangs in Haiti has become the country’s greatest worry. According to "The Global Initiative", there are an estimated 200 gangs across Haiti, including 95 in the capital area. After the July 2021 assassination of Jovenel Moïse, the country’s President, they have continued to grow in power and are holding the capital in a virtual state of siege.
Earlier this year, Father Antony found himself their target. From New York, where he now lives, Father Antony said he heard the call of God early on. He said he had been born handicapped in 1979, and experienced a miracle. His mother, Marie Sylvie, took him at the age of six to a church in Mariaman, in the town of Petion-Ville, and after a whole day praying at the feet of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s statue, he could walk.
Father Antony recalled feeling distraught at the time. "It was as if my mother wanted to abandon me that day," he said. "But the next day, I was walking. So I’ve always considered myself to be a miracle and from then on, I dedicated my life to God."
Several gangs were operating in the capital area and, in 2020, they began to join forces and federate.
Twenty-six years later, in 2018, he was ordained a priest. His parish of Pernier was "a laid-back and peaceful neighbourhood with rare, lush greenery". It was a busy time: he said he wanted to feed souls, spirits and bodies. Feed souls with the gospel. Feed spirits with quality education: he received a Master's in Education. Feed bodies by developing a local bakery to tackle food insecurity.
But one of his neighbours was Vitel'Homme Innocent, a man in his 30s who was recruiting young people in the area into a gang. Innocent choose to name his gang "Kraze Baryè", "Broken Gate" in Haitian Creole. He began forcing business owners to give him recurring payments in exchange for their "safety". With success came ever more greed. Innocent came to an agreement with another powerful gangland leader, Wilson Joseph, known as Lanmo San Jou, of 400 Mawozo which controlled Croix-des-Bouquets, a neighbouring town.
Conflict between the gang and the locals
But on 11 October 2021, the inhabitants of Pernier had had enough: some members of the Kraze Baryè gang went to collect money from a business that belonged to the former President of the Chamber of Deputies, Cholzer Chancy. They were met by the local police and four gang members were killed. Kraze Baryè escalated. Less than a week later, a group of 17 American and Canadian missionaries, including five children, one just eight months old, were kidnapped. Innocent and Joseph led the funeral of their gang members who had been killed by the police. And then the latter acknowledged that they had kidnapped the missionaries, threatening to kill all of them if they didn’t get $17m. Soon, kidnappings were the new normal for Pernier and the surrounding area.
Becoming a clear target for Vitel’Homme, I had the Devil against me.
Ti Gabi was Innocent’s capo for the area which included the Fatima church. Father Antony didn’t know it, but Ti Gabi had been arrested a few years before for robbing the church. Even though the priest was not the one who called the police, Ti Gabi was convinced that he had been responsible for the arrest. Father Antony began to hear that Ti Gabi was swearing revenge and had convinced Innocent he should be eliminated. "When I became a clear target for Vitel’Homme, I had the Devil against me," said Father Antony.
After the attack on the car outside the church, Father Antony received a call. "A man said, 'Wherever you are hiding, you will die. We are powerful and have connections all over the country.'"
Flight from gangs
Local police informed him that they would not be able to ensure his safety. The bishop in charge of Father Antony’s church encouraged him to leave as soon as he could. And so, on 22 February last year, Father Antony left everything behind and flew to the USA. Now in Queens, New York, he is figuring out how his life will move forward. He is staying with a friend, a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn, while he waits for an official new assignment from the church.
He carried a resigned expression when he said,
I don’t know if it will ever be safe for me to go back to Haiti. In the meanwhile, for myself, my country and my loved ones, I have no choice but to hope against all hope.
Max Jean-Louis is a writer and journalist with more than 15 years of experience. Having lived on three continents, he has developed a multicultural and multidisciplinary background. He has experience and achievements in the United States, Canada, France, Haiti, Japan, and Germany. He is the founder and Chairman of Radio Guacanagaric, in Sainte-Suzanne, Haiti. In addition, Max's work has been published and broadcast by several media worldwide, including TV5 Monde, RFI, Agoravox France, Le Courrier de la Nouvelle Ecosse, Le Nouvelliste, Ayibopost, and Multicult FM.