Posted on March 12, 2024

Is the Feared Gang Boss ‘Barbecue’ Now the Most Powerful Man in Haiti?

Tom Phillips and Luke Taylor, The Guardian, March 10, 2024

Murals in the pauperized Haitian slums he rules liken him to the Argentinian guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

In interviews, he poses as a God-fearing Caribbean Robin Hood and celebrates freedom fighters and agitators including Fidel Castro, Thomas Sankara and Malcolm X.

“I like Martin Luther King, too,” the Haitian gang boss Jimmy Chérizier told the New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson when they met last year. “But he didn’t like fighting with guns, and I fight with guns.”

The stunning gang-led insurrection against Haiti’s government has catapulted Chérizier, a raffish, rifle-wielding 47-year-old mobster, into the international headlines – a place history suggests he enjoys.

Over the past five years the Haitian outlaw – who has emerged as the main spokesman for the gang uprising against Prime Minister Ariel Henry – has welcomed a succession of foreign reporters to his gangland domain hoping to justify what he calls his noble – if bloody – crusade to defend his country’s famished urban poor.

“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight,” Chérizier told the Associated Press last year while sat outside a bullet-pocked house.

In a 2022 interview with Vice, Chérizier called his ragtag favela army “a sociopolitical structure and force that is fighting on behalf of the vulnerable”.

Experts say the truth about Chérizier – who is best known as simply Babekyou (Barbecue) – is far more complicated and unsavory.

Born during the 1970s, during the brutal and corrupt reign of Baby Doc Duvalier, Chérizier has previously said he was one of eight siblings and lost his father at the age of five. The children grew up in Delmas, one of the rundown Port-au-Prince communities he now runs, by a mother who hawked fried chicken on the streets.

By Chérizier’s account, it was his mother’s occupation that earned him the nickname Barbecue, although many claim that a habit of incinerating his victims was the real reason.

Before establishing himself as Haiti’s most influential gang kingpin, Chérizier was a member of the country’s national police. He worked for the Unité départementale de maintien d’ordre, a riot squad whose members have been accused of shooting protesters dead.

The motto of Haiti’s police is “proteger et servir”: to protect and serve. But Chérizier – who has also publicly voiced admiration for François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Baby Doc’s father – appears not to have honoured those values.

He was expelled from the force in 2018 for alleged involvement in a litany of crimes, including a horrific massacre that year in a slum called La Saline in which 71 people were killed, seven women raped and 400 homes torched.

Chérizier, who leads a gang alliance called the G9 Family and Allies, has denied wrongdoing. But the former police officer has been sanctioned by both the US and the UN for his alleged crimes. The G9 controls some of Port-au-Prince’s largest slums and most important road arteries allowing Chérizier to paralyze the country on several occasions, cutting off petrol supplies and forcing schools and hospitals to close.

“He is a criminal businessman,” said Louis-Henri Mars, director of the Haitian non-profit Lakou Lapè.

“In 2020 me and other peace-builders went to see him to ask him to stop his assaults on the Bel Air neighbourhood [in Port-au-Prince] and he made some promises,” Mars added. “But he still continued burning down people’s houses. He listens, but in the end he does what is in his best interest.”

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mars compared the gangster to a volcano, constantly poised to erupt. “He has some charisma, he’s a thinker, but he’s a violent individual also.”

Like many Haitian crime bosses, Chérizier is also a man with high-level political connections. He was rumoured to be close to the former president Jovenel Moïse, whose 2021 assassination paved the way for the current mayhem.

Some suspect Chérizier has political aspirations of his own.

“Barbecue is engaging and really is a natural politician … when I met him, I knew straightaway [he] was a force to be reckoned with,” the Sky News correspondent Stuart Ramsay wrote after their 2023 encounter.

“He sees himself as a revolutionary fighting against the dark corruption of government and oligarch businessmen, but make no mistake, he is an out-and-out gangster.”

Diego Da Rin, an International Crisis Group Haiti specialist, said Chérizier’s attempt to paint himself as a compassionate if iron-fisted champion of the ghetto was not entirely without basis. “He gives women presents on Mother’s Day. He gives money to families that don’t have the means to send their kids to school. But people are aware that he is [also] one of the main people responsible for the nightmare they are living,” Da Rin said.

That nightmare plumbed new depths this week after Chérizier announced he was leading a massive gang assault against Henry’s government, and ordered his gunmen out on to the streets to sow chaos. Since the attacks began on 29 February, criminals have burned dozens of businesses and police stations, forced the international airport to close, freed thousands of hardened criminals from jail, and laid siege to the port.

Henry, who was in Africa when the uprising began, has said nothing and been unable to return home.

“Unfortunately, Barbecue is now the most powerful man in Haiti,” said Judes Jonathas, an independent consultant based in Port-au-Prince.