Killers lurk in the shadows as Haiti chaos takes a sinister turn
At the barricaded junction next to the international airport in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, protesters burn tyres and block the road with stones and a large truck.
Cars and commercial vehicles that approach turn back or risk being stoned, while pedestrians wade on through the smoke.
Standing among a group of young men overseeing proceedings is Wandy Drelien, 28. Beneath the fabric of his khaki shirt, pushed into the waistband of his trousers, a pistol bulges.
“We’re fighting against a system where we can’t eat and we don’t get paid. That’s why we’ve taken to the streets,” he explains as a jet flies in low overhead to land at the airport.
“The president [Jovenel Moïse] isn’t working for us,” Drelien adds. “He’s no friend of the people. Only of the bourgeoisie and businessmen, while we live in poverty.
“It’s why young people have given up at school and taken up the gun. Because we need to defeat to this for ourselves.”
The sentiments are familiar in the crisis in Haiti that has flared up over the past year.
Intermittent protests have seen roads blockaded and offices and institutions associated with the government attacked, including the major’s office in the city of Léogâne, about 42km from Port-au-Prince, which was petrol bombed and looted.
Schools opened again this week after two months of large-scale protests almost completely paralysed the country.
But as a semblance of what passes for normality returns, the causes of the crisis remain amid evidence of a darker, more covert strand of violence now emerging: the supply of weapons and cash to armed gangs by figures on both sides.
While the proximate reason for the turmoil in Haiti has been a long running multi-billion dollar corruption scandal that has engulfed the presidency of Moïse, it has exacerbated tensions in a place long racked by brutal poverty and extreme inequality where political dishonesty has long been commonplace.
Central to the protests is the Petrocaribe scandal, a controversy that arose from a scheme to buy discounted oil from Venezuela on cheap credit. The idea was to free up funds for social schemes, but the money thus freed got pocketed by politicians.
The upwelling of popular outrage that greeted the official report into the scandal, which has tied Moïse to at least knowledge of the misappropriation, has played out in Creole slogans painted on walls demanding “Kot kob Petrokaribe?” (“Where’s the Petrocaribe money?”).
The scandal is debated angrily around the clock on radio talk shows, and denounced in the music of rappers, like Izolan, whose song Lage Pye Ou – Step On it – has been taken up by demonstrators.
Opposition spokesman Andre Michel believes the unrest is down to the culmination of several factors.
“The first is the circumstances around the election of Jovenel Moïse as president, a victory that was not accepted by the other candidates.
“The second is a structural issue. Ever since its foundation, Haiti has been ruled by an oligarchic minority who have held the country hostage. We have a political system that allows a small number of people to take all the country’s wealth.”
That, adds Michel, is the point dramatised by the Petrocaribe scandal.
“The money was supposed to pay for education, hospitals, roads and agricultural development,” he says of the billions misappropriated by those in government. “Not a single hospital has been built or a single training centre.”
And the crisis is biting beyond politics. Disruption on the roads, combined with rising commodity prices and the depreciation of the Haitian gourde against the US dollar, has reduced the ability of Haiti’s poorest to buy food.
According to a joint statement by humanitarian organisations, already 35% of the Haitian population – an estimated 3.67 million people – require emergency food assistance. If nothing is done, that will rise to 4.1 million people – roughly 40% of the Haitian population – within the next three to five months.
Much is spoken about “the system” in Haiti – la machine, as it is known colloquially. Talk of it is rivalled only by conversational use of the word pagaille, denoting utter chaos.
Even those associated with the government are critical. “It is a nightmare,” says Newton Louis St Juste, a government lawyer. “Everyone is fighting for power.”
If many of St Juste’s criticisms of the situation echo that of opposition figures, where he differs is blaming the opposition for many of the same sins as the government.
Both sides, he suggests, are implicated in violence and corruption – including in the Petrocaribe scandal – in a weak state where politics have been co-opted by business interests.
In a place where gangs are better armed than the police, he adds, a sense of impunity is running riot, from the white collar criminals and corrupt politicians at the apex down to the poorest slums.
Moïse – who critics say has rarely been seen outside the wealthy neighbourhood of Pétion-Ville, and who appears bolstered by the support of the US, which has sent senior diplomats in a show of solidarity – is more forthright.
He has referred to a plot by individuals with interests in Haiti’s energy sector to unseat him and accused the opposition of holding the country hostage, adding: “Is it the resignation of the president that will free the state? No, it is reform.”
For now, however, the trajectory is not negotiation or political process, but rising political violence that has already claimed dozens of lives.
Amnesty and other human rights organisations say they have validated claims of indiscriminate live fire on demonstrators by police. And other, more shadowy gunmen also appear to be at work.