Friday, May 24, 2024

FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ Gang Leader Claims Haiti Gangs Forced Out Government in Quest to ‘Liberate’ Nation

HomeTop NewsFBI's 'Most Wanted' Gang Leader Claims Haiti Gangs Forced Out Government in...

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In a lavish abandoned mansion on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital, surrounded by armed guards in masks, one of the world’s most wanted gang leaders receives his visitors like a head of state. Vitel’homme Innocent, whose gang has played a central role in the near collapse of this once-prosperous Caribbean nation, projects an aura of power blended with calculated charm.

Slight of build but intense in manner, the 37-year-old fugitive is dressed in a batik suit as bright as the bougainvillea spilling over the compound walls. He welcomes us with soft drinks from a cooler, then waxes philosophical about his “dream” of restoring Haiti to its former glory as the “pearl of the Antilles.”

It’s an unlikely vision from a man the FBI has branded one of its “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” with a $2 million bounty on his head for alleged kidnappings and human rights abuses by his gang, the Kraze Barye. Yet Innocent and his allies among Haiti’s sprawling criminal militias believe they are pioneers of a revolutionary new society, purging the nation of its corrupt ruling class.

“Our dream is to get rid of the oligarchs who prevent the country from progressing,” Innocent says through a translator, using the gangs’ term for the economic and political elites they claim have looted Haiti. “One day, someone could sit in Champ de Mars and have an ice cream.”

The capital’s iconic central square lies in ruins today after months of escalating conflicts between gangs and police that have brought Haiti to its knees. The main airport and shipping ports are closed, government buildings occupied by refugees, and bodies litter the streets amid blocked humanitarian aid convoys.

It is an apocalyptic descent for a nation that has endured so many calamities – punishing poverty, natural disasters, political chaos. Now, even the most basic functions of the state have collapsed under the onslaught of Kraze Barye and its allies in an alliance called “Viv Ansanm” (Live Together).

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Amid the carnage, Innocent – speaking in his first interview with foreign media – seeks to cast the gangs’ quest for power in a revolutionist light, as a popular uprising to sweep away a venal system. While acknowledging the militias’ role in deaths, rapes and kidnappings, he frames it as collateral damage in a broader struggle.

“Would these guys really have any clue who to kidnap and who not to kidnap?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s really the same people…who call us and say: ‘I have such-and-such a job.'”

It is an extraordinary claim – that the kidnappers take direct orders from Haiti’s allegedly corrupt political class to target the wealthy and powerful for ransom. Innocent insists that weapons and ammunition still flow across Haiti’s borders thanks to high-level facilitators, allowing outmatched gangs to terrorize whole neighborhoods.

In reality, most analysts see the gangs’ ties to Haiti’s elites as more of a patronage system, with politicians competing to arm allied gangs against rivals. But today, many of the militias are pursuing their own agendas and criminal enterprises unmoored from former backers.

“Gang leaders talk about liberation and representing the people in order to attract popular support,” says Gedeon Jean, a human rights advocate in Port-au-Prince. “But all they want is more power and a state that accommodates their crime.”

Victims of the Terror

Stories of suffering under gang rule belie Innocent’s populist branding. Prominent radio journalist Marie-Lucie Opont recounts how she was held at gunpoint in her Tabarre home last year, in the same area where Innocent’s Kraze Barye holds sway.

“Around 30 armed people broke in and pillaged my home,” the 55-year-old says, her voice shaking at the memory. “They took even food from the kitchen.”

Opont believes she was targeted because the burglars knew her house. They kidnapped her for a terrifying night, driving her eventually to Innocent himself.

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“He knew who I was,” she says. “I asked myself, why did they take me?”

She was released, but her husband endured a stint as a hostage and brutal beatings before their family paid a hefty ransom. They fled the neighborhood immediately.

“Why attack ordinary people if you’re trying to stand up for them?” Opont asks of the gangs’ justifications. “So many women have been victims of brutal rapes.”

An Audacious Power Grab

The eruption of almost unimaginable lawlessness on the streets of Port-au-Prince has its roots in political turmoil that has roiled Haiti for years. The country’s last Senate term expired in early 2020, leaving institutional paralysis that deepened after the still-unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021.

In this power vacuum, and with the Haitian police woefully understaffed after a spate of killings, Viv Ansanm launched an audacious offensive in February to force out the interim prime minister Ariel Henry.

Attacked were police stations, government buildings, the presidential palace and even cargo ships attempting to bring in humanitarian aid. When Henry visited Kenya last month to discuss a potential multinational security force, Viv Ansanm asserted its own diplomatic clout – its militants’ ability to shut down Haiti’s capital aided Henry’s ouster on March 12.

Innocent and other Viv Ansanm leadership now say they oppose the transitional council formed to rule Haiti until elections. Their precondition for laying down arms?: “Sit and listen to Viv Ansanm.”

The ultimatum is a hard pill for the international community. While recognizing the militias’ de facto control of much of Port-au-Prince, granting them the imprimatur of a political voice could validate their human rights abuses and criminal moneymaking.

“To give them that would only further validate them,” says Jean.

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Few Good Options for Haiti

Some experts wonder if Haiti missed its best window to neutralize the gangs in February, before they consolidated control of whole neighborhoods.

Former U.S. Ambassador Rick Barton believes a small “specialized security force” – perhaps just a few hundred soldiers – could have quelled the militias and allowed a broader multinational mission to restore order.

Instead, the inadequate $300 million U.S. plan for such a force is stalled over security concerns exacerbated by Haiti’s continued political drift. Just a fraction of that funding has materialized so far.

Innocent, meanwhile, seems to revel in the chaos unleashed on the capital, including near his territory’s border with the U.S. Embassy. Last week, Kraze Barye members attacked an adjacent Port-au-Prince neighborhood, sending 150 families fleeing in terror.

Inspecting the boundary with his gunmen, a nonchalant Innocent nodded toward the embassy, describing it as an “honor” to host an American diplomatic presence in his fiefdom.

The comment could be heard as a veiled threat – or an attempt to preserve an uneasy coexistence with any future American intervention. After all, the U.S. closed its embassy and evacuated non-emergency personnel earlier this month, leaving the compound defended only by a security detachment Innocent’s fighters could easily overwhelm.

With kidnappings of American missionaries among the allegations against him, the wanted gang boss is gambling that Haiti’s chaos only deepens without him as an interlocutor.

“Investors cannot come in…foreigners were forced to flee to their countries to wait for stability,” he warns.

Yet Innocent also claims to believe in due process – saying he is willing to face justice if Haiti’s corrupt actors do too. Such assertions of equal treatment ring hollow to victims like Opont.

“The whole neighborhood is constantly terrorized by armed bandits,” she says. “How can the gangs say they work for the good of the country?”CopyRetry



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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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