The 14 presumed gang members under arrest were arriving at a police station in Haiti’s capital, when a group of people overpowered the police, rounded up the suspects outside and used gasoline to burn them alive.
The gruesome executions on April 24 marked the start of a brutal vigilante campaign to reclaim the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, from gangs that have inflicted terror on Haitians for nearly two years.
In a nation wracked by extreme poverty and violence, civilians have taken up arms and killed at least 160 people believed to be gang members in the six weeks since a citizens “self-defense” movement known as “bwa kale” kicked off its vigilantism with the brazen police station attack, according to data gathered in a new report by a prominent Haitian human rights group.
The result: a sharp drop in kidnappings and killings attributed to gangs in neighborhoods where people told The New York Times they had been afraid to leave their homes.
“Before the 24th, every day someone passed by and demanded that I give him money because of my little business,” said Marie, 62, who sells shoes on the streets of Port-au-Prince. The Times is withholding her full name and those of other residents quoted in this article for their safety.
“When I had no money, they took whatever they wanted from my table, and this happened at any time of the day,” she said.
But two weeks ago, members of the “bwa kale” — crude slang for erection — burned a man believed to be a gang member alive in front of her shoe stall.
Though she sees the revenge movement as “God beginning to make things right,” Marie has misgivings.
“I support vigilance groups, but I don’t like the way they do it,” she said. “He could have been punished in another way. He could have been arrested and put in jail.”
The outbreak of mob justice is worrisome, Haiti experts say, because it could easily be used to target people who have nothing to do with gangs, and could lead to an explosion of even worse violence if the gangs seek retribution.
That it took a movement of self-appointed vigilantes to bring some semblance of calm to parts of Port-au-Prince underscores the chaos engulfing a country where no president has been elected in two years, and underpaid and outgunned police have fled in large numbers.
Even as vigilantes set people ablaze and set up checkpoints, many Haitians support them and consider them a natural consequence of an acute power vacuum.
Nearly two years ago, the last elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home and replaced by an interim prime minister widely viewed as inept. Elections have not been held since the assassination, and the Caribbean nation of 11 million people has no remaining elected officials.
The acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, appealed last year for outside intervention, but efforts by the United States and other nations to mount an international contingent have stalled, largely because no country wants to lead it.
Gangs have long controlled Haiti’s poorest neighborhoods, but their influence and violence grew after Mr. Moïse’s killing.
They have battled for control of parts of Port-au-Prince through random killings, rape and kidnappings. A nine-day period last July saw 470 murders, according to the United Nations. The violence has kept residents from being able to work or to buy food, prompting many people to leave for the United States.
“People lived like rats who only came out of their holes to eat,” said Arnold Antonin, 80, a Haitian filmmaker living in the Dominican Republic who fled last year when his wife, Beatriz Larghi, was kidnapped and gangs took over his neighborhood, south of the capital. “The gangs were like the cats.” (His wife was released unharmed after three days, after a ransom was paid. )
On April 24, residents decided enough was enough. The 14 presumed gang members had been arrested and taken to a Port-au-Prince police station. Police officers watched helplessly as neighbors beat the suspects and used tires doused in gasoline to set them on fire, according to the report by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, known as CARDH, which used a combination of field investigators, local authorities, witness accounts, media and verified social media reports to compile its data.
The killings were also captured in videos that have been widely shared.
“The country is near anarchy,” said Nicole Phillips, a human rights lawyer in San Francisco who follows Haiti closely, noting that the vigilante killings are particularly worrisome because many young boys are recruited to gangs by force.
In one episode, a crowd in Pétion-Ville, a well-off Port-au-Prince suburb, left the charred bodies of five men they had killed near a police station along the road that led to Mr. Moïse’s home.
“The reaction of the population, after years of gangs imposing their law, can be attributed to self-defense,” said Gédéon Jean, the executive director of CARDH. “Gangs are supported by certain authorities, politicians and business people. At almost all levels of the police force, gangs have links with police officers. The police do not have the means to systematically and simultaneously confront the growing gangs.”
The “bwa kale” movement has led to a significant reduction in gang violence, according to the report. In May, 43 murders were recorded, most in Port-au-Prince, compared with 146 in April, Mr. Jean said, adding that there have been almost no kidnappings.
“Fear has changed sides,” Mr. Antonin said. He plans to return to Haiti in the coming weeks now that his neighborhood is back in the hands of the community.
While gang violence has seemingly declined precipitously, gangs still remain powerful and control some neighborhoods and important roads, said Pierre Espérance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network.
“The problem is the correlation between gangs and the people in power,” he said. “We don’t see any will from the authorities to improve the situation in Haiti. I will not say I support bwa kale, but I will say I understand the population, because there is a lot of impunity and the absence of authorities, and they don’t have any options.”
The rise of the vigilante movement, he said, underscores the international community’s failure to address the crisis.
President Biden said in March that military intervention was “not in play at the moment.” In the meantime, the U.S. government has directed $92 million to help Haiti strengthen its security forces, including providing new police vehicles, the State Department said.
Mr. Henry, in a speech last month, urged citizens to lay down their weapons.
“I ask my compatriots, despite what they suffered at the hands of the bandits, to keep calm,” he said.
Vigilantism in Haiti is nothing new. It was used during the Haitian Revolution against the French in the late 1700s and was common in 1986, when the former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted from the country and mobs attacked and slaughtered his collaborators.
The practice was known in Creole as dechoukaj, the uprooting of the old order.
“The people who are doing this are not criminals,” said Robert Maguire, a retired professor at George Washington University who has studied Haiti for decades. “They are just ordinary Haitians who are fed up, frustrated and frightened. And they want some kind of security. If they have to do it themselves, they’ll do it.”
Amanda, 29, said she had to leave her house in the La Grotte neighborhood of Port-au-Prince in a hurry before dawn one April morning when gangs descended on her street. She slept on sidewalks and hid from assailants. The vigilantes then killed some of the gang members, she said, though without any guarantees that they got the right people.
Now they staff checkpoints, helping keep strangers out of her neighborhood by checking IDs.
“I support the vigilance brigades,” she said. “When I pass at a checkpoint, I accept that they check on me.”
One energetic teenager working a checkpoint vowed to keep up the pressure by closing roads all night long and interrogating people trying to enter. It was necessary, he said, because the police were too afraid of the gangs.
“We are ready to fight until things change in this country,” he said, declining to give his name, for fear of being targeted by gangs. “Nothing can stop us.”
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.