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The new Haiti business challenge: how to help employees get to work — without getting killed

Matias Delacroix
Gangs like this one led by former cop Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier control much of Haiti today.

Haiti’s private sector is pledging to reform its practices to help confront the country’s economic catastrophe — and the violent gangs exploiting it.

But because of those powerful gangs, which have proliferated in the chaos following President Jovenel Moïse's assassination last year, many business owners are finding that running their companies — and keeping employees safe — have become terrifying exercises.

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That's largely because the gangs — who the U.N. estimates have killed as many as 1,500 Haitians this year — utterly outman and outgun Haiti's police.

Consider: the national police academy sits in a part of Port-au-Prince where a gang called Kraze Baryè — Creole for "breaking down gates" — is now the de facto ruling authority. To prove it, late last month the gang murdered the police academy’s director, Harington Rigaud, just outside its walls, shooting him in the head.

Not far from there, a Haitian business owner we’ll call Jean — he asked us not to use his real name for security reasons — employs about 200 people in a service company. These days Jean has to do more than oversee their work. He also has to help them get to work without getting killed.

They see people getting robbed by gunpoint, y’know, some actually see dead bodies lying in the street
Port-au-Prince business owner Jean, on his employees' journeys to work

“It’s very difficult to keep them from being discouraged," he told WLRN by phone from Port-au-Prince. "It’s... it’s insane.”

Many if not most of Jean’s employees live in neighborhoods that are under the brutal occupation of heavily armed gangs like Kraze Baryè. Their chronic, brazen and often ghastly violence — murders, rapes, kidnappings and food and fuel hijackings — has all but paralyzed Haiti’s society and especially its economy.

“People who’ve been doing business in Haiti for years mention they never saw it this bad," said Jean. "This is probably the worst it’s ever been.”

But Jean points out people still have to live — or leave. Almost all of his employees have so far chosen to stay in Haiti. So he’s contrived ways to help them survive gang rule, like using police intelligence he gets to keep them aware of what streets on their way to work are seeing gang violence or political unrest.

“We actually have a WhatsApp group where we communicate," he said. "So we’ll know ahead of time and just start organizing things.”

Haiti United Nations
Rodrigo Abd/AP
G9 coalition gang members ride a motorcycle through the Wharf Jeremy street market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Oct. 6, 2021.

For now, Jean says it’s working. None of them have been robbed, abducted or worse. Still, on many days they can’t avoid at least seeing the terror as they navigate even a safe route.

“They see people getting robbed by gunpoint, y’know, some actually see dead bodies lying in the street," Jean said.

"That stuff is traumatizing; it really does damage to the psychology on a day-in-day-out basis and still have to work through it.”

And when it looks too dangerous for them to go back home at night, Jean makes arrangements for them to live at the worksite for as long as needed.

“Have the food lockers put together, have the mattresses put together." he said. "These are the things you just have to prepare for.”

And Jean adds he’s prepared for Haiti’s situation to get worse before it gets better.

U.S. offers rewards in pursuit of arrests

Business owners point to the fact that Kraze Baryè's leader, Vitel'homme Innocent, is one of three Haitian gang bosses charged in the U.S. last month for crimes including the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries in Haiti last year.

The State Department, meanwhile, is offering rewards of $1 million each for information leading to their arrests. Even so, gang lords like Innocent still appear to roam and operate freely in Haiti as their groups expand into territories in the country's interior.

The U.N. also recently sanctioned Haitian gang leaders and some of their alleged patrons inside Haiti's political and business elite.

Jean agrees that Haitian business owners now tend to support some sort of U.S. and international police or military intervention to restore public security in Haiti. But he also says most of his employees, like many if not most Haitians, are wary of or oppose it because similar interventions in the country's past have often exacerbated rather than resolved crises like these.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.