Croix-des-Bouquets Crisis: a Caribbean arts center is Haiti's gang violence epicenter
One of Haiti's most important cultural cradles is in the grip of one of its most violent street gangs. It's a stark reminder why the country's collapse needs a solution.
In recent months, the town of Croix-des-Bouquets has been ground zero for Haiti’s violent gang crisis — which is doubly sad news because for almost three centuries, Croix-des-Bouquets has been a major center of Haiti’s celebrated artistic culture.
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World-famous Haitian singers like rapper Wyclef Jean are from Croix-des-Bouquets; they're the heirs of roots-music styles like rara that are as common a sound there as street traffic.
But perhaps an even more famous local sound is the ping-ping of artisans hammering out some of the world’s most acclaimed metal artwork in the Croix-des-Bouquets community of Noailles.
“When I was a little boy, listening to 100, 200 artisans tapping on the metal — to me, that was like they were doing music,” said another internationally famous musician born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Jean Bélony Murat — known as BélO.
BélO, who's recorded several hit songslike "Tenza," said his late father was a vodou priest in Croix-des-Bouquets. The community is replete with small lakous, or temples, whose own sounds "helped make me the musician I am today."
BélO still lives part of the year near Croix-des-Bouquets. And like so many people there, he’s anguished, because a common sound now is not artists or rara or vodou devotion, but automatic rifle fire — mostly from the street gang known as 400 Mawozo, which effectively controls Croix-des-Bouquets today.
“It’s a shame that some people, they only know about Croix-des-Bouquets because of this gangster problem," BélO told me from Belgium, where he also lives.
"It's a problem Haiti has no choice but to solve, and we can."
Gangs now control much of Haiti as the government there has collapsed. Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside Port-au-Prince, has suffered the worst of it.
Gang experts aren't sure why it's so bad there. Poverty admittedly is as heavy in some neighborhoods as it is in the rest of Haiti — despite Croix-des-Bouquet's cachet as a cultural mecca, and despite its robust industry, including the Barbancourt rum distillery. Gun trafficking is also heavy there, especially guns from the U.S.
“We don’t have a gun manufacturer in Haiti," said BélO. "So how can we have all these guns in Croix-des-Bouquets?”
Last fall, 400 Mawozo murdered one of the community’s most revered metal sculptors, Anderson Belony. The gang is most responsible for Haiti’s terrifying and often deadly kidnapping wave: last fall it abducted 16 U.S. missionaries —they were later freed for an undisclosed ransom — and this month, it took 17 people from a tourist bus, including eight Turkish education aid workers. (They're still being held.) 400 Mawozo's recent war with a rival gang has led to the deaths of at least 20 innocent Haitians in recent weeks.
The gang's leader, Germine Joly (aka "Yonyon"), who'd recently been captured by Haitian police, was extradited to the U.S. this month and charged in the missionaries' kidnapping.
“When most Haitians want to leave the country, these Croix-des-Bouquets artisans, they stay — and they feed the economy and give inspiration to the new generation. We risk losing that.”BélO
Still, the gang seems to be operating as robustly as ever, and BélO said the life of one of Haiti’s most resilient communities is also at risk.
“When you know that in Haiti most people want to leave the country to Europe, the U.S., and these Croix-des-Bouquets artisans — they stay," BélO said.
"It’s one of the only villages in the Caribbean where you have that huge concentration of artists in less than one mile square. And they are feeding the economy, and they are giving inspiration to the new generation.”
TAKES A VILLAGE
Said Claire, one of many other Haitians from Croix-des-Bouquets who couldn't let go of the place:
“I felt like it represented what Haiti was. It was art, it was the village living — it took a village.”
Claire, who asked that her last name not be used for security reasons, came to Miami as a teenager and for many years worked for Miami-Dade County. In 2014, she took her family back to live in Croix-des-Bouquets.
“The memories I had drew me back to it," Claire said. "Croix-des-Bouquets on Fridays used to be the open market we had. People from everywhere in the country used to come sell in Croix-des-Bouquets. It was full of life. You’d see everything from everywhere.
"So it breaks my heart to see what it’s going through now.”
In February, the 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped her elderly father and held him for three weeks until the family could scrape up the ransom.
Still, Claire has hope of seeing her unique hometown flourish again. She now works for a Haitian micro-finance bank that helps nurture small businesses.
“To come back home," she said, "I’m expected to give back.”
Claire sees a key strength of Haitian character in the meticulous work of Croix-des-Bouquets’ metal art:
“It shows the patience that we have, and the perseverance.”
She knows Croix-des-Bouquets will need an enormous reserve of patience and perseverance to beat back its gang crisis — and to bring back the art and music it's famous for.