April 20, 2024

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Haiti’s bus drivers, passengers fall prey to criminality

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Peterson Prevot was stuck in an hours-long traffic jam along Route National No. 2 in Haiti’s capital when a man approached his minibus with several passengers aboard and demanded 60 cents.

Tired and impatient, he waved the man away, saying he had nothing to give him.

That’s when the 39-year-old driver found himself face-to-face with a 9mm handgun.

Hitting the door of the 14-seat minibus, the bandit pulled out a gun and demanded Prevot’s money pouch and cellphone. He handed over about $300, including $120 he’d been saving up for repairs. But the passenger in the front seat refused to surrender anything, saying he had no money.

“He deserves a bullet,” the gunman said before moving on to another vehicle.

Already driven to despair in Haiti by brutal poverty and a paralyzing political crisis, bus drivers and commuters are now having to grapple with surging violence on the country’s public transportation. Robberies and kidnappings have become a daily reality as buses get intercepted by armed gangs controlling access to large swaths of the country.

The crime wave is so severe on Haiti’s already dangerous, pothole-riddled roads that many are now avoiding traveling within the country, too fearful of boarding a bus to go anywhere.

“We are really vulnerable in the streets,” said Prevot. “We have no help. We have no one thinking about us.”

Petrus Lerice, 45, is a bus driver and spokesperson for the Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti. He said the country’s widening insecurity is having a negative effect on the industry, and putting bus drivers and passengers in harm’s way. Jean Marc Hervé Abélard Special to the Miami Herald

Petrus Lerice, a driver and spokesman for the Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti, a transportation union, said he has documented at least 21 attacks against drivers since the start of the year. Those include at least 10 robberies and 11 kidnappings, one of which led to the death of a driver, Papouche Saint-Fleur.

Saint-Fleur was driving back from a funeral in his minibus when he was stopped by armed men and taken hostage. His wife sold their house and allowed his captors to hold onto the van as payment in an effort to secure his freedom. After two weeks in captivity, he was dropped out of the vehicle onto a street. He died on the back of a motorcycle while being rushed to a nearby hospital.

The traffic jam robberies on Jan. 28 along Route National No. 2, one of Haiti’s busiest and most unpredictable arteries, had all the hallmarks of what bus drivers have experienced in recent months. Bandits went from one bus to another, demanding they hand over cash, cellphones and other valuables. In one case, they took a bus key as ransom. Two cops trying to clear up the jam seemed oblivious to the gunmen.

“When we aren’t killed, they kidnap us. When they don’t kidnap us, they pull a gun on us. They take what we have,” said Lerice, 45. “There are no guarantees. Every day, we are being victimized.”

Worsening violence as gangs take control

Attacks against bus drivers have been happening for years. But the recent, worrying rise coincides with an alarming uptick in kidnappings, the proliferation in illegal weapons on Haiti’s streets, and the spread of armed gangs whose grip on the country is tightening.

A simultaneous constitutional crisis, meanwhile, has plunged Haiti deeper into political chaos. Opposition parties and civil society groups say they no longer recognize Haitian President Jovenel Moïse as president and argue that his term in office ended Feb. 7 under the constitution.

They accuse the government of supporting gangs in order to remain in power, and say Moïse, who has been ruling by decree for over a year, is trying to upend democracy and install a new dictatorship in Haiti with a slew of unconstitutional moves and a controversial plan to introduce a new constitution in a June referendum.

Moïse has refused to step down, contending his term ends next year. He’s accused oligarchs of financing the protests against him and says opponents are financing the gangs.

People run past a burning barricade during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Joseph Odelyn AP

The ongoing turmoil has added to the hardships of drivers who, already struggling with chronic fuel shortages, a rising cost of living and low ridership, say they feel abandoned as they increasingly come under attack.

“We suffer from a lot of attacks,” Prevot said. “You can’t stay home and do nothing, but there is no satisfaction in the work because we are not comfortable.”

Drivers don’t have much choice in Haiti. Whether the streets are calm or chaotic, to ensure they earn a day’s wages, they must go out. Fearing for their safety, many are no longer trying to beat the rush hour, preferring to start after sunlight. Ridership has plummeted, with the transportation union estimating there are 80% fewer passengers.

That is more than apparent at the usually crowded Portail Léogane at the southern edge of Port-au-Prince, where the minibuses known as padapaps depart for the south and southwest regions of the country. These days there is less activity at the bustling bus stations, where drivers line up on a trash strewn and muddy street waiting for passengers.

Portail Léogane is located near several Port-au-Prince slums that have become gang strongholds, including Village de Dieu, Base Pilate, Grand Ravine and T-Bwa. Not only have some become lairs where kidnapping victims are often taken, but they are controlled by leaders in a newly created gang federation with powerfully connected allies.

“There is no security,” said Destinos Boursiquot, 50, as he prepared to take a busload of passengers to Jacmel, a port city along Haiti’s southeastern coast. “Anyone can fall victim, anyone; whether you’re a driver or a pedestrian.”

‘No one can walk in this country’

News about drivers being attacked usually travels via word of mouth and on social media, with the occasional SOS over radio about an entire bus being commandeered. No region in the country has been spared. And those who survive the ordeal are usually reluctant to speak out, fearful of retribution or still experiencing trauma.

“It’s a bad sensation,” said Boursiquot, who said he’d been kidnapped once but declined to offer details.

Destinos Boursiquot, 50, a bus driver in Haiti, laments the insecurity he and other drivers face. Jean Marc Hervé Abélard Special to the Miami Herald

The reports collected by union leaders over the last two years read like a crime blotter.

There was the public transport unionist shot dead in Martissant 1, a poor neighborhood known as a crime and gang hot spot, not far from a police station, as he was returning home. The driver found shot dead at the wheel of his vehicle after leaving his home at 4 a.m. to go work. A bus with 43 passengers was hijacked in the Artibonite, Haiti’s rice-growing region, and everyone aboard robbed. Another bus driver was killed in the city of Port-de-Paix, in the far northwest.

Not even a popular road like Route National No. 1, which connects the capital to the northern region, has been spared. Drivers began avoiding the road after about eight vehicles driving through a rural Artibonite town were stopped by bandits. Many instead now cut through the Central Plateau along Route National No. 3.

But even there, the ride offers no guarantees.

In January, two buses were hijacked by armed bandits at Morne-à-Cabrit, about 12 miles from the Port-au-Prince airport on the road to the city of Hinche. The passengers were taken hostage and released after being stripped of their belongings. The gang also kept the buses. Last month, a luxury bus ferrying passengers to the Dominican Republic from Port-au-Prince along the road leading to Malpasse near the border was riddled with bullets, leaving several passengers with injuries.

The attacks were all blamed on a notorious gang known as 400 Mawozo, which has been linked to several rapes, extortion rackets and assassinations. The gang is headed by leader Wilson “Lanmò Sanjou” Joseph, whose alias in Creole loosely translates to “death doesn’t know which day it’s coming.” Wilson and two of his lieutenants are currently wanted by Haiti National Police.

People sit in a Tap-tap while a passenger wears a mask to protect herself from the spread of the new coronavirus in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Fear of insecurity has ridership on public buses down, transport unions say. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

Last August, the gang sprayed a minibus with bullets as it traveled through the farming community of Ganthier, according to witnesses. The driver and two passengers, including 4-month-old Godson Joseph, were hit. The infant died on the way to the hospital as his 19-year-old mother cradled him. Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers later announced the arrests of 11 gang members in connection with the incident.

“There is no one who can walk in this country. No one has any assurances that once you go outside of your house, you will be able to return,” said Bénissoit Duclos, general coordinator of the Unified Movement of Haitian Transporters, a union behind several recent nationwide transportation strikes. “Whenever someone crosses one neighborhood into another, family members are calling to ask you, ‘Did you arrive?’ Because it’s a generalized insecurity throughout.”

‘Every time you see a vehicle you jump’

Lately, drivers and regular Haitians have started to fight back. On several occasions, communities and drivers have launched spontaneous strikes and protests by barricading roads with burning tires, debris and vehicles to demand the release of kidnapped drivers. In some cases, they’ve managed to get them freed almost immediately.

Haitians are angry not just at the gangs, but authorities who they say are turning a blind eye. Earlier this year, more than 50 trade unions, including those representing bus drivers, staged a two-day national strike.

On both days, streets that would normally be teeming with traffic and children in school uniforms were empty except for motorcycles, the occasional private vehicle and police cars patrolling the roads. No kidnappings were reported. But as soon as it ended, social media was abuzz with reports of someone being grabbed.

“We have to force the authorities to take their responsibility and put the breaks on this insecurity,” Duclos, the labor activist, said. “It cannot be possible that someone is paying taxes in a country and nothing is being done.”

Protesters throw wheels onto a burning barricade during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Joseph Odelyn AP

Michelle Obas, a Tabarre resident, recently joined thousands to protest rising crime and demand that Moïse step down.

“Practically every Haitian is living in a psychosis of fear,” Obas said as she marched through Port-au-Prince’s Bourdon neighborhood. “Every time you see a vehicle, you jump. Even your child. You are taking them to school and they are afraid. … The country’s traumatizing and we are in a situation that is chaotic with no idea when we will get out of it.”

The crime wave is having practical implications as well. The Dominican National Transport Federation, an association of truck drivers from the neighboring Dominican Republic, recently announced that its truckers would not be hauling freight like cement across its northern border until the Haitian government can guarantee their safety.

“We are not going to risk our lives,” Giovanny Escoto, general secretary of the union in Dajabón, told local reporters.

‘I thought I was going to die’

On the day of the January traffic jam robberies in Port-au-Prince, Haitian police had launched an operation in the lower Delmas neighborhood of the capital, targeting a swath of gang territory controlled by ex-cop and notorious gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, also known as “Barbecue.”

Chérizier heads a gang federation known as the G-9 and Family and Allies. He and two other former high-ranking officials of Moise’s government were sanctioned by the U.S. government in December for their involvement in a 2018 Haiti massacre that left scores dead, homes torched and families in the low-income Port-au-Prince neighborhood of La Saline displaced.

Despite being a wanted man, Chérizier freely conducts press conferences and openly admitted recently to a gang attack on the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel Air. He also leads protests alongside other gang leaders through the streets of the capital without incident or police firing tear gas.

The Haitian press reported that cops and gang members exchanged fire during the police operation, leading to the traffic jam along Route National No. 2. People in the area said gang members put up barricades between Martissant and Fontanmara, two gang strongholds, to prevent police from advancing.

Police officers prevent a protester from fueling a burning barricade during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Joseph Odelyn AP

Wilson Paul, a 15-year veteran bus driver, had received word of the traffic jam, and in order to avoid it, spent most of the day parked at the bus station at Portail Léogane. After hearing that vehicles were moving again, he headed out to Jacmel, where he lives. But soon after, Paul was confronted by seven heavily armed men at Martissant 19.

Spotting his white minibus, the men signaled at Paul to stop. When he tried to continue, one of the men fired his gun, lodging a bullet in one of the doors. He stopped his van. One of the men demanded his key.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Paul, recalling his fear as he stared into the barrel of a gun.

Holding the key as ransom, one of the gang members demanded Paul pay 1,000 gourdes, or the equivalent of $13.80, if he wanted the key and his vehicle back. Paul’s usual take home pay is 1,500 gourdes, or the equivalent of $20 a day, after fuel and payment for the bus, which he leases.

“This country is really a country that is deplorable,” he said. “I am a poor man who’s out trying to make a living. I have three children to take care of and these are the conditions under which you’re living. It’s very sad. You’re struggling to make two cents only to be confronted by a group of armed individuals trying to provoke you — and they are arrogant, at that.

“Frankly if I had another place to go live, I would leave,” Paul added.

Unable to sleep all night, Paul stayed home that Friday. He had planned to do the same Saturday. But with three children between the ages of 2 and 18, no money in his pocket and no food in his house, Paul said he had no other choice but to risk taking to the streets again.

“I was afraid,” he said. “But it’s the only profession I have so I had no choice but to go.”

Johnny FilsAimé contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.

Profile Image of Jacqueline Charles

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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