Crisis in Haiti worsens as 4,000 inmates escape jail

The Haitian government has announced a state of emergency and implemented a curfew following a surge in gang-driven violence over the weekend, resulting in the escape of thousands of prisoners during attacks on the nation’s two largest prisons.

Jimmy Cherizier

The immediate 72-hour state of emergency was declared as authorities aim to track down the assailants and recapture individuals labeled as killers, kidnappers, and other violent criminals who fled during the incidents. Finance Minister Patrick Boisvert, acting as prime minister in Ariel Henry’s absence, emphasized that the police have been instructed to employ all legal means to enforce the curfew and apprehend offenders.

The violence erupted as gangs, led by Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer known as Barbecue, sought to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry from power. Henry is currently abroad, seeking support for a United Nations-backed security force to address the escalating conflict with increasingly influential criminal groups.

Pierre Esperance from the National Network for Defense of Human Rights reported that only around 100 inmates out of an estimated 3,800 at the National Penitentiary remained after the Saturday night assault, with numerous prisoner casualties observed. Reporters visiting the prison on Sunday witnessed about a dozen bodies outside, an open gate, and a lack of security personnel.

The Haitian government stated that the police attempted to repel the gang attack on the National Penitentiary and another facility named Croix des Bouquets. The extent of the escape from the second prison, housing 1,450 inmates, remained uncertain.

Violence has intensified in Haiti in recent days following Jimmy Cherizier’s call for criminal groups to unite and overthrow Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Cherizier leads an alliance of gangs and faces sanctions from the United Nations and the United States.

Amid the chaos, a voluntary prison worker mentioned that 99 prisoners chose to stay in their cells at the main jail, fearing being caught in the crossfire. This group included several retired Colombian soldiers implicated in the assassination of former President Jovenel Moise.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s exact whereabouts remained unclear on Sunday. Henry, who assumed office in 2021 after Moise’s assassination, was initially expected to step down by early February but announced at a regional summit in Guyana that elections would only be held by August 2025 once the situation stabilized. The last elections in Haiti took place in 2016.