As the high-profile assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse pushed Haiti further towards rock bottom after decades of failed foreign intervention, a controversial former police officer-turned-gang leader quickly mobilized to try and fill the power vacuum left behind.
Jimmy Chérizier, alias "Barbecue," is a complicated individual. For some, he's a Robin-Hood figure giving voice and support to those most marginalized and neglected by the national government. For others, he's a former police officer implicated in one of the worst massacres to hit the country, who has since grown into the nation's foremost gang leader.
What is clear is that Chérizier has emerged as a key broker in the power struggle that's followed Moïse's murder in early July, when a team of gunmen broke into the then-president's home, shooting and killing him and severely wounding then-First Lady Martine Moïse.
SEE ALSO: Is Organized Crime Tied to Haiti President’s Assassination?
Little clarity has come from the ensuing investigation into the intellectual authors and financiers of the assassination. But weeks after the killing sent shockwaves through the nation, Chérizier took advantage and led a procession of followers through the streets of the Lower Delmas district of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to pay tribute to Moïse.
And while the outward show of support portrayed a certain level of power and control, Chérizier still has a fight on his hands.
*A criminal winner is an organization or a person that has greatly advanced their criminal goals in spite of tremendous odds or against prognostications; changed the underworld via some form of ingenuity, alliance or other means; established unprecedented power or hegemony; or otherwise illustrated tremendous criminal and/or corrupt prowess.
Barbecue’s Struggle to Consolidate his Criminal Control
The announcement first spread across social media networks in early June 2020. Dressed in a powder blue suit and striped tie, Chérizier broadcast that a coalition of nine gang leaders operating in the capital had joined forces to form what he called the "G9 an Fanmi" (G9 and Family), an alliance of close to a dozen armed gangs.
In theory, the alliance consolidated gang power around Port-au-Prince, aided by political connections to Moïse's administration. In May 2020, just before the alliance was finalized, government officials allegedly paid one gang leader in an opposition stronghold to switch sides and join Chérizier's federation.
That month, the allied gangs would go on to carry out a series of targeted attacks that left scores of people dead in a bid to seize more territorial control. The police failed to intervene, according to reports from local human rights groups, giving rise to the belief that the G9 also enjoyed ties to the highest levels of the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d'Haiti – PNH).
Despite the seemingly tacit government support the G9 enjoyed, in the months that followed, it struggled to secure control, quell ongoing feuds and break apart prior allegiances.
"It was never the strongest alliance," said Eric Calpas, a gang researcher with extensive experience in Haiti. "The G9 is composed of many groups, which were enemies before, so they came into the G9 convinced that joining would allow them to have access to unlimited funds from the government."
The alliance's vulnerability was apparent. Just a month after it formed, an eight-month-old baby was killed during clashes between the G9 and a rival gang leader in the Cité Soleil district in the capital. Later that year, in the same district, Gabriel Jean Pierre, alias "Ti Gabriel," created a different gang alliance known as the Gpèp, which sided with the political opposition and became a fierce enemy of Chérizier and the G9, as the alliance tried to fight for control of Cité Soleil.
But the Gpèp isn't the only competing criminal group to rival the G9. The 400 Mawozo has quickly emerged as one of Haiti's fastest-growing gangs, wielding control in Croix-des-Bouquets, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, and along the border with the Dominican Republic. The gang has become known for its use of targeted kidnappings, including that of several clergy members and 17 citizens of the United States and Canada in 2021.
As the G9 struggled to contain incursions from outside, internal divisions also ate away at the fragile alliance. To be sure, in mid-2021, the Grand Ravine gang launched an attack on the neighborhood of Martissant against its former allies in the Ti Bwa gang, the leaders of which were both former G9 allies.
Around the same time, Chérizier's official ties seemed to be breaking down. In another video message, he called for a revolution against both the opposition and President Moïse's Tèt Kale Party (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale - PHTK).
"We see that the country has been held hostage by a small group for over 40 years. This group distributed weapons in the popular districts, incites us to fight … for the benefit of their interests," he charged.
Chérizier went on to call on "the poor, those considered to be bandits, the oppressed," to join the G9 and fight back because this "system of exploitation and inequalities has reached its limits."
Just two weeks after this proclamation, Moïse would be murdered in his bedroom, his body riddled with bullets and one eyeball gouged out. There's no evidence to suggest Chérizier or the G9 had anything to do with the killing - it was a far too sophisticated operation. Moïse had made his fair share of enemies since winning the 2016 election and later clinging to power.
In Moïse's absence, however, the G9 - and Chérizier in particular - entered a new era.
A New Order
The assassination of Moïse marked a turning point for Chérizier and his criminal career. Despite losing who at one point was his most important political ally, he exploited the power void to his advantage by breaking the implicit pact between political elites and the country's gangs and challenging the top-down structure.
"If Moïse was still in power today, the G9 would have been way stronger than what they are today," Calpas, the gang expert, told InSight Crime. "[Moïse] was a key element in building up the G9 as an important armed actor in the political arena."
But even in Moïse's absence, Chérizier continued his efforts to showcase the power he still enjoyed. During a mid-October ceremony to honor slain revolutionary leader Jean Jacques Dessalines, it was Chérizier, not acting-Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who laid a wreath at Pont-Rouge to mark the anniversary of his death.
Flanked by supporters wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with Moïse's face that read "Justice for Jovenel," Chérizier also presented a framed portrait of the fallen president. Henry had tried to join the commemoration, but armed gang members allied with Chérizier and the G9 opened fire on his security team and drove him away from the event.
Chérizier's G9 Alliance and other armed gangs in Port-au-Prince also flexed their muscle in other ways. Kidnappings skyrocketed, aid convoys providing supplies to those devastated by an August earthquake were shaken down, and crucial deliveries of fuel and water to hospitals were halted for weeks.
"The areas under the control of the G9 are blocked for one reason only: We demand the resignation of Ariel Henry," Chérizier said in an October radio interview. "If [Henry] resigns at 8 a.m., at 8.05 a.m., we will unblock the road, and all the trucks will be able to go through to get fuel."
This ability to sow terror and choke off essential supplies appeared to be part of a broader plan by Chérizier to influence the country's political makeup. He also called on the United Nations and US government to break ties with the current administration - something many other Haitians and local civil society organizations have also urged. A temporary truce between gangs was later called to open up the flow of fuel, although Henry remains as prime minister for now.
Whereas in the past, gangs amassed increased power with the political connections they managed to secure, Chérizier showed that he could remain just as powerful without them - or by relying on them less - while continuing to impact the country's political, economic and security dynamics.
Although, behind the scenes of Chérizier's public power grab, Haiti's criminal landscape was also beginning to reorganize. Gang members allied with the G9 fought, sought out new alliances and pursued enemies in rival gangs like the Gpèp.
In downtown Port-au-Prince, some G9 Alliance members competed among themselves to control the capital's many open-air markets, which move a lot of goods and money, and are often targets of gangs for extortion proceeds as a result.
Despite the conflicts between gangs, they all share a common interest in establishing relations with whatever administration is in power. This contact helps provide them with access to money, impunity, weapons and the capacity to move around Port-au-Prince without being arrested by the police.
Barbecue as Electoral Kingmaker?
Long before Moïse assumed the presidency, politicians in Haiti had made a point of incorporating the country's armed gangs into their strategy for bolstering electoral support and ultimately securing victory in both legislative and presidential elections. Moïse continued that arrangement and, with the creation of the G9, advanced it to its current apex.
To be sure, there's little doubt that Chérizier is Haiti's most powerful gang leader at the present moment. As such, it's likely he'll play a role in influencing the next elections, as his G9 alliance affords him control of an extensive swath of territory that holds the largest number of polling stations in the country.
"[The] gangs are on the verge of [becoming] a proto-state. Controlling an average of 60 percent of the territory and armed with modern weapons and a lot of money, the gangs are getting stronger and trying to rally the vulnerable population to their 'cause,'" according to an October report from the Haitian Human Rights Analysis and Research Center (Centre d'Analyse et de Recherche en Droits de l'Homme - CARDH).
Aspiring candidates will almost certainly need to secure Chérizier and the G9's support to get elected, giving his side an unprecedented level of power. For the 2022 election, Calpas said the gangs' role will depend on two things: whether or not the police are able to adequately respond to the risk they pose, and if the government wants to move forward with the election in the current context of the gangs' vast territorial control.
"All of the armed groups position themselves in terms of control of territory," said Calpas. "The G9 and Gpèp have the most territorial control, and if they maintain that configuration, [Chérizier] will have influence on the next election."
Chérizier built himself up as a powerful criminal figure with considerable influence in large part due to his political connections and expanded that further after Moïse's killing. As things stand now, no matter who finds themself in power in the future, Chérizier has almost guaranteed himself a seat at the negotiating table.
This ability to make himself indispensable in the face of chaos and adversity makes him InSight Crime's Criminal Winner 2021.
*A criminal winner is an organization or a person that has greatly advanced their criminal goals in spite of tremendous odds or against prognostications; changed the underworld via some form of ingenuity, alliance or other means; established unprecedented power or hegemony; or otherwise illustrated tremendous criminal and/or corrupt prowess. --