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How a Haiti Suburb Fuelled the Rise of a Formidable Street Gang

HAITI / 23 MAR 2022 BY SERGIO SAFFON EN

Rampant gang violence and crime has rocked the Haitian suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets, a criminal stronghold on the outskirts of capital city Port-au-Prince pivotal to the rise of feared street gang, the "400 Mawozo."

A recent wave of kidnappings, extortion, and civilian murders linked to the group – which grabbed headlines across the globe in late 2021 after kidnapping 17 North American missionaries – has driven hundreds of residents to flee Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of nearly half a million people just east of the capital and a key stronghold for the gang. It comes as thousands of Haitians – many from Croix-des-Bouquets – have fled to the US and elsewhere in recent months amid spiralling gang violence following the July 2021 assassination of Haiti president, Jovenel Moïse.

Croix-des-Bouquets has felt the brunt of the 400 Mawozo's violent rampage. The unrest forced a nearby industrial park to temporarily close its doors in February and also led a local agricultural group to declare the gang's violence had caused a food shortage affecting at least 5,000 families in the area.

The gang has also used Croix-des-Bouquets as a base for carrying out extortive kidnappings. An estimated 80 percent of abductions in the country were attributed to the gang between June and September 2021, according to the director of the Haiti-based Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (Centre d'analyse et de recherche en droits de l'homme – CARDH).

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2021: Barbecue, Gangs and Political Power in Haiti

The security crisis in Croix-des-Bouquets has continued despite 400 Mawozo leader Wilson Joseph, alias "Lanmò San Jou," recently announcing a ceasefire aimed at restarting economic activity in the suburb. In an audio message released late February, the gang leader said local merchants would not be attacked by the gang's recruits and that they could resume their daily activities.

The suburb's turmoil in part stems from the gang's swift ascent through Haiti's criminal underworld. Since the kidnapping of the North American missionaries last year, the 400 Mawozo has expanded its operations from Croix-des-Bouquets to the border with neighboring Dominican Republic, using the suburb as a key stronghold and economic cash cow.

Below, InSight Crime lists three reasons why Croix-des-Bouquets is critical to the gang's rapid rise:

1. The Highway Patrol

Croix-des-Bouquets lies on the main highway connecting Haiti’s capital with the Dominican Republic. The road – a bottleneck that everyone travelling between Port-au-Prince and the Dominican Republic must pass through – is pivotal to trade between the two countries and fuels the capital's economy. With its tight grip on territory, the 400 Mawozo has set up roadblocks along the highway, flaunting the gang's power, intimidating locals, and extorting commerce and stealing merchandise in transit. In doing so, the gang generates healthy revenues and consolidates its criminal presence in and around Croix-des-Bouquets.

The gang may also use the roadblocks to carry out kidnappings – a common tactic used by Haitian street gangs to charge extortionate ransom fees.

The group's strategies in Croix-des-Bouquets mirror those of separate criminal groups based in Martissant, a neighborhood in southwest Port-au-Prince connecting the capital to southern Haiti. Following a major earthquake in August last year, street gangs in Martissant mounted road blockades to shake down aid convoys destined for southern Haiti, highlighting the leverage enjoyed by these groups. The dynamic in both suburbs demonstrates how gangs have increased their criminal clout by controlling some of the most important entry and exit routes to the Haitian capital.

2. An Ideal Stronghold

The short distance between Croix-des-Bouquets and capital Port-au-Price makes the town an ideal stronghold for the 400 Mawozo, providing easy access to the capital and facilitating quick raids and getaways.

SEE ALSO: Truce or No Truce: Gangs in Haiti Control Aid Movement

From their base in Croix-des-Bouquets, the 400 Mawozo uses small groups of gang members on motorcycles to carry out express kidnappings and robberies in the north and southeast of the Port-au-Prince, according to Eric Calpas, a Haiti gang researcher who spoke to InSight Crime in September last year.

This tactic has helped the gang access areas such as Pétion-Ville, a wealthy neighborhood housing Haitian elites that previously saw little gang activity, generating new forms of income to help fuel the group's rise.

The location of Croix-des-Bouquets also aids the gang's kidnappings; the area is full of isolated hamlets that serve as hideouts when the gang is negotiating ransom fees, according to a Haitian security source cited by Reuters in late 2021.

3. Controlling Agriculture

Croix-des-Bouquets has important agricultural resources, from farmland to water reserves to markets. The 400 Mawozo and other gangs have reportedly taken over much of this critical infrastructure, seizing key irrigation systems and the road connections between farmland and the suburb's markets.

This type of control provides the gang with significant leverage over both large and scale-scale farmers, whose crops rely on access to farmland, water and transport links, potentially opening the door to lucrative extortion rackets or even to the distribution of agricultural produce in local markets.

Street gangs in Haiti reportedly control "all the major roads connecting Port-au-Prince to the countryside, and small farmers cannot access the market to sell the products," the director of international NGO ActionAid told the New Humanitarian in February.

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