In a lawless country, he enforces his own.
Jimmy Cherizier is Haiti’s most feared criminal leader. But he is better known as Jimmy “Barbecue” (“barbecue” in English).
The nickname came, he said, because his family ran a roast beef business. But, according to witnesses to the Haitian violence, he has a habit of burning the houses and corpses of his victims.
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Cherizier started out as a police officer, but today he is the leader of the group called the G-9 and the Family, an alliance that brings together some of the most dangerous factions in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Along with other powerful criminal organizations – among them the so-called 400 Mawozo, credited with the recent kidnapping of a group of 17 American and Canadian missionaries in Haiti -, the G9 and Family contributed to the chaos that engulfed the Caribbean country, aggravated by the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse last July.
The president’s death appears to have enraged “Barbecue”, which now threatens to lead his organization into a “revolution” against the country’s “corrupt” political elite.
So far, neither authorities in his country nor the sanctions imposed against him by the United States have prevented Cherizier from carrying out his actions.
from police officer to criminal
A native of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Cherizier was already crossing the line that separates opposing sides of the law in his days as a police officer.
He is credited with participating in the killing of nine civilians that occurred during an operation believed to be official against criminal organizations in Grand Ravine, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, in 2017.
“The Haitian police are infiltrated by elements of gangs and groups that operate outside the law,” according to Jeremy McDermott of the organized crime center InSight Crime.
The first faction led by “Barbecue” was called Delmas 6, which controlled several areas of Port-au-Prince. According to international reports, Cherizier used the collusion of members of Moise’s government to expand his power and influence.
“The criminal factions are better equipped than the police and have the protection of the authorities,” Pierre Esperance, director of the Haitian NGO Network for the Defense of Human Rights, told BBC News Mundo (the BBC’s Spanish service).
A report by the International Human Rights Group at Harvard University Law School in the United States, published shortly before Moise’s assassination, concluded that during his tenure, “armed factions carried out, with state approval, violent attacks on civilians in Port-au-Prince’s poor neighborhoods” as an attempt to “crush the dissidents”.
Moise’s government denied any relationship with the criminal factions. BBC News Mundo sent a request for comment to Moise’s party, but received no response.
President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, in archival image — Photo: Retamal de Hector / AFP
Drug trafficking, the hijacking of fuel shipments – which are in short supply in the country – and other offenses have enabled Cherizier’s organization to reach its peak. Today it is mainly financed by extortion.
‘Crimes against humanity’
Cherizier is credited with taking part in three massacres in recent years that have left hundreds dead in some of the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince.
Cherizier denied his participation in these events, but Joey Bui, a lawyer and one of the authors of the Harvard report, told BBC News Mundo that he “was involved as a leader in the three attacks”.
According to Bui, “it is public knowledge that he perpetrated these massacres, but he never responded to the authorities.” Esperance concludes that “there is total impunity in Haiti for criminal factions and an effort has never been made to capture or bring to justice those responsible for the massacres”.
The US government imposed sanctions against Cherizier in 2018 for his role in the killing of civilians.
According to experts at Harvard, the massacres attributed to Cherizier meet the conditions to be considered crimes against humanity for investigation by the International Criminal Court.
The first of these took place in November 2018 in La Saline, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince where there was a lot of activity during protests against Moise’s government. The attack that took place in La Saline between November 13 and 14 of that year lasted 14 hours. Victims were removed from their homes, including children, and executed with pistol shots or knife thrusts. At least 71 people died and 11 women were raped.
A year later, the Bel-Air neighborhood, which had erected barricades and blocked streets as part of protests across the country, suffered a similar onslaught by armed groups linked to Cherizier. The balance was at least 24 dead.
Even with calls from residents, the police did not go to the scene, which made many people suspect of official collusion.
But the biggest of the massacres was the last, which took place between May and July 2020, when the criminal alliance G9 and the Family was already formed. In Cité Soleil, a very poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, at least 145 civilians died, several women were raped and many houses were burned. Local residents interpreted the attack as retaliation for their disapproval of the government.
According to Joey Bui, “Cherizier never paid for what he did.”
There are witnesses who claim that, even after issuing an arrest warrant against Cherizier, the security forces themselves delivered aid packages to him for distribution in the neighborhoods under their control.
What is Cherizier’s proposal now?
The assassination of President Moise, who extended the power of “Barbecue” during his term, changed the landscape.
Cherizier is now seeking visibility with a presence on social media, presenting calls against Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who took over the government after Moïse’s death with a commitment to hold elections as soon as possible.
The current governor’s detractors accuse Henry of being behind the plan to kill the president, with no evidence for it. Investigations to clarify the crime continue, while Cherizier leads the chorus of those who declared war on the prime minister.
Haiti must hold new elections to resolve the power vacuum and institutional crisis, both aggravated by the assassination of its president, but the insecurity and power of criminal factions, for now, make that goal impossible.
“It can be said that Haiti is currently a failed state, where the police are heavily infiltrated by the underworld,” according to Jeremy McDermott. In this context, “the risk is that criminal groups try to occupy political spaces”.
With its calls for “revolution”, its polemics against politicians and attempts to present itself as a benefactor of communities in neighborhoods controlled by its hosts, “Barbecue” shows signs of sympathy with this idea.
But the rival criminal groups of the G-9 and the Cherizier Family could have the same goal and transfer their usual clashes in the streets of a country where violent deaths occur almost daily to politics.
“Our concern is that, under current circumstances, it is virtually impossible for any honest politician to campaign in Port-au-Prince and most of the interior of the country,” concludes McDermott.