BACK in 2004, Haiti was suddenly making global headlines. As a reporter I found myself caught up in the coup d’état gripping the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, that sought to overthrow then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

For days, clashes between opponents of Aristide and the army of supporters and enforcers, known as the Chimères, or Ghosts, he had recruited from the city’s sprawling slums, had left the city’s streets littered with corpses.

I will never forget the scene at the city’s main morgue. With electricity cut and no refrigeration, such was the ­overpowering nauseating stench that a photographer colleague and I had to wear neck scarves doused in strong cheap perfume over our noses and mouths as we witnessed the horrors that lay within the morgue’s crammed rooms.

Inside, we came across the often ­mutilated bodies of countless victims of street violence and murder at the hands of rival political gangs unceremoniously dumped in piles – men, women, children; young and old.

Some of the victims had been ­“necklaced” – the gruesome practice of ­tying up a prisoner before dropping a tyre doused in petrol around their shoulders and setting them alight.

The National: TOPSHOT - A protester burns tires during a demonstration calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince on February 7, 2024. (Photo by Richard PIERRIN / AFP) (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images).

For days afterwards, we seemed unable to rid ourselves of that terrible stench, even though every stitch of our ­clothing had long since been taken away and burned.

This was my first-ever visit to Haiti. It was my first glimpse too into what last year, UN Secretary-General António ­Guterres, called the “living nightmare” in which ordinary Haitians have so often been trapped.

As I write this, Haiti, once again, is trapped in that nightmare and again ­making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, ever since gaining ­independence from France way back in 1804, Haiti has rarely escaped from a state of crisis ­either man-made or natural.

Riots, coups, ­despots, hurricanes and earthquakes, the poorest country in the Western ­hemisphere has seen them all, but most agree that the current crisis is perhaps the worst-ever in living memory.

Right now, this once beautiful ­Caribbean nation of 12 million people is without a government. In effect, all ­institutions in the country have collapsed. Armed criminal gangs are now in control of the international airport, sea ports, roads and much of Haiti’s infrastructure and ­control access to food and ­healthcare while making humanitarian support near impossible.

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Any presence of what was a police force or army in the country is now ­virtually non-existent. In fact, many ­former ­policemen now run with the gangs or are in fact their leaders in what one observer recently referred to as a “mini-mafia state”.

Among these former policemen turned rogue is one of the most prominent gang leaders, 47-year-old Jimmy Chérizier whose nickname “Barbecue” is said to derive from a penchant for “necklacing” or burning alive perceived enemies.

It’s a claim Chérizier denies, insisting instead that his moniker comes simply from the fact that his mother ran a fried chicken stall in the impoverished slum where he grew up.

Today he runs an alliance of gangs known as the G9 which along with their rival GPep, led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre, also known as Ti Gabriel, are the two ­major gang coalitions.

Another former policeman turned rogue but this time with presidential ­ambitions is Guy Philippe, who helped lead that coup against Aristide back in 2004 but is now back in Haiti fresh from a ­six-year stretch in a US prison after pleading guilty to a drug-related, ­money-laundering charge.

A third prominent gang leader comes in the shape of a 26-year-old rap-singing gangster named Johnson André, aka Izo, who – when not being awarded a prize by ­YouTube for getting 100,000 ­followers – runs the 5 Segonn gang, which has ­exploited Haiti’s meltdown to make ­money through drug trafficking.

The National: Haiti's former president Jean Bertrand Aristide waves the crowdHaiti's former president Jean Bertrand Aristide waves the crowd

Some shipments handled by Izo’s gang reportedly are said to arrive directly from cartels in South America to the “Village of God” neighbourhood – one of the ­poorest slums in Haiti – that he controls.

But these main gang leaders and ­powerbrokers are only the tip of the ­criminal class that now calls the shots in Haiti. In all, there are estimated to be about 200 armed gangs operating in the ­country about half of which have a presence in Port-au-Prince.

Their numbers have recently been ­swollen after the gangs attacked two jails releasing more than 4000 prisoners onto the streets of the capital.

The upshot is that the country now faces a situation where the gangs ­unfortunately could well be the arbiters of Haiti’s ­immediate future unless international ­intervention can find a way to circumvent and neutralise them.

As ever, when Haiti enters the abyss, questions arise as to how it was able to get to this point and what exactly enabled its descent into anarchy and its place as a failed state.

Some of the answers to these questions lie in Haiti’s distant past, others are more recent.

A nation born out of slavery, Haitians fought for their independence from the French, succeeding in 1804 only to find themselves in more recent times faced with home-grown despots who would see their personal freedom curtailed.

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As in the history of any nation, there are good guys and bad. Among the heroes, perhaps the most famous was former slave and stable boy Toussaint Louverture, the man dubbed the “Black Jacobin”, who in the late 1700s led the revolt that paved the way for Haiti’s independence from French colonial rule.

But with that independence, Haiti was subsequently treated as a “pariah ­nation”, says Robert Fatton, ­professor of ­government and foreign affairs at the ­University of Virginia and author of books including The Guise of ­Exceptionalism: Unmasking The National Narratives Of Haiti And The United States.

“Haiti was treated as a pariah ­nation because obviously, at the time, the great powers were all essentially white ­supremacy states, and Haiti was the first black independent nation. So there was that burden, a heavy burden,” says ­Fatton, explaining in a recent interview with the Financial Times (FT) how Haiti was forced to pay an indemnity to the French government that was calculated at the time to be about $23 billion.

“The leaders of Haiti wanted the ­recognition of France because they ­wanted to make sure that their property was in fact protected if France ­recognised Haiti. And ultimately that was the ­bargain, you know, a terrible bargain,” Fatton says.

It meant that what effectively ­happened was a “mutually opportunistic ­convergence of interest between Haitian leaders and if you wish to call them that way, imperial nations,” he added.

The National: Haiti is still feeling the political and economic aftershocks of the 2010 earthquakeHaiti is still feeling the political and economic aftershocks of the 2010 earthquake

But just as the country had its heroes in the shape of fighter for independence L’Ouverture, so it went on to have more than its fair share of villains or “big men” of which sadly there has never been a shortage.

For the best part of three decades from the 1950s to the 70s, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and his son and heir Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” haunted the nation with their brutal rule administered by the paramilitary and secret police force known, as the Tonton Macoute.

In many ways, ever since then, the ­Tonton Macoute have lived on, with some of their veterans forming the core of ­successor groups that can be traced all the way to today’s gangs and their leaders currently terrorising Haiti.

Some experts, however, link today’s gang activity to a more recent chapter from Haiti’s past. They argue that the rise of lawless gangs and Haiti’s descent into chaos date back to 1995, when Haiti’s former president Aristide was restored to power with the help of US troops after having been run out of the country.

After returning to Haiti, Aristide ­disbanded the army and recruited his own enforcers in the shape of the ­criminal thugs that inhabited the sprawling slums of Port-au-Prince. These became known as the Chimères – the Ghosts.

When Aristide ultimately ran afoul of Haiti’s oligarchs in 2004, a coup was launched against him and during my time in the country then, I would witness the clashes between opponents to ­Aristide and his Chimères gangs who were ­unleashed on the streets in an ­unsuccessful attempt to keep him in power.

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Recruiting members for such gangs has never been difficult in a country blighted by poverty.

For any visitor to Haiti, it often beggars belief that the depth and scale of such poverty exists barely two hours flying time from glittering Miami.

In one of Port-au-Prince’s many ­giant slums, Saint-Martin, I recall visiting an area where some 60,000 people were crammed into one square kilometre, ­living one on top of another in an ­indescribably filthy warren of alleyways and concrete houses that resembles little more than a giant open-air rubbish tip.

While there I was told how “shift ­sleeping’” was common in this ­community. With many single ­cupboard-sized rooms too small to house an entire family at any one time, people have been known to bed down on a rota basis, four hours inside and four hours in the alleyways outside.

One such family that rented a room the width of an arm span and meant only for storage space, “shift slept” mother, ­father and three children.

In such a deprived environment many criminal gangs and their recruits are born and thrive. For decades in turn, they have been closely associated with politicians, political parties, businessmen or other ­so-called “elites” in the country.

Jimmy Chérizier’s G9 for example, has been linked to the Parti Haitien Tèt Kale (PHTK), the political party of former president Jovenel Moïse, whose ­assassination in July 2021 precipitated Haiti’s current meltdown.

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It was Moïse who chose Ariel ­Henry for the prime minister post shortly ­before he was killed and Henry assumed power with US support. It was a deeply ­unpopular appointment in Haiti not least among the gangs who instantly called for Henry’s resignation.

It was Henry too who recently appealed to the international community to send a “specialised armed force” to break the gangs’ control, and at the start of March this year, he finally got Kenya to sign an agreement to send 1000 specially trained officers to the island.

But having failed to hold an election, the mandates for all officials in Haiti have since expired, and on March 12, Henry agreed to step down, unable to get back into the country after a visit overseas and gangs having taken control of the airport.

While the gangs still battle each other­, a recent degree of unity has given them a newfound political power and as ­Professor Robert Fatton explains, the gangs have become powers unto ­themselves.

“In other words, the gangs are ­becoming the kind of a mini-mafia state. They ­extract money. They tax people when they travel to the country. They impose ransoms on all kinds of activities. They kidnap. And they are linked also to money laundering,” he says

“They are linked to the illegal ­trafficking of small weapons. And clearly, the drug cartels have connections with the gangs, and this is where they get most of their money now,” Fatton told the FT.

Many experts agree that the gangs increasingly believe that the only way to retain not only their relevance but their profitable existence is if they are able to at least manage some important degree of political power. Gang violence, ­observers say, cannot be divorced from Haiti’s ­overall political and economic situation.

This then raises the question of to what extent now – if any – the gangs and their leaders will be included in any official reshaping of Haiti’s political landscape as Haitian leaders and the international community seek to chart a new path by creating a proposed transitional council.

Under such an agreement, the council would appoint an interim prime ­minister and, together with the interim leader, ­appoint an inclusive council of ­ministers, including a national security council and a commission that would oversee new elections.

But a measure of the challenges such a council faces became obvious last ­Thursday when powerful gang leader Chérizier threatened those political ­leaders who are set to take part in the planned transitional council.

“Don’t you have any shame?” ­Chérizier asked, directing his remarks at ­politicians who he said were looking to join the ­council. “You have taken the country where it is today. You have no idea what will happen.

“I’ll know if your kids are in Haiti, if your wives are in Haiti ... if your ­husbands are in Haiti,” he said in an ­apparent threat to their families. “If you’re ­going to run the country, all your family ought to be there,” Chérizier warned in a ­seven-minute audio message that was shared widely on the WhatsApp platform.

Few regard such threats from ­Chérizier and other gang leaders as idle.

And so, for now, as so often in the past, ­ordinary ­Haitians are once again “trapped in a living nightmare”, while the “big men” continue to operate with a wickedness worthy of the worst demons from Haitian voodoo mythology.