How a gang attack in rural Haiti turned into tragic bloodbath, leaving death, destruction

The heavily armed men burst through on 10 motorcycles under a dark sky, traversing dirt roads, passing mango and coconut trees to reach their destination, a small rural community of thatched roof houses inside Haiti’s upper rice-growing Artibonite region.

Their mission: to kidnap a local teacher in Lagon.

But instead of a kidnapping, the incident in the rural communities of Lagon and Grand Plaine quickly descended into a chaotic bloodbath after residents tried to fight back. Armed with nothing but their bare hands and rocks, they set up barricades, trying to block the motorcycles and thwart the abduction. When that didn’t work, they threw rocks, driving the bandits into a deadly rampage.

By the time the gang members finished, more than a dozen homes had been set ablaze and at least 11 people killed, said Hubert Cénéac, the mayor of the nearby commune of Gros-Morne.

Among the dead was Dieubon Desrameaux, the teacher and presumed target of the gang spree. Unable to take him on the back of their bikes, the gang members dismembered his body with a machete, according to a human rights group investigating the killings.

Cénéac said among the dead were a pregnant woman, pastor and a deacon.

The gang-orchestrated rampage that unfolded June 14 and 15 more than two hours north of Haiti’s capital illustrates not just the rampant violence engulfing the country, but its deadly expansion into once quiet communities. Haitians fleeing the kidnappings and violence in Port-au-Prince now find themselves left to fend for themselves in the absence of police patrols and outside help.

“People feel that they are not living,” said Cénéac. “For the first time in their history, they are living in a situation where they are prisoners in their own country, they are prisoners in their own communities, they cannot move, they can’t evacuate, they feel exposed.”

Since last year, United Nations officials have been sounding the alarm about the rise of violence in the country’s rural outskirts, while calling for the rapid deployment of a police force from Kenya to help Haiti battle the gangs. Even before the latest gang assaults forced the displacement of more than 100,000 people from Port-au-Prince and led to a months-long shutdown of the main international airport and seaport, the situation was described as “cataclysmic” by the global agency’s top human-rights expert.

Gang terror spreads beyond capital

The incident in Lagon shows that after the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, the Artibonite is the biggest target for gangs, said Samuel Madistin, a Port-au-Prince lawyer and human rights advocate. “There is a need for the Artibonite to figure in the plan to dismantle the gangs.”

Madistin said several communes in the region, considered the breadbasket of the country, are controlled by criminal armed groups. These include the communities of Petit Rivière de l’Artibonite, Lestère, Gros Morne and Tele-Nueve, where the killings unfolded in the dead of night.

“It is impossible for the farmers to work and harvest what is planted today in the Artibonite,” he added. “Schools do not function in many places, the rural economy is degraded,” he said. He added that he hopes the Kenyan police force, known as the Multinational Security Support mission, sends cops to the provinces.

In a recently published report on Haiti’s security crisis, the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti said farmers, especially those in the Artibonite Valley, are among the marginalized groups in the country who are vulnerable to attacks by armed groups.

In the case of the Artibonite’s “peyizan,” Creole for farmers, they are being forced to pay “taxes” to water their crops by gangs reportedly controlling irrigation systems and diverting irrigation canals, the group said.

“As a result, many peyizan have been forced to abandon their land,” the report noted.

Attacks highlights challenges new government faces

The timing of the latest criminal attack in the Artibonite underscores not just the rise of gang violence with the new alliances that have paralyzed much of the capital, but of the challenges facing the new transitional government and the armed international force.

The incident is raising fears among some experts that as the force prepares to deploy, those communities could become a casualty as bandits flock there for refuge.

The gang’s killing spree did not happen right away. After arriving in Lagon late Friday, the bandits went to the home of Desrameaux, the teacher, and spoke to his wife .

“They said they were taking him somewhere,” Cénéac said. “She wanted to go too, and told them her husband wasn’t leaving without her. They threatened the wife and then they left with him by force.”

As the gang was leaving, some of the town’s residents attempted to stop the abduction.

The residents “didn’t have anything in their hands,” said the mayor, adding that the heavily armed gang members then “opened fire” on the residents.

The killings spread from Lagon, where gang members returned after being unable to get through barricades, to Grand Plaine.

Audalbert Norvilus, who lives in Grand Plaine, 12 miles from the center of Gros Morne, said the gang members first passed through around 9:30 p.m. Friday to get to Lagon. They returned around 3 a.m. and killed four people in the community while setting fire to 18 homes belonging to a dozen families. Several people were injured, including a baby who is currently hospitalized.

During the time between the gang members’ passing and their return, Norvilus, a member of the Association des Originaires de Grand Plaine (Association of Natives of Grand Plaine), said he and other community leaders frantically tried to reach the local police commissioner.

“After writing him at 11 p.m. he responded to us at 9 a.m.,” he said.

Between 3 and 3:30 a.m., gang members were “setting fires and killing people” in Grand Plaine, Norvilus said. Police wouold have had time to set a trap for the gangs, but never showed up, he said.

“There was no police before, during or after” the attacks, he added.

Norvilus said since the rampage “there has been no presence of authorities.... The people who died, they were buried without the presence of authorities.”

A spokesperson for the Haiti National Police could not be reached for comment.

On Friday, Haiti welcomed a new head of its national police, Rameau Normil. Normil previously served 15 months as police chief before he was ousted in November 2020 over the lack of results in combating gangs. During his swearing-in, where he declined to shake hands the hands of his predecessor, Frantz Elbé, Normil promised, among other things, to put an end to the gang terror.

“Armed and criminal gangs will be neutralized and dismantled,” he said.

Normil will need to instill hope in a force increasingly being targeted by gangs, and will need to work with the seven-nation security force led by Kenya. The force’s. operational plans have been kept under wraps.

Haiti, which under Elbé and the previous government negotiated the rules of engagement between the countries taking part in the mission, hasn’t provided details on how the foreign cops and Haitian police officers will team up to battle the gangs.

Security experts openly question the impact of the police mission, given its relatively small size. The force will be made up of about 2,500 personnel. By comparison, the last U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti had as many as 6,700 troops.

The multinational mission, approved in October, has been hobbled by legal challenges, funding shortfalls and changing leadership in Haiti. Though Kenyan President William Ruto, who recently met with Haiti’s new leaders, has been insisting that his troops will go to HJaiti, there have been protests in Nairobi against the deployment.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council got a private briefing on the mission at the request of the U.S. and Ecuador, which wrote the resolution supporting the deployment.

Hope and skepticism

The gang members reportedly responsible for the carnage in the Artibonite Valley operate in the nearby community of Tibwadòm and are an offshoot of the Kokorat San Ras gang.

One of the region’s most violent criminal groups, the Kokorat San Ras gang was recently highlighted by a U.N. panel of experts in a report to help guide the Security Council’s decisions on sanctions. The gang, experts said, commits murders, kidnappings, rapes and attacks on farmers’ land and livestock. In its 62-page report, the experts provided photos of the gang’s torture of kidnapping victims that were so gruesome they didn’t allow the public to see them.

On Thursday, the Canadian government sanctioned one of the leaders of Kokorat San Ras, Ferdens Tilus, along with three other Haitian gang leaders for “gross and systematic human rights violations.” Tilus, 28, goes by the name Jeneral Meyer and Jeneral Meyè.

Cénéac, the Gros-Morne mayor, said the people of the region have placed a lot of faith in the arrival of the Kenya-led force. But like others, he wonders about whether they will have a presence outside the capital.

“The public feels that the [police] cannot respond to the actions of the bandits, and they are thirsty for help. They are waiting for... the arrival of the multinational security support force,” he said. “All of their hope is there, because they believe that it is the force that is going to give them a new lease on life.”

Norvilus, the resident and community leader, is more skeptical about the multinational mission.

“The international force is coming to do what?” he said. “When you chase [the gangs] in the capital, they are going to come and seek refuge in the provinces, and the problem will just change location.”