As new Haiti leadership takes power, gangs demand a seat at the table

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti's new transition council is set to choose the country's next president on Tuesday, but leaders of the gangs who have exerted increasing control are clamoring for political influence and amnesties and threatening violence if their demands are not met.

Last week, after former Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned, the council was formally installed, seen as a key step in re-establishing security after years of gang violence that has recently skyrocketed.

The council is formed of seven voting members and two non-voting observers, including politicians, a businessman and a pastor. The regional Caribbean Community (CARICOM) body that led the drafting of the council's make-up forbade gang members or those who were subject to international sanctions from joining.

But some of Haiti's most powerful gang leaders are threatening more violence if they are not allowed political sway.

In an interview with CNN published on Monday, Vitel'homme Innocent, who heads the Kraze Barye gang and is accused of orchestrating the 2021 kidnapping of U.S. missionaries, called for the council to listen to the gangs and find a resolution to the crisis "as soon as possible."

Kraze Barye forms part of a loose coalition of gangs known as Viv Ansanm, or "Live Together," who now control most of capital Port-au-Prince.

The coalition is demanding the future government grant them an amnesty for their crimes and create a plan for young gang members who may have been forced into joining, either under threat of violence or due to a lack of economic alternatives, Innocent told CNN.

Viv Ansanm's leader, a former police officer named Jimmy Cherizier who is known as "Barbeque," warned of consequences if the gangs were ignored, in a message shared to social media over the weekend.

"Viv Ansanm is ready to talk. It's either we are all at the table, or the table gets destroyed with all of us," he said.

According to U.N. estimates, more than one person was killed in Haiti gang violence every hour in the first three months of this year. There are also widespread reports of gangs using mass sexual violence, ransom kidnappings and torture to extort the population.

The gangs have expressed frustration with Haiti's ruling elite and had called for the resignation of Henry, who had been prime minister since 2021.

Henry became stranded outside the country after leaving to seek international support for a U.N.-backed security mission aimed at wresting back control from the gangs. He said in March he would step down once the council was in place.

(Reporting by Harold Isaac in Port-au-Prince and Kylie Madry in Mexico City; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)