PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Jovenel Moïse is president of Haiti, but ask the people of the terrified shantytowns who's in charge in this impoverished Caribbean capital, and they'll point to a man called Barbecue.
A former police officer who portrays himself as the savior of the streets, Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier has come to symbolize the accelerating erosion of Haiti's already challenged rule of law during the coronavirus pandemic. Accused of orchestrating massacres that left dozens of men, women and children dead, he has succeeded in accomplishing the once unthinkable: Uniting the warring gangs of Port-au-Prince into a powerful new confederation aimed at what he calls "revolution."
Cherizier announced the alliance on YouTube in June in a powder-blue three-piece suit. His newly formed "G9 Family and Allies" paraded triumphantly through the streets of the capital last month, led by gang leaders and dozens of armed men - both a flagrant violation of coronavirus rules and a warning to all.
On a recent afternoon, Cherizier led a reporter through the run-down neighborhood of La Saline, stomping over festering piles of garbage, barging into one corrugated shack after another, bellowing, "You see the conditions they live in?" as residents cowered.
"This is an armed revolution," Cherizier told The Washington Post at his headquarters in Delmas 6, a no-go zone where he is hailed as a protector. "We will put guns in the hands of every child if we have to."
But critics say he's not targeting the government - he's going after its opponents. Human rights activists and political opponents say the U.S.-backed Moïse has done little to check the rise of Haiti's anarchic gangs, at least in part because their growing influence has appeared to serve the president's interests.
With an apparent goal of becoming the strongman of the streets, Cherizier and members of his consolidated gang are extorting businesses, hijacking fuel trucks and kidnapping professionals and business owners for exorbitant ransoms as high as $1 million.
As he brings Port-au-Prince to its knees, Cherizier is also terrorizing poor neighborhoods where opposition to Moïse runs deep - potentially neutralizing any challenge to his party's continued rule.
Barbecue expanded his turf through the alliance, controlling all of Port-au-Prince's downtown and critical cross sections leading to the North and South, and the dense, opposition-dominated slum Cite Soleil that is now living a gang-fueled reign of terror.
Cherizier denies an alliance with Moïse. But in Cite Soleil, victims and human rights groups say G9 gang members have looted and burned down shacks and stalls, systematically raped women, killed at random and dismembered or torched bodies.
When Cherizier's men took to the streets in July, witnesses claimed to have seen them ride in the same armored vehicles used by the national police and special security forces. Justice Minister Lucmane Delile denounced the gangs and ordered the national police to pursue them; within hours, Moïse fired him.
Moïse's office initially agreed to an interview but then did not respond. The president has denied ties to the gangs, which he has described as Haiti's "own demons." His government says it is seeking a disarmament accord with them.
"We prioritize dialogue, even in our fight with bandits and gangs," Moïse said in March. "I am the president of all Haitians, the good and the bad."
There's a standing warrant against Cherizier for alleged possession of illegal arms and failing to report for duty - the reason police gave for firing him last year - but it has not been served. Cherizier denies his gangs have committed violence in the slums. He has not been charged in the 2018 massacre that left dozens dead in La Saline, or any other killings.
But for his long-suffering countrymen, Cherizier's G9 is evoking the horrors of the Tontons Macoutes, the government-backed paramilitaries who terrorized Haiti for decades under dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude.
"The government has said nothing about [Cherizier's rise], and the international community has turned a blind eye," said Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network. "There is no rule of law anymore. The gangs are the new Macoutes. It feels like there is a manifest will to install a new dictatorship."
Governments across Latin America have used the coronavirus to harass their opposition, delay or manipulate elections and consolidate power, undermining democracy in a manner not seen in the region in decades.
The right-wing interim government in Bolivia is accused of unleashing an intensifying wave of repression against its political opposition. Critics say Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is violating civil liberties with mass arrests of quarantine violators and gang members. Courts controlled by the authoritarian government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have replaced the heads of opposition parties amid a fresh wave of arrests of journalists and social leaders.
"Coronavirus is the perfect excuse for a power grab and authoritarian measures to crack down on political opponents," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "This is a regionwide trend, but the consequences are worse in the countries already facing the most-dire situations."
Moïse, 52, won the 2017 presidential election after a 14-month standoff over alleged fraud in a previous vote. Analysts say his base of support is thin amid allegations of government corruption in the petrodollars that flowed for years from Maduro's Venezuela.
The former business executive was the target last year of protests by students and opposition groups that led to a three-month Peyi Lok, Creole for "country shutdown." Businesses were burned, hotels and restaurants shuttered and thousands of Haitians left jobless. By January, the underpaid national police joined the protests, burning their own vehicles and blocking traffic on the capital's main arteries.
Moïse has postponed legislative elections indefinitely. The opposition says his term ends in February, but he says he can stay in office a year beyond that.
"There's no possibility of holding elections while he's in power," says Andre Michel, spokesman for an alliance of opposition parties. The opposition is calling for Moïse to resign, and a transition government to be put in place.
U.S. officials have urged Moise to call new elections. But critics say they've largely turned a blind eye to his government's alleged links to the gangs because they value his support for the Trump administration's hard-line policy against Venezuela's Maduro.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., sent a letter to U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison in May denouncing what she called Cherizier's "politically motivated" death squad.
"There is no real concern for the plight of the Haitians, whether they are being beaten and killed by the president of Haiti," Waters told The Post. "As long as the president is in our pockets, everything is OK."
David Mosby, head of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, met with Haitian police officials this month to discuss the wave of gang violence.
Sison called on "all of Haiti's actors" to engage in dialogue.
"Rather than pointing fingers," she told The Post, "our point is to encourage all actors . . . to think about the most vulnerable who continue to bear the brunt of these challenges."
Few nations are as vulnerable as Haiti. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has lumbered through decades of misery, finally shedding the yoke of the Duvaliers in the 1980s only to spiral into a gyre of lost potential and repeatedly failed efforts to lift its population out of dehumanizing poverty.
The 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless crystallized the country's plight, bringing, for a time, an avalanche of international organizations and promises, finally, of transformative aid. But many of the charities have since departed, the transformation unrealized, leaving a mix of resentment and hopelessness as the country has teetered on the verge of anarchy.
Health analysts feared the coronavirus would devastate Haiti. Most believe numbers are higher than the official count of 7,810 infected and 192 dead, but the country's relative isolation seems to have spared it the worst of the pandemic so far. Still, the outbreak has made chronically underfunded health care here worse - medical staff, lacking protective gear, have failed to show up for work, leaving hospitals operating shorthanded or closing altogether.
Rumors, particularly in rural areas, that symptomatic Haitians are being used as experiments for unproven vaccines have led some to avoid treatment. Doctors say parents are now rejecting regular vaccines for their children in alarming numbers.
"People fear they are being guinea pigs," said William Pape, head of the government's covid-19 task force.
The coronavirus crisis has opened a window of opportunity for Barbecue. As a police officer, Cherizier, whose nickname stems from his mother's locally famous grilled chicken, allegedly led a feared gang that for years was involved in murder, rape, extortion and kidnapping.
While Haitians were locked down, he helped unify street gangs under the "G9 Family and Allies" umbrella. Gang members began rolling into anti-government hotbeds in sophisticated armored vehicles with automatic weapons and tear gas. The National Network for Defense of Human Rights and witnesses say homes were torched, weapons fired and at least 34 people killed.
Police say they are unable to explain why their vehicles appear to have been used in the operation. They say they are investigating.
In a narrow alley between ramshackle two-story dwellings, Cherizier paced back and forth, alternately shouting or laughing into a succession of cellphones rushed to him by a posse of eager-to-please youth.
He insisted he was not working for the government, but to liberate the Haitian people.
"The bourgeoisie, the opposition, the government, they are the problem," he said. "They call us gangs - they are the gangs! We're defending the ghetto. It's live or die here."
The alliance pushed last week into Cite Soleil. It was here that Lenese Leo, 38, says she was caring for her 8-month-old daughter on July 12 when bullets slammed into their shanty. When the shooting stopped, she said, the infant lay on the floor, bleeding from the head. She hailed a motorcycle taxi to go the hospital, but the child died in her arms.
In Haiti, family members of gang victims often avoid reporting deaths, for fear of reprisal. But Leo and her partner have instead insisted on an autopsy and shared their grief on social media. She says they now get death threats.
"It's never been like this," she said. "I've lived here all my life. I have never lived in so much fear."
Several times a week for more than two months, Kenya Fentress has gathered in southwest Detroit with other Black activists to march against police brutality and structural racism. The grass-roots fight for racial justice, taking place city-by-city across America, feels personal and urgent and immediate.
The news earlier this week that Kamala Harris had been selected as Joe Biden's running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket, though, registered as little more than a blip.
Fentress simply does not feel the same excitement or energy about the presidential election as she does about the protests, which were sparked earlier this summer after George Floyd died in Minneapolis while in police custody. As members of Washington's political establishment turned their attention this week to the spectacle of a vice-presidential reveal, the dozens of dutiful activists with Fentress in Detroit - where turnout will be critical for Biden - paid little attention.
Harris, a California senator of Jamaican and Indian descent, made history as the first woman of color to be chosen as a vice-presidential nominee by a major party. African American advocacy groups cheered Biden's pick, which they saw as recognition that Black voters are a pillar of the Democratic Party. But the choice was greeted more skeptically from the party's left flank, including many younger Black activists who have been critical of Harris's record as a mainstream politician and former prosecutor.
Black representation in national politics matters, Fentress said, but what matters more is policies that address systemic racism.
She is not sure the Democrats have figured that out or that Harris changes that.
And yet, despite her skepticism toward the Democratic Party, she intends to cast a ballot for Biden and Harris in November - not because of Harris, but because of her disdain for President Donald Trump.
"You know, I go down the streets and I see people lined up just for [donated] food. How is that normal? How is that right?" she said, pointing to wealth inequities between Black and White families that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. "Are we going to vote? Yes. It's an obligation. It's something that you should do . . . because right now, the president we have, we don't want him in office."
The lower-than-expected turnout in 2016 among Black voters in Detroit looms over the upcoming presidential election, said James Curenton, who is a pastor at the city's Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ. A Democratic voter, Curenton regrets that he did not do more in 2016 to encourage his community to vote. Trump narrowly won Michigan, by about 11,000 votes.
"The blame has to go all around. We locally here as pastors could have gotten out 15,000 more folks to vote if it had been a priority. The Democratic Party could have made the vote in Detroit a major priority, which it did not. Hillary Clinton did not show up here," he said.
Even as the church focuses on adjusting its programing for the pandemic and distributing hundreds of food boxes to struggling families, Curenton says he will organize phone banking and even canvassing in the fall.
This year, he said, he feels a personal responsibility to make sure his congregation of several hundred turn out to vote in November. It is a conversation happening among other pastors as well.
But he acknowledged that many Black voters, especially younger ones, feel alienated from the political process and have grown skeptical of the Democratic Party, in part because of failed promises to turn Detroit around. Their disillusionment, he worries, is self-defeating; he believes political strength rests on voting.
The protest movement, he said, has lit a fire in many Black communities, especially among young people, who are paying more attention, especially to local politics. He said he hopes that energy will be harnessed for the presidential election.
But there is also plenty of political skepticism and cynicism community leaders like Curenton will have to battle.
The real work of creating social change, many activists said this week, was happening here on the streets of Detroit, not in Washington. On Wednesday, instead of watching Biden and Harris in their first joint appearance, dozens of protesters set up loudspeakers and passed out buttons that read "Black Women's Lives Matter." They took turns delivering impassioned orations about the civil rights movement they see unfolding in the United States.
Biden and even Harris almost seemed beside the point.
"I come out here basically every day they have it," Parrish Saiter, 28, said of the protests,as "No Justice, No Peace" chants roared in the crowd.
For Saiter, the protests are a form of civic engagement that feel "more hands on," and likelier to accomplish change.
Saiter expressed skepticism over Biden's efforts to reach Black voters, including adding Harris to the ticket.
"They did that so they could get the Black vote," he said, explaining his concerns over Harris's record as a prosecutor. "I have been to prison and the prison system makes the person worse . . . it don't rehabilitate."
"Yeah I'm going to vote. But I feel that Democrats and Republicans they're basically the same thing," he said.
Saiter suggested that keeping Trump in office might benefit the movement because at least the president's rhetoric draws attention to systemic problems that have existed for a long time.
His comments echoed critiques of Harris's claim that she was a "progressive prosecutor" in California. As California's attorney general, Harris declined to support a bill that would have required her office to investigate fatal police shootings, commenting that it would take power away from local district attorneys which had systems in place to hold police officers accountable. She opposed a statewide standard for police officers to wear body cameras, again citing local authority.
Harris was also once a fierce advocate for anti-truancy laws that led to prosecution and even jail time for parents whose children missed too many school days, which critics at the time warned would disproportionately hurt low-income communities of color. She has since expressed regret over how the laws have been applied.
But many Black voters interviewed in Detroit this week said they have not been paying much attention to the presidential election, even if they disagree with Trump.
Ten miles north, in Palmer Park, Samyah Haynes, 20, said she's not "too much into politics." As she set up for her sister's sixth birthday party in Palmer Park, she said she had only heard a little bit about Harris. But having a Black woman on the ticket definitely makes it more interesting for her.
"Barack Obama said it was a good decision and I trust Obama," she said.
A group of six moms and aunts gathered nearby watching their children chase each other around and blowing bubbles. One of them, Lindsay Gray, 30, said she was thrilled to hear Harris was chosen as Biden's running mate, especially as a Howard University graduate.
"Short of Michelle Obama actually running for president, I'm excited" by Harris, said Gray.
But she worried about the role sexism might play in the election.
"A lot of men, they just are not going to vote for a woman, let alone a woman of color." She "got those inklings" after Clinton's failed campaign but she hopes the country has changed since then, especially given the anger in Black communities toward Trump.
Curenton, though, said he believes Black women will be crucial to get-out-the-vote efforts in November. Their excitement over Harris, he predicted, could be a boon for Democrats.
"And if Black women are excited the Black men have to get excited too. Black women still rule the roost if truth be told in the Black community," Curenton said. "Senator Harris, her appointment for the African American community does one thing: it says that, okay, we were right. Uncle Joe will respond to us, will try to do something for us. He takes us seriously. And he did it not in words, like what do you have to lose, he's taken action."
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Ruble and Elmer reported from Detroit.