PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The prominent leader of a Haitian political party was killed in an alleged gang attack in the capital on Friday, the latest victim of the spiraling security crisis gripping the Caribbean nation.
Ricardo Nordain, a party official, said Jean Baptiste’s armored vehicle flipped over when it was ambushed.
“He represented a lot,” Nordain said. “His assassination shows we do not have leadership in this country.”
Gangs have long had a presence in Haiti, but their power has grown in recent years amid a broader deterioration of democratic institutions and security conditions. United Nations agencies said this month that gang violence in the capital has displaced some 96,000 people and that gangs have used rape to terrorize the local population.
Laboule 12 is in the crosshairs of a gang called Ti Makak. The gang was implicated in the assassination this year of a former Haitian senator. Three police officers were also killed there last month. The conflict that began in 2020 involves a land dispute between Ti Makak and an armed group backed by Jean Mossanto Petit, a businessman.
The Haiti-based Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights said in a report last month that Ti Makak is carrying out more shootings and kidnappings to strengthen its position in the conflict. Asked if Jean Baptiste had conflicts with the gang, Nordain said, “Honest people will always have clashes with the gangs.”
Nordain said Jean Baptiste had helped provide food, school supplies and potable water to people in need and was running a pilot project with a law faculty in Jacmel, a port town in the southern part of Haiti.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry offered his condolences to Jean Baptiste’s family on Saturday.
“The horrific assassination of the political leader Eric Jean Baptiste and his bodyguard has once against plunged the Haitian nation into turmoil,” he said in a tweet. “We strongly condemn this heinous crime against this patriot, this moderate politician committed to change.”
Haiti is confronting a confluence of humanitarian, security and political crises that put it at risk of anarchy and that have spurred Henry to appeal to the international community to deploy an armed force to restore order.
The G9 federation of gangs has for several weeks blocked access to seaports and the Varreux fuel terminal, the source of 70 percent of Haiti’s fuel, forcing businesses and hospitals to reduce their hours or shut down and imperiling access to food and clean drinking water amid a resurgence of cholera that has killed dozens.
Thousands of Haitians have poured into the streets in recent weeks to protest the insecurity situation and the government of Henry. Critics say he has been delaying progress toward new elections to replace President Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated last year, so he can remain in power.
The protests followed the government’s announcement that it would no longer subsidize the cost of fuel, prompting widespread anger in an impoverished country where inflation is roughly 30 percent and a record 4.7 million people face acute hunger.
One regional leader described the crisis engulfing the country as a “low-intensity civil war.”
The United States imposed visa restrictions this month on Haitians that it said are involved in gang activity, including financial and political backers, and the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to impose an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo on Haitian gang leaders.
The resolution named Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer who heads the G-9 federation of gangs, as one of its main targets. The United States imposed sanctions on Cherizier, who also goes by the nickname “Barbecue,” in 2020 for his role in leading “coordinated, brutal attacks in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods.”
Henry’s request for a foreign security force has proved more controversial — in Haiti and abroad.
The country has a long history of foreign interventions that critics say have destabilized the country further. During the last such intervention, U.N. peacekeepers faced allegations of sexual abuse and the organization apologized for its role in a cholera outbreak that killed 10,000 people.
Some Haitians believe that Henry, who critics accuse of having done little to respond to the security crisis, is requesting outside help to stay in power. A Chinese delegate at the United Nations this month questioned whether such a force would be supported by Haitians — or would instead trigger more unrest.
The United States has proposed that a multilateral force, led by another country, be deployed to Haiti to clear the fuel blockades and address the humanitarian crisis, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Canadian officials this past week to discuss the issue.
A Canadian delegation traveled to Haiti in recent days to conduct an “assessment mission” of the humanitarian and security crises, but Canadian officials were noncommittal on whether the country would join or lead the force the United States has proposed.
In the meantime, the intertwined humanitarian and security emergencies continue to deepen.
Roberson Alphonse, a well-known Haitian journalist with the newspaper Le Nouvelliste, was attacked in his car this week by armed assailants. He is recovering. In one of his last tweets, Jean Baptiste mentioned the attempt on Alphonse’s life.
“The life expectancy of people in Haiti is 24 hours,” he said. “Who will be next? Will he have the same luck?”