Police escorts took inmates back to Croix-des-Bouquets civil prison after the outbreak on Thursday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Authorities were still looking for more than 200 refugees as of Friday evening. Dieu Nalio Chery / AP Hide caption
Dieu Nalio Chery / AP
Dieu Nalio Chery / AP
A massive prison hiatus in Haiti has resulted in the escape of hundreds of inmates and the deaths of at least 25 people, including the prison’s director and a notorious Haitian gang leader named Arnel Joseph.
The prison break took place on Thursday in the Croix-des-Bouquets civil prison in the capital Port-au-Prince. By late Friday, authorities had recaptured around 60 inmates, but were still actively looking for more than 200 more, according to Haitian Secretary of State for Communications, Frantz Exantus.
Violence against gangs in Haiti has increased in recent years, and Joseph, the gang leader, had been one of the most wanted refugees in the country prior to his arrest in 2019. He had been waiting for the murder, rape, and kidnapping trial.
Joseph was killed in a police shootout after escaping, Exantus said at a news conference. According to Exantus, Joseph was riding a motorcycle around town when police tried to stop him. He was killed by police after opening fire.
According to the authorities, several of the 25 people killed were bystanders who were attacked by prisoners while they were fleeing.
In a statement sent to NPR, the United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, Helen La Lime, wrote that she was “deeply concerned” about the prison break.
“I encourage the police to speed up the investigation into the circumstances of this incident, redouble their efforts to arrest the refugees again, and improve security in prisons across the country,” said La Lime.
President Jovenel Moise tweeted Friday condemning the outbreak and urging Haitians to keep calm. The Haitian National Police, he wrote, “are instructed to take all measures to bring the situation under control.”
Haiti is in the midst of political turmoil as President Moise faces increasing pressure to resign. Moise was elected for a five-year term in late 2015, but allegations of fraud tarnished the election so much that a provisional government ruled a little over a year before taking office in February 2017. Moise claims that this means his five-year term won’t end until 2022, and he has ruled by decree since late 2019. There were widespread protests that month over his refusal to resign and the arrest of more than 20 political opponents accused of plotting a violent coup d’état.
For everyday Haitians, especially in Port-au-Prince, the jail break is only the final chapter in a year of mounting violence.
A dramatic increase in ransom kidnappings over the past year has resulted in school closings and a warning from the US Embassy urging American citizens to exercise caution when traveling in Port-au-Prince. Kidnapping victims in recent months have included a nun, a surgeon, the five-year-old daughter of a peanut seller, and two members of a film crew.
Meanwhile, the gang violence epidemic last year left hundreds of deaths and even more displaced people. In December, the US Treasury Department sanctioned a number of Haitian officials for participating in a gang arming and funding program to “create instability and silence the demands of the people of Port-au-Prince for improved living conditions.”
And just this month, a United Nations report called on Haitian authorities to end impunity for violent gang members, adding that “without a proper process of accountability, the cycle of violence is likely to result in more victims”.