It is one of Haiti’s most violent and impoverished neighborhoods, a no-go zone next to the Haitian Parliament that has become ground zero in a resurgence of gang-related and possibly politically motivated violence.
Now six months after dozens of people were tortured and killed in the worst massacre in Haiti in more than a decade, an internal Haiti police investigation report obtained by the Miami Herald provides the first official account of some of the atrocities that occurred in Port-au-Prince’s La Saline neighborhood during four days of carnage in mid-November.
During that period, Nov. 13-17, men, women and even children as young as 4 were shot to death, their bodies then fed to dogs and pigs. Women were raped and set on fire, as was a police officer, Juwon Durosier. The culprits: bandits tied to gang conflicts over control of a sprawling outdoor market where protection rackets are the norm, but also guns-for-hire by powerful politicians and well-heeled businessmen seeking to control votes in the run-up to upcoming legislative and mayoral elections.
“Among other things that show the cruelty of the killers is the murder of infants such as Geralson Belance, a baby of only 10 months old, who was cowardly lynched and whose remains were taken away in a sack by his killers,” police said.
Testimony from scores of other victims and their close relatives, compiled during the investigation carried out by the judicial police’s Bureau of Criminal Affairs, paints an equally disturbing image of the depths of the atrocities, which have been the subject of several human-rights investigations in Haiti but, so far, have resulted in little accountability from the government.
“Before the bewildered eyes of their relatives (husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters), victims were killed, then chopped with [knives, machetes] and their remains were left abandoned on garbage heaps, thrown into sewage canals, or burnt,” police investigators concluded. “Others, notably women, were raped in the presence of their powerless husbands or partners, and sometimes even in the presence of their children.”
Investigators also noted that a Haiti National Police Galil assault rifle, once assigned to the National Palace and presumed to be among 56 Galils that went missing during the 2016 transition from ex-president Michel Martelly to interim president Jocelerme Privert, was used in the massacre. The gun had been found in the possession of a dismantled gang police say was tied to the massacre.
Police interviewed more than six dozen witnesses, victims and their relatives. And while they refrained from saying how many people were killed or have gone missing, local human-rights groups have put the death toll between 15 and 71 in separate investigations detailing the events that began shortly before 4 p.m. on Nov. 13, a Tuesday.
The police investigation, sent to the government’s chief prosecutor of Port-au-Prince and transferred over to an investigative judge, suggests that more than 70 people should be arrested for the “reprehensible acts.”
Among them: two former Haiti National Police officers who became leaders of prominent armed gangs, and two senior government officials. One of the officials is Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan, a former Port-au-Prince mayor who serves as the president’s representative for the West region, which includes La Saline and the surrounding metropolitan Port-au-Prince area. The second is Fednel Monchéry, the executive director of the interior ministry who has been implicated in a U.S. visa scandal.
Witnesses told police investigators that Duplan and Monchéry both participated in the planning of the atrocities alongside ex-cops Grégory Antoine, known as “Ti Greg,” and Jimmy Cherizier, AKA “Barbecue.” Antoine and Cherizier, leaders of the Base Pilate and Base Delmas 6 gangs, respectively, are described in the police investigation as “the presumed authors” of the massacre.
Police said witnesses statements were corroborated by information gathered by the local human rights group National Network for the Defense of Human Rights. After the massacre, the organization interviewed 439 witnesses, victims and community leaders in La Saline.
Its December report cites witness testimony accusing Monchéry, Duplan and Cherizier of being at a Nov. 6 planning meeting in Cherizier’s Delmas 6 stronghold, a week prior to the massacre. At the meeting, weapons were distributed to individuals who would carry out the carnage, the human rights report said. The report also claims that while Monchéry provided government vehicles to the alleged armed perpetrators, Duplan gave them police uniforms.
In a press conference in Port-au-Prince on Monday, Duplan did not address the police investigation, but directed his comments at the various human rights reports. Denying his involvement, Duplan accused human rights groups of trying to demonize him and make him appear “like a bandit.”
“When they decide to name me and send my name all over to the embassies of other countries, without my country’s justice system ever doing a serious investigation and coming to a decision, I believed they have violated my rights and they want to destroy me,” he said. “The justice system needs to carry out a good investigation so that they could find out what happened in La Saline.”
Monchéry did not respond to a text from the Herald for comment. But he has found support from an association of local officials, who told the Haitian media that the allegations are untrue.
There are still many unanswered questions about La Saline, including the motive. But the slum’s reputation for getting people to mobilize — or thwarting a mobilization — makes it a prize for warring political factions seeking to remain in power, or wanting to get back in power. The factions also control their own gangs, equipping them with ammunition, guns and money, in exchange for their loyalty.
The massacre occurred between two of the biggest anti-government demonstrations last year.
Both the human rights group Fondasyon Je Klere and the National Human Rights Defense Network, in separate reports on the killings, documented links between armed gangs, corrupt cops and government officials in the area.
Pierre Esperance, who heads the rights defense network, said backers of the massacre wanted to create a climate of insecurity in hopes of thwarting a Nov. 18 anti-government protest, where the opposition marched against corruption and demanded the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.
“They wanted to control the area because of what La Saline represents in terms of its ability to mobilize,” Esperance said of perpetrators of the massacre, who also set fire to as many as 150 houses. “They didn’t kill them because they were in the opposition. They did it because they wanted them to leave the area and they wanted to break the mobilization.”
The perpetrators, witnesses told police, were sometimes hooded, and sometimes dressed in police uniforms. They went from door to door, bursting into individuals’ homes, armed with assault rifles and pistols.
One witness singled out 11 well-known gang members, and said they were involved in the attack and the killing of “dozens of people in La Saline” on Nov. 13. Witnesses also described the killing of Durosier, the police officer who was assigned to the specialized Intervention and Maintenance Corps. After he was shot multiple times, his body was chopped up with a knife and then set on fire with burning tires, the witness reported.
Another victim described to police how she was set on fire after armed bandits killed her nephew. She later found his body in a heap of trash with 15 other corpses.
Most of the victims were between the ages of 19 and 45, police said, but “worse still, even young children were not spared by these individuals.”
The lack of accountability for the massacre is a festering problem for Moïse, along with the U.S. government, the U.N. and others who want to see Haiti move beyond crisis upon crisis.
“If the executive, the president, doesn’t want to appear that he’s endorsing this, he needs to quickly unload himself of Duplan and Monchéry, and put them at the disposition of justice,” Esperance said.
The Haitian police’s revelations on La Saline’s killings come as the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Michele Sison, visits Capitol Hill this week to answer questions about La Saline, after 104 members of Congress signed a bipartisan letter in March calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to launch an independent investigation into the killings.
The U.N. Security Council, which is scheduled to end its peacekeeping mission in Haiti on Oct. 15 after 15 years, is also demanding to know what happened. In December, Helen La Lime, the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Haiti and head of its justice and security mission, told the council that the U.N.’s human rights service in Port-au-Prince was “working to determine what happened” in La Saline and other notorious Port-au-Prince neighborhoods where there had been worrying episodes of recent violence.
Sources familiar with the U.N. investigation say while it’s not yet complete, it has compiled a list of at least 24 deaths during the November carnage in La Saline.
Gang violence, which is endemic to a number of neighborhoods in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, is nothing new in Haiti. But many Haitians thought it was behind them, or at least contained following interventions by U.N. peacekeepers after their 2004 arrival amid a bloody coup.
In recent years, Haiti has started to see a resurgence of that violence, which has now taken on a new, barbaric dimension as hunger deepens, inequality widens and the country’s 11 million residents see their purchasing power cut in half amid inflation and a sharply depreciating currency.
Meanwhile, the Haiti National Police, which will soon be on its own after the U.N.’s departure, has seen its efforts to provide security continue to be challenged by gangs that have now moved out of the capital and into rural areas. In recent months, armed gangs have attacked a police station near Gonaives, shot at police with automatic rifles during anti-government protests in Port-au-Prince while wearing police uniforms, and held entire communities in the Artibonite Valley captive.
Outgunned, police have tried to fight back. Earlier this month a senator accused one of his colleagues of speaking at least 24 times to a sought-after gang leader, Arnel Joseph, as police unsuccessfully tried to apprehend him. Last week, police announced the arrest of 53 presumed members of his gang in the communities of Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite and Marchand Dessalines, north of the capital.
Disenfranchised young men and women in fragile Haiti communities, where socioeconomic opportunities and access to basic services are limited, have always represented easy recruits for gangs and politicians to serve their political and criminal interests. But with the advent of social media, observers say, the violence has taken on a darker form.
“I’ve been here 31 years and we’ve seen a lot of executed bodies,” said Father Richard Frechette, a Roman Catholic priest who was the first to collect body parts from inside La Saline in November. “But there is a big difference we are seeing with the violence now that we didn’t see before. A lot of them are young people; they are 17, 18 and 20 years old. They really have no pity.
“Before, those of us who are missionaries or humanitarian workers could have a dialogue. Now they have no mercy. ... The influence of social media, YouTube is multiplying the negative,” he said.
While many people first learned about La Saline after images of pigs devouring body parts in heaps of trash first began surfacing on the WhatsApp social media platform, Frechette said he had gotten word from groups inside the densely populated slum shortly after the killings.
But it would take days and negotiations with four of the gangs, he said, before he and a group of Catholic nuns with the Missionaries of Charity could go in and retrieve the human remains.
“We worked out a 45-minute agreement so we could go in there,” said Frechette, who is also a medical doctor and founder of St. Luke Foundation for Haiti. “They were really, really destroyed. We were picking up arms, heads and legs. It was really deplorable.”
The violence didn’t end with the November terror. Frechette says his charity is now burying about 150 people a month. While not all of them are residents of La Saline, which continues to experience violence, they are victims of violence nevertheless. His St. Luke Hospital in the capital has also seen an increase in the number of gunshot victims, treating 40 just in April.
“There are organizations pulling out of the work because its so difficult,” he said. “People who live in gated communities, they don’t know what’s happening down in the capital. It’s really like wartime, unbelievable in those areas.”
Still, he doesn’t believe the situation is hopeless.
“There are a lot of people who, if you give a good example, they will follow it,” the priest said. “For a lot of them, it’s not too late. It’s the leaders who are going beyond our limits now.”