Thousands of inmates escape Haiti's main prison during police-gang fight

A demonstrator holds up a Haitian flag during protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 1, 2024. [AP Photo]

Thousands of prisoners fled Haiti’s National Penitentiary, located in the capital, during a Saturday night gunbattle between national police and armed gangs, an official told VOA.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry is currently overseas. He traveled last week to Kenya, where he signed a bilateral accord to authorize 1,000 Kenyan police officers who will lead a multinational security force. The United Nations authorized the force to help Haiti combat gang violence and reestablish security.

It was unclear where the prime minister was Sunday. Kenyan President William Ruto’s office did not respond to a request by VOA for information on Henry’s whereabouts.

The Henry government has not officially commented on what is happening in Haiti.

The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has not yet publicly commented on the weekend violence.

VOA journalists who went Sunday to the penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince saw bodies inside and outside the building.

An engineer, who wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of law enforcement officials, said he was working with the national police to survey the situation Sunday morning.

The engineer said 99 prisoners remained inside the jail. He said the penitentiary previously held close to 4,000 prisoners. He said he was not prepared to give an estimate of how many prisoners died during the jailbreak.

Among the bodies outside the building were civilians who had been caught in the crossfire, he said, adding that the police commissioner would publish official numbers later. The Associated Press reported that at least five people had been killed.

“Those who remain (inside) are ill, prisoners who were being treated at the dispensary for various illnesses,” the engineer told VOA.

Haiti’s National Penitentiary houses several high-profile prisoners. Among them: Cholzer Chancy, former president of the Chamber of Deputies who led the parliament between 2016 and 2018; Joseph Felix Badio, a key suspect in President Jovenel Moise’s assassination, Clifford Brandt, a convicted drug dealer who is the son of one of the richest men in Haiti.

The engineer told VOA Brandt had been transferred out of the prison before the gunbattle.

“No, Brandt is not here. They took him out and brought him to another location,” he said. He did not provide any other details.

A video widely shared on social media shows Brandt being taken out of the prison, accompanied by armed policemen and transferred to a police armored vehicle. VOA could not verify when the video was recorded.

Marcelin Myrthil, arrested in connection with the grassroots anti-gang Bwa Kale movement, was also imprisoned at the penitentiary.

The Bwa Kale movement targeted suspected gang members, many being chased by citizens and lynched or executed in the streets. Myrthil distributed machetes to communities plagued by gang violence and encouraged civilians to execute suspected thugs. Myrthil had been relocated by the police, the engineer told VOA.

“He is in a secure place. I can’t tell you where he is,” the engineer said.

Tires on fire near the main prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 3, 2024, after several thousand inmates broke out of the facility. [AFP]

Eighteen former Colombian soldiers, accused in connection with the Moise assassination, were among the 99 prisoners who chose to remain in their jail cells. VOA spoke to a prisoner who identified himself as Francisco Eladio Uribe.

Speaking in Spanish, the man told VOA: “I did not escape last night because I don’t owe anyone anything. I am innocent. I came to this country to work toward a better future for my family. I ended up getting caught in the middle of a plot planned by an American company called CTV. It’s because of their trap that I’m in this situation today.”

In a video post that was widely shared on Haitian social media Saturday, the soldiers pleaded with the Colombian government, their families and the international community for help.

A 2022 Human Rights Watch report on Haiti’s prisons cited overcrowding, lack of food and drinkable water, and unsanitary conditions that resulted in outbreaks of disease.

World Prison Brief, a nongovernmental organization that monitors prisons worldwide, found that in 2020, Haiti’s prisons were 302% over capacity.

Jimmy Cherizier, known as “Barbecue,” leader of Haiti’s powerful G9 gang alliance, told journalists last week the rival gangs had “united” and launched a “revolution” to remove from power Prime Minister Henry. On Friday, he appealed to national police officers to join the gang effort.

Cherizier is a former policeman who has been targeted by sanctions issued by the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Treasury.

The U.S. accused him of complicity in the La Saline massacre that targeted a Port-au-Prince slum and resulted in at least 71 civilian deaths.

The U.S. State Department condemned the violence in Haiti in a statement emailed to VOA Friday.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and condemn destabilizing efforts in Haiti by those acting in their own self-interest,” a spokesperson said.

On Sunday, the State Department did not respond to a request from VOA for comment regarding the jailbreak.

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