World

Hundreds of inmates flee after armed gangs storm Haiti’s main prison

On Sunday the bodies of three people with gunshot wounds could be seen lying on the ground at the prison’s entrance.

A demonstrator demands the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince (Odelyn Joseph/AP)
Haiti Violence A demonstrator demands the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince (Odelyn Joseph/AP) (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

At least three people have been killed and hundreds of inmates have fled Haiti’s main prison after armed gangs stormed it overnight.

The jailbreak marks a new low in Haiti’s downward spiral of violence and comes as gangs assert greater control on the capital, Port-au-Prince, while prime minister Ariel Henry is abroad trying to win support for a UN-backed security force to stabilise the country.

On Sunday the bodies of three people with gunshot wounds could be seen lying on the ground at the prison’s entrance, which was wide open, with no guards in sight.

Officers inside a single police car stationed outside would not say what happened.

Police clash with gang members in Port-au-Prince (Odelyn Joseph/AP)
Haiti Violence Police clash with gang members in Port-au-Prince (Odelyn Joseph/AP) (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

Arnel Remy, a human rights lawyer who heads a non-profit group which works inside the prisons, said on X, formerly Twitter, that fewer than 100 of the facility’s nearly 4,000 inmates remain behind bars.

Those choosing to stay include 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise.

On Saturday, amid the disturbances, several of the Colombians shared a video urgently pleading for their lives.

“Please, please help us,” one of the men, Francisco Uribe, said in the 30-second video message widely shared on social media. “They are massacring people indiscriminately inside the cells.”

During the chaos, police also appealed for help.

“They need help,” a union representing Haitian police said in a message posted on social media bearing an “SOS” emoji repeated eight times.

Women take cover during a gun battle between police and gang members (Odelyn Joseph/AP)
Haiti Violence Women take cover during a gun battle between police and gang members (Odelyn Joseph/AP) (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

“Let’s mobilise the army and the police to prevent the bandits from breaking into the prison.”

The armed clashes follow a string of violent protests that have been building for some time but turned deadlier in recent days as Mr Henry went to Kenya to salvage a proposed security mission in Haiti.

Mr Henry took over as prime minister after Mr Moise’s assassination and has repeatedly postponed plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections, which have not taken place in almost a decade.

As part of co-ordinated attacks by gangs, four police officers were killed on Thursday in the capital when gunmen opened fire on targets including Haiti’s international airport.

Gang members also seized control of two police stations, prompting civilians to flee in fear and forcing businesses and schools to close.

Haiti’s National Police has about 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people, according to the UN.

A man climbs into the office of Haiti’s power company, set on fire during protests (Odelyn Joseph/AP)
Haiti Protest A man climbs into the office of Haiti’s power company, set on fire during protests (Odelyn Joseph/AP) (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

The officers are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned by powerful gangs, which are estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince.

Jimmy Cherizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks.

He said the goal was to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Mr Henry’s return.

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, has shrugged off calls for his resignation and did not comment when asked if he felt it was safe to return home.

He signed reciprocal agreements on Friday with Kenyan President William Ruto to try to salvage the plan to deploy Kenyan police to Haiti.

Kenya’s High Court had ruled in January that the proposed deployment was unconstitutional, in part because the original deal lacked reciprocal agreements between the two countries.

The violence has complicated efforts to stabilise Haiti and pave the way for elections.

Caribbean leaders said on Wednesday that Mr Henry had agreed to schedule a vote by mid-2025 – a far-off date likely to further enrage his opponents.