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Haiti declares a state of emergency as security chaos continues

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The government of Haiti has declared a state of emergency after gangs attacked the capital city's main prisons. Thousands of inmates fled, and the gangs are now openly trying to assert political control in the country. At the same time, it's still not clear whether the country's de facto prime minister is even back in Haiti. NPR's Eyder Peralta is following the story from Mexico City and joins us now. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So how much do we know at this point about these prison breaks? Like, what happened exactly?

PERALTA: I mean, we know it's been days of chaos in Port-au-Prince. I spoke to Monique Clesca, who's a well-known activist in Haiti. And she's in the capital. And here's how she describes it.

MONIQUE CLESCA: Gangs paraded throughout Port-au-Prince with their arms openly. It wasn't done at night. And the police was nowhere to be found. We have certainly lived a three days of terror.

PERALTA: And so lot of lawlessness. But the political backdrop is important because these gangs are stepping into politics more and more. The gangs have been wanting Prime Minister Ariel Henry to step down. And Henry is a de facto prime minister because he took over after President Jovenel Moise was killed in 2021. The prime minister has promised elections, but last week he said they wouldn't happen until mid-next year. And since then, the gangs have taken over the streets. And over the weekend, they attacked two big prisons. Police officers were killed, and the gates to the prison were opened. Thousands of inmates are now on the loose. The airports are closed. And the government has ordered a state of emergency and a curfew.

CHANG: Unbelievable. I'm just going to ask a very blunt question here because we've been hearing so much about the turmoil and freefall, to put it bluntly, in Haiti for quite some time. Is what happened - is what's happening now a different level of chaos or is it just more of the same?

PERALTA: I put that question to Robert Fatton, and he studies Haiti at the University of Virginia, and he says that this is different. To start, the gangs, which used to fight against each other, are now working together. And at least one of the big leaders, a guy nicknamed Barbecue, has said explicitly that the point of this violence is to overthrow the government. So now they're working as one. And the gangs are doing some real damage, says Fatton. They already control most of the capital city. But over the past week, they've shot at the airport. They've stopped air traffic. They've overpowered police at these prisons. Fatton says this is a critical moment for Haiti.

ROBERT FATTON: The situation is on the verge of a real collapse of any and every institution that remain in the country.

PERALTA: And that means that the gangs could become the government. That possibility exists.

CHANG: Well, as we mentioned, the prime minister may not even be in the country right now. Do we have any idea where he has been or where he could be right now?

PERALTA: So we don't know where he is now. We know he's not in Haiti because the U.S. State Department told us so a few days ago. He was in Kenya trying to iron out a deal that would ship Kenyan police to Haiti. And that's essentially the solution that Henry and the international community have given Haitians, that 1,000 Kenyan police officers will one day be deployed and that they will fix the problems in the country.

And this really angers Monique Clesca, the activist who we heard from earlier. She and a group of intellectuals in Haiti have proposed concrete ideas to move forward, and she's frustrated that none of them have been implemented. She says when Ariel Henry came to power in 2021, he could have declared a state of emergency and he could have worked toward elections, and instead, she said, he did nothing.

CLESCA: Instead, he went to the United Nations and said send me some troops and then crossed his arm. And that's all they did was wait and wait and wait.

PERALTA: At this point, with the airports closed, we're not even sure if the prime minister can make it back into the country.

CHANG: Wow. That is NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thank you so much, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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