A year after the president’s murder, Haitians are still waiting to hit rock bottom

Warring gangs took over several neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince weeks ago, going door to door, raping women and girls, killing men, beheading scores of adults, then forcing newly orphaned children in their ranks.

A woman, Kenide Charles, took refuge with her 4-month-old baby under a bed, waiting for the fighting to calm down. It never did, and she fled, running through gang checkpoints with her son raised above her head like a human white flag.

This week marks a year since Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods as dozens of police stood aside, letting the killers pass. Many Haitians had no love for the deeply unpopular president, but thought his assassination would be the country’s new bottom and thought they could start to rise again.

Instead, the picture remains bleak with an apparent state of anarchy taking hold in some parts of the country.

Mr. Moïse was killed in a sprawling plot that ensnared former Colombian soldiers, informants for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, American citizens. A key suspect in the murder is expected to stand trial in Florida. The international community has pledged to help solve the president’s murder and prevent the crime from contributing to a mountain of impunity that has plagued Haiti for centuries.

But the many questions surrounding Mr. Moïse’s murder remain unanswered, contributing to a broken central government and growing dominance by multiple gangs.

The violence that recently rocked Ms. Charles’ poor neighborhood for nearly two weeks in May is a sign of how brutal life is for many Haitians.

“I see no future in Haiti for my children,” said Ms. Charles, 37. “Even feeding them is a struggle.” Her eldest daughter, Charnide, 9, sat nervously next to her mother, her shoulder-length tresses adorned with lavender-colored beads.

When Ms. Charles was finally able to return to her neighborhood on the outskirts of the Haitian capital, the entire block where her house once stood had been burned down. The corpses of at least 91 victims lay along the streets or in their homes, while the attack left at least 158 ​​children orphaned, many of whom were later recruited into gangs, according to the National Human Rights Network , a Port-au-Prince rights-based monitor.

Like many Haitians, Ms. Charles worries that if Mr. Moïse cannot get real justice, what chance does she have of living a dignified life in a country with some of the highest rates of inequality in the world ?

“I live in a country where the president was killed,” Ms Charles said. “If something like this can happen to a president with all this security, what about me in my house? What if I walked the streets? And my children?

Two investigations into the assassination of Mr. Moïse, one by the Haitian government and the other by the United States, have led to several arrests.

In Haiti, the suspects imprisoned in the assassination have not been brought to trial – including 18 former Colombian soldiers seen by many as pawns in the plot. Judges and lawyers in charge of the case were threatened and ordered to modify the testimony of witnesses.

And a key suspect in the assassination – Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry – has fired government officials who summoned him for questioning in the case. Phone records indicate that Mr Henry had spoken with the man accused of orchestrating the assassination, Joseph Felix Badio, a former Ministry of Justice official, in the days preceding and the hours following the death of Mr. Moïse. The Prime Minister has denied any wrongdoing and Mr Badio remains free. .

A separate investigation by the US government also yielded no answers and instead raised suspicions of a link between the assassins and US intelligence agencies, including the CIA A prime suspect in the case, Mario Palacios, a former Colombian soldier, was extradited to Florida in January to stand trial.

The Justice Department stunned observers when it asked the Miami court hearing Mr Palacios’ case to appoint a “classified information security officer” to prevent the suspect’s testimony from being made public because that he has an undisclosed connection to US intelligence agencies.

The Drug Enforcement Administration declined to answer questions about several of the Haitian suspects in the case who served as informants for the agency. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized the DEA for failing to respond to questions about its conduct in Haiti.

Justice has also been elusive for the 18 former Colombian soldiers imprisoned in Haiti. They complained of being tortured by the Haitian police, of a lack of food and of access to showers or toilets. The judge in their case has been changed five times and the Colombians have still not seen a lawyer, 12 months after their incarceration.

Haiti’s justice minister did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Not even a judge heard them, they weren’t even charged,” said Diana Arbelaez, the wife of one of the former soldiers charged.

“There is no evidence, because if they had, they would have been charged,” she added.

Ms Arbelaez said she and other wives send food parcels to their husbands in prison and include bags in which they can defecate, as they are rarely allowed to use the latrines and relieve themselves on their cell floor.

Sandra Bonilla, whose husband is also one of the 18 Colombian prisoners, traveled to Haiti to see her husband late last year and said she saw signs of torture, including festering wounds and missing teeth.

The Colombian government argues that since the alleged crimes involving the former soldiers occurred in Haiti, they should be tried there, rather than in Colombia.

Colombian Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez said in an interview that the administration was eager for the accused to stand trial, blaming Haiti’s failing justice system for leaving the men in limbo. She plans to visit the men in prison.

In Haiti, the violence that has stalked Haitians hit the country’s largest court last month, when a gang took over the courthouse and set files on fire. A month later, the gang is still occupying the yard.

For Ms Charles, her family’s only stroke of luck was that she had sent her three older children out of the neighborhood just days before the attack began on May Day. Their schools had been closed all April because of the violence and she worried about their boredom. would make them easy prey for gangs.

The violence that swept through Ms Charles’ neighborhood was part of a wave that devastated much of Port-au-Prince in April and May, displacing 16,000 people as internal refugees, according to the United Nations. The organization added that gang violence has forced 1,700 schools to close in and around the capital, leaving an estimated 500,000 children without classes. Some schools have been targeted by gangs, looking for students to kidnap for ransom.

“Extreme violence has been reported, including beheadings, cutting and burning of bodies, and the killing of minors accused of being informants for a rival gang,” the United Nations said in May.

“Sexual violence, including the gang rape of children as young as 10, has also been used by armed gang members to terrorize and punish people living in areas controlled by rival gangs,” added the UN.

Many aid groups say they have had difficulty implementing their programs because of violence or because gangs demand bribes to work on their territory. When they can enter the neighborhoods, they see children in difficulty.

“When children’s schools are closed, they have nothing to do and parents have to work, what will happen?” said Judes Jonathas, senior program manager for Mercy Corps in Haiti, one of the largest aid groups. operating in the country. “It’s a huge danger, they’re huge gang magnets.”

Just weeks after the murder of Mr Moïse, a powerful earthquake shook the country, killing more than 2,000 people.

“There are several crises in Haiti,” Mr. Jonathan said. “Can you imagine a child growing up in Haiti today, what kind of options does he have in the future? What kind of people will they be?’

Andre Paultre contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Geneviève Glatsky and Sofia Villamil contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia.