Grassroots vigilante efforts in Haiti are taking a vicious approach to quelling gang violence.
Gang violence in Port-Au-Prince, the capitol city of Haiti, has been at an all-time high this year, after natural disasters, plague, and a government both fiscally and morally bankrupt collapsed. Over 530 Haitians and visitors have been killed in Haiti by gang violence in 2023 alone. The violence, concentrated in Port-Au-Prince and the surrounding areas, is caused by political and economic factors including the decimation of the country’s largest economic driver, agriculture, and subsequent urban migration, small arms proliferation, and a political class willing to weaponize Haiti’s struggles to cling to power.
But for the past two weeks, the violence has tilted to a two-sided war instead of predator and prey. A grassroots vigilante movement called “Bwa Kale” (translation: peeled wood) has taken off, consisting of swift and merciless vigilante justice against gang members.
The grassroots vigilante movement appears to have arisen out of a spontaneous event on April 24th, in which a police action against a few gang members turned into a mob lynching. The police had arrested just over a dozen armed gang members, but released them to a mob of civilians who stoned the gang members, covered them in car tires, and lit them on fire.
“It dispelled the myth of their invincibility,” said Louis-Henri Mars, director of the Haitian peacebuilding non-profit Lakou Lape. The next day, an allied gang was attacked by civilians, with the only survivors the ones who managed to turn themselves in to police for arrest.
The violence has been vicious, and innocents have been caught up, including a policeman who was lynched after being mistaken for a gang member. But the community’s anger is real and deep. Gangs in Haiti have kidnapped and tortured children to extort their families, and the percentage of women in Haiti who have been raped since the gang violence crisis began approaches 100%. Communities which have felt under siege and powerless are now seeing this as their only way to freedom again.