Horror in Haiti: photojournalist meets notorious gang leader

On my trip in February, I set out to reach Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, Haiti’s top gang leader and a man who amassed a great deal of power and influence. I arrived in Port-au-Prince with plenty of information and the right contacts to meet him.

  • 1 month ago
  • April 8, 2024
9 min read
Jimmy Chérizier is a former police officer turned crime boss in Haiti. | Photo courtesy of Giles Clarke Jimmy Chérizier is a former police officer turned crime boss in Haiti. | Photo courtesy of Giles Clarke
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
Giles Clarke, born in the U.K., has lived in New York since 1995. The photojournalist has worked in many major global conflicts. He began his career in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. He moved on to professional photography in London and New York and worked on some iconic fashion campaigns. He shot for major brands like Budweiser, Hummer, and Cadillac. Then, in 2007, he reported from India on a toxic gas disaster and soon was covering mafias, environmental work, and more. He has won many prestigious awards and documented news around the world.
Background Information
Following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, Haiti devolved into a humanitarian, political, and security crisis. The strengthening criminal gangs now dominate the territory and access to key ports and airports. One orchestrated the escape of more than 3600 prisoners from jail and imposed terror in several areas of the country, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. The recent escalation of violence has reached alarming, levels, with reports of dozens of deaths, kidnappings, rape of women and girls, and the forced displacement of more than 35,000 people since the beginning of 2024.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ꟷ More than 10 times since 2011, I ventured into Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, to take photographs. Over the last year, I returned to Haiti twice, witnessing a worsening scenario in an already devastated region. Haiti went from a country marked by chaos to a place of profound danger.

These two trips – in September 2023 and February 2024 – revealed that danger, and it overwhelmed me. During past visits, I walked around Port-au-Prince carrying my camera. I never felt exposed or personally threatened, but everything changed.

Photographer who has been in war zones and covered gangs, fears what Haiti has become

In 2011, one year after an earthquake decimated Haiti, I ventured there for the first time. Arriving on scene, the damage was everywhere, and I wondered, “How can this work?” Whole blocks lay flattened but somehow, people went about their business. They continued their lives. It seemed extraordinary. I became immensely interested in the resilient spirit of the Haitian people, wanting to dig into their stories. This marked the beginning of many years of visits.

Before Haiti, I worked in complicated places in Central American for 14 or 15 years. I often covered risky gang stories and I faced my fear with ease. Working in war zones, a clear line always existed that delineated the source of the threat. When I went to Haiti in February, it was far worse than anything I saw before. The gangs had taken over completely. The country lost its rhythm, cohesion, and control. There is no “front line” to the conflict. The threat is everywhere.

Gang areas pointed out to me by the peace patrols in 2017 when the U.N. still had a presence in Haiti – areas I drove through without worry despite being gang controlled back then – are now impassable. The fear I feel is palpable, but I push on. I have a certain compulsion to enter those territories and capture the facts. When I go, I try not to think about my family or anything that would persuade me to stop. I avoid becoming emotional, take my precautions, and go.

Heading off to meet the most feared gang leader in Haiti

On my trip in February, I set out to reach Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, Haiti’s top gang leader and a man who amassed a great deal of power and influence. I arrived in Port-au-Prince with plenty of information and the right contacts to meet him.

The day I was summoned to meet Cherizier, I decided to arrive on a motorcycle. With so much volatility in the city, I wanted to be able to get out of the way quickly if necessary. In a car, I feel like a clear and easy target. I went light on equipment taking only a camera that I kept hidden under my shirt until I got there. Together with my contact, we drove to the bottom of a hill, where some guards opened the gate. From there, we continued to Jimmy’s house.

Driving through those desolate little streets contrasted the chaos in the rest of the city. I felt many eyes on me. Upon arrival, we saw lots of people gathered around the house chatting happily. Children walked down the street and came out of the school while neighbors shopped. I surely did not feel like I was about to meet one of the most feared gang leaders in all of Haiti.

Then, everything changed suddenly as gunshots rang out. Bullets from a powerful semi-automatic sprung out somewhere and the sound made me feel like they were right next to us. I looked around and no one seemed to be bothered, as if it happened all the time. I realized this is simply life in Haiti.

The bodies pile up in the streets, Port-au-Prince stinks of death

We waited for about two hours and suddenly, atop the hill, an SUV with tinted windows appeared. It approached us and when the doors opened, Jimmy Barbecue stepped out from the passenger side. Other gang members with heavy weaponry accompanied him. As soon as he neared me, I wanted to greet him, but he stopped me. “We were just fighting,” he said. “I can’t talk today. Come back tomorrow.” With that, he went into his house.

Though I did not take photos of Jimmy that day, I observed the area and captured the sensations of living in that place. I saw a building in front of his house and decided I would take pictures of him there.

The second day we arrived at 11:00 a.m. The moment we dismounted the motorcycle, shots rang out in the Delma area. It became clear, extensive fighting was taking place. After four hours of waiting the phone rang. “Jimmy can’t see you today, he’s too busy, come back tomorrow,” the man said.

Seeking to take advantage of the rest of the day, I set out for the General Hospital, to gather stories from local people. I met a 63-year-old mother with two gunshots in one of her arms, reeling from the murder of her daughter. I walked the bleak streets of Port-au-Prince with its pungent smell of death.

Bodies often lay around in Haiti, but organizations used to pick them up and bury them. Now, gang checkpoints keep the organizations from traveling freely. Many families can no longer afford burial, and the fuel once used to burn bodies is running out. When fuel was available, they burned the bodies in the streets. You can still see black marks on the sidewalks and walls.

A mountain of bodies and photographing the notorious gang leader

As Haiti battles a failing infrastructure, the morgues lack the power to run refrigerators. When I visited one, they invited me to a room. When the door swung open, I glimpsed a pile of 25 or 30 naked bodies, laying on top of each other. The pile stood nearly as tall as me, and the smell was indescribably horrible.

I turned my eyes from the mountain of bodies, stretched my arm out, and snapped a picture with my camera. In my years covering gang violence I witnessed many dead bodies. You grow tough with time. This, however, proved to be a unique kind of difficulty.

The third time I went to Jimmy’s house I finally met with him. He arrived at exactly the appointed time. When he climbed out of the truck, he walked over to his dog Barbie chained outside the house and gave her food.

People moved about calmly through the quiet neighborhood. When Barbie tried to snap at a neighbor, Jimmy yelled at her to calm down. It felt like an ordinary scene in an ordinary neighborhood in an ordinary city. This city, however, was under siege, taken over by the gangs this man commanded.

I understood I had little time with Jimmy but I waited as long as possible to take the photographs so he and his boys would relax and the images might feel more natural. Only Jimmy openly showed his face. The rest hid their identities behind ski masks. I took them to the abandoned buildings across the street from Jimmy’s house and asked him to look directly into the lens. I wanted everyone who saw the photos to feel as though they were looking Jimmy directly in the eyes.

A county collapsed: “I plan to return the moment I have the chance”

In the time we shared, Jimmy opened up to me. He felt it necessary to tell me why he does what he does. I sensed passion in his words. He grew especially intense when he said, “It’s time for Haiti to get a grip on itself.”

I saw Jimmy as a complex and interesting character that day. He represented a duality always present in his demeanor. He was the son of murdered parents, and he adopted seven children. The UN Security Council calls him a criminal actor, and yet he implements programs to bring clean water to different areas of the city.

Some may see him as a sort of Robin Hood, but the sanctions suggested by international audiences point to extensive violation of human rights. The deterioration in Haiti is nothing less than shocking. The level of chaos, pain, despair, and brutality is vast and crushing. I had to leave the country for another work commitment, but I would have liked to stay; to document the continuation of the story.

I understand many areas I passed through in February are increasingly impassable now. I wonder how innocent people continue to live with everything happening. Despite moving on to new activities, what I saw in Haiti remains inside me. It is present in my mind; I cannot simply shut it off or silence it. I plan to return the moment I have the chance.

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