Haiti declares state of emergency, imposes nighttime curfew amid surging violence

ByAicha El Hammar Castano, Matt Rivers and Morgan Winsor ABCNews logo
Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Haiti is under a state of emergency and nighttime curfew amid a surge of violence, after armed gangs attacked the Caribbean country's two largest prisons and freed scores of inmates.

The Haitian government declared the 72-hour state of emergency on Sunday evening and imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. in an effort "to restore the order and to take appropriate measures in order to regain control of the situation," according to a press release.

The government cited "the deterioration in security, particularly in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince, characterized by increasingly violent criminal acts perpetrated by armed gangs, causing massive population displacements and consisting in particular of kidnappings and assassinations of peaceful citizens, violence against women and children, ransacking and theft of public and private property."

Hundreds -- if not thousands -- of inmates broke out of the National Penitentiary, Haiti's biggest prison, in downtown Port-au-Prince on Saturday night following a massive, coordinated attack by gunmen from gangs, two senior Haitian government officials told ABC News. Of the nearly 4,000 inmates estimated to have been behind bars at the facility prior to Saturday's assault, fewer than 100 were still inside as of Sunday according to the officials, who cautioned that the actual number of escapees remains unknown.

The Haitian government said in a statement on Sunday that those responsible for the attack were "heavily armed criminals wanting at all costs to free people in custody, particularly for kidnapping, murder and other serious offenses," and that several inmates and prison staff were injured in the fighting.

Several bodies strewn on the ground in and around the National Penitentiary were openly visible on Sunday morning, according to multiple local journalists who spoke with ABC News, though it was unclear how they died.

A second prison containing an estimated 1,400 inmates was also overrun by armed gangs in nearby Croix des Bouquets that same night. As of Monday morning, that area was entirely under control of gangs, according to the Haitian National Police.

The mass prison break is just the latest in a horrifically violent few days in Haiti, even by the country's own recent standards where kidnapping and murder rates have exploded.

An internal police summary shared with ABC News by a Haitian law enforcement source stated that gangs have launched a series of coordinated attacks since Feb. 29, with the objective "to immobilize the Haitian National Police and throw out the Prime Minister." Haitian police see the coordinated effort as a way to "cause chaos, panic and spread thin [police] resources," according to the summary.

Jimmy Chérizier, a former Haitian police officer who is now one of the most powerful gang leaders in the country, has claimed responsibility for the attacks alongside other gang leaders. Chérizier, known as Barbecue, vowed in a statement on Friday to continue fighting the state as long as necessary and urged families to keep their children at home to avoid "collateral damage."

ABC News' multiple requests for comment from the Haitian National Police and the Acting Haitian Prime Minister's Office have not been answered.

Acting Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry is out of the country after going to Kenya late last week to try and secure the deployment of a Kenyan-led security force authorized by the United Nations last year.

Gunfire ripped through the Haitian capital's downtown neighborhood housing the National Penitentiary starting late Saturday afternoon. A Haitian law enforcement source told ABC News that dozens of gang members were involved, battling in the streets and inside the prison itself with police assigned to guard the facility.

A union representing members of the Haitian National Police said officers were quickly overwhelmed, posting a plea on social media for any officer in the city with a vehicle, a weapon and ammunition to come support the fight.

The gun battle waged for hours but when it was over, it appeared there were hardly any prisoners left inside the sprawling National Penitentiary. Local journalists entered freely through the front door of the complex on Sunday to find a deserted interior littered with damage and no law enforcement presence. Three bodies were seen lying on the ground and multiple prisoners inside described scenes of intense gunfights the night before.

Among the limited number of remaining inmates are several Colombian nationals accused of participating in the July 2021 assassination of then-Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

The National Penitentiary is Haiti's largest and most notorious prison, once housing everyone from gang leaders to corrupt politicians.

Saturday's violence unfolded in the wake of a series of gang-led attacks against Haitian government and police facilities, including a government building about 500 meters from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Gunfire erupting close to Haiti's Toussaint Louverture International Airport on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince forced officials to suspend operations there multiple times in recent days and has prompted the cancellation of a number of U.S. airline flights.

At least four police officers have been killed in the fighting since Wednesday, according to Haitian authorities.

As chaos grips Haiti, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is urging Americans to leave now. The embassy was open for limited operations on Monday and has cancelled appointments for much of the week, according to the U.S. Department of State, which had ordered the evacuation of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and diplomatic family members from Haiti in late July.

Kareen Ulysse, director of CHF Foundation, a nonprofit that helps underfunded schools and hospitals in Haiti, told ABC News on Monday that their staff in Port-au-Prince are in "a constant state of stress" because they don't know "if today is the day armed men from rival groups will take over the area."

"Our staff is having a hard time making it to work despite their desire to serve their country," Ulysse said. "We are looking to find a sponsor for bullet proof vehicles for our foundation so we can keep working as safely as possible."

ABC News' Shannon Crawford, Will Gretsky and Helena Skinner contributed to this report.

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