Haiti is in the middle of a humanitarian disaster. Gang warfare has deepened since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in the summer of 2021. Hunger has intensified. Cholera is spreading, as it has before, partly because armed groups are preventing doctors from providing care.
I spoke to Natalie Kitroeff, The Times’s bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean who recently reported from Haiti, about the crisis.
Claire: Criminal organizations seem to control much of Haiti. How did they take over?
Natalie: Gangs have been around in Haiti for decades. But they became particularly brazen under Moïse. After his assassination, a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, took over, but he was never confirmed by the Parliament, and a lot of people viewed him as illegitimate. The institutions of the country were gutted. The gangs stepped into that power vacuum, and the state has lost its ability to secure the most basic arteries in the country.
Can you explain how life in Haiti has deteriorated since these gangs took over?
To understand the current situation, we can look at two major events. In July, rival gangs fought over control of Cité Soleil, the largest slum in Haiti, where about 300,000 people live. A war broke out between them that lasted for about a week and resulted in hundreds of deaths. Gang members burned down entire neighborhoods. Women were raped as a tool of war. It was horrific. Thousands of people fled the slum, and many of them have been living as refugees elsewhere in Port-au-Prince, the capital.
Then, a few months later, Henry, the prime minister, raised the price of fuel, which sparked protests that plunged Haiti in near anarchy, and one of the gangs blocked the port through which most of the fuel comes into the country. That turned a bad situation into a crisis. Haiti doesn’t have a functional electrical grid, so everything runs on diesel generators. When there’s no fuel, it impacts almost everything. Gas stations were closed. There was no trash collection in much of the capital, so it piled up in the slums. The water utility lost its ability to pump enough water and aid workers couldn’t bring in water to areas blocked by gangs, which medical experts believe was a major contributor in the cholera outbreak.
You’re based in Mexico. What did you see when you traveled to Haiti to report — how present was the violence?
I flew into Port-au-Prince. The airport is still functional. And it’s located right by Cité Soleil, the slum. From the plane you can see this sprawling shantytown. You see the sun hitting off the corrugated metal shacks. When I was there, there were thousands of refugees sleeping on cardboard and cement right next to the airport. There weren’t a lot of people in the street, either, and there was only black market fuel.
People also drive really fast. You generally drive in a bit of a panic in Port-au-Prince through these windy roads that go up and down hilly streets because of fear of kidnapping by gang members. Kidnappings, targeting both rich and poor Haitians, happened at a rate of four a day last month, according to the U.N. That feeling of the potential for something to happen at any moment hits you from the minute you leave the airport.
If there’s essentially a lock on the country, no fuel and constant gang violence, how do Haitians survive? How do they eat, for example?
Hunger has always existed in Haiti. In Cité Soleil this year, it reached famine-like conditions for thousands of many people. Some people said they drank rainwater. Others said they boiled leaves. Generally, I found that regular Haitians feel a lot of solidarity with each other. A lot of people will tell you that they survived with the help from their neighbors. One young woman told me she fled her house after neighbors told her that gang leaders were coming to rape her. People are helping each other survive.
It’s hard to describe how bad the situation is. For example, when I was in Port-au-Prince there were children recovering from gunshot wounds sleeping in a massive makeshift camp. During this rainy season, people’s homes get completely flooded and they can’t sleep at night. Streets become trash rivers and people are walking through them barefoot.
Are there still places on the island that aren’t touched by gang violence, or where relatively well-off Haitians live more normal lives?
Many wealthier Haitians tend to spend a lot of time in Miami, which is only about a two-hour flight away. Some experts say that the rise of these gangs have been facilitated and funded by these elites, because they are using the gangs to achieve their own aims such as fomenting chaos when it suits them, mobilizing or suppressing votes and paying the gangs off to facilitate the flow of goods.
Many rich Haitians travel around in armored vehicles and have security details. But nobody is exempt from the violence and the chaos and the potential that you can drive right into it.
You’ve covered stories across Latin America, but the situation in Haiti is extreme. How does reporting there compare to reporting in other places that are going through hardship?
I talked to a Haitian who said he was a U.S. military veteran who had fought in several wars. I asked him, How does Haiti compare to a war zone? He said, “In a war, you know who’s shooting at you.” I think about that all the time.
Natalie Kitroeff grew up near Philadelphia and has been based in Mexico City since 2020. In the World Cup, she is rooting for both the U.S. and Mexico.
Related: Read Natalie’s dispatch from the front lines of the gang wars in Haiti.