PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Youri Mevs knew that the call was coming, and she was terrfied.
Mevs is a member of one of the richest families in Haiti; she owns Shodecosa, Haiti’s largest industrial park, which warehouses 93 percent of the nation’s imported food. Like everyone else, she has watched with despair as her country descended into chaos since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise.
Her office got the call one early morning in August. It was from Jimmy Cherizier — aka Barbecue, a former policeman who leads the G9 gang coalition which controls the coastal strip of Port-au-Prince. Most of Haiti’s food and gasoline flows through his domain, and he can stop it with a single word.
This story is part of a series, “Haiti: Business, Politics and Gangs,” produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Barbecue’s demand: $500,000 a month, a “war chest” he claimed would be used to buy food for the hungry and fight for democracy.
Refuse, and Shodecosa would be ransacked, and the gangs also would block the roads around the port terminal owned by the Mevs family.
Mevs knew the threat was credible. It came down to math: “How much do we make? Can we afford it?” The answer was no.
Should she fight back? Again, no. “We are not going to shoot a gun to defend a bag of rice.”
There was nowhere to turn for help. For decades, Haiti was ruled by political strongmen supported by armed gangs; with Moise’s killing, the state collapsed and the gangs were unbound.
Having lost their meal ticket, the government, the gangs have become independent predators. While some turned to kidnapping, like those who captured 17 missionaries and their relatives, Barbecue’s men took control of the port district, gaining a stranglehold on the country’s economy.
Mevs is wealthy — in so many ways, she is unlike the migrants who are fleeing Haiti’s misery.
But like those emigrants, she and others among Haiti’s wealthy elite have few illusions about life in Haiti. She wants her daughters to move abroad, at least for now, and she knows she may have to join them eventually.
In the meantime, she vows to stand up and fight the political battle to rebuild the government and country.
On a hot October morning, Barbecue receives reporters in his stronghold of Bellecour-Cité Soleil, a wretched neighborhood of tin shacks without water, electricity or any basic services.
Barbecue unboxes two new, American-made AK rifles with ammunition. Then surrounded by a dozen young, hooded men armed and dressed in brightly colored T-shirts and sneakers, he walks to the perimeter wall that encloses Terminal Varreux, the port owned by the Mevs family.
No, he insists. He did not ask for money from the Mevs in exchange for not looting their properties.
Barbecue fancies himself a man of the people and an enemy of the elite. This, he says, is what he believes: “Water, housing, school, university, security for all and not only for the 5% who have lighter skin” — rich families like the Mevs.
Mevs and others dismiss nearly everything Barbecue says as posturing — especially his claims that he is not corrupt but an enemy of corruption.
He has been accused — by the United Nations and other international organizations — of participation in three massacres between 2018 and 2020.
The bloodbaths, said to have been sponsored by high-ranking officials in the Moïse administration, left more than 200 people dead. Women were gang-raped, and entire neighborhoods were burned, displacing thousands.
Barbecue’s extortion is brazen. And sometimes, a payoff is not enough to guarantee protection.
For 20 years, Giovanni Saleh, 44, rented a warehouse from the Mevs, halfway between Cité Soleil and the industrial park.
Saleh says he has always complied with the gang’s rules.
“The last day I went to the warehouse I was preparing the food I used to leave for the gang every two weeks … I collaborated with them with food and some money on a regular basis.”
Saleh says he received a call from a member of Barbecue´s gang coalition: “We are going to block the area for a couple of days to ask for money from the government and trucks leaving the port, so come now and take whatever you need and then stay away for some days.”
On June 6, a friend called Saleh to tell him that there were rumors of an attack against his warehouse. He called security, no answer. He checked the cameras online and they were off. He called police, called everyone he knew. Nobody would do anything.
Saleh lost $3.5 million in goods over three days, as thousands of people directed by Barbecue and a colleague emptied his warehouse.
Guards told him later that armed men fronting a mob had come to the door and knocked.
“Who would shoot? No one would shoot,” Saleh said. “They opened the doors and left.”
Youri Mevs does not pay the $500,000 extortion. She orders one of her managers to supply some of Barbecue’s rivals: “Get them corn flakes, milk, pasta, tomato and soap.” How much? “$5,000.”
She does not believe in cash donations because “they will use them to buy ammunition,” so she donates goods that cannot be used “to hunt me or people like me.”
When Moise’s government began to fall apart, she decided she could no longer talk about “they” and “them” when she referred to her own country: “Because I belong to the caste, I know what the caste has done to this country and what the country is doing to my caste.”
In 2016 she met Youri Latortue, a veteran politician who was then president of the Senate. Latortue asked her to help with a report about a corruption scheme during Michel Martelly’s administration.
In 2018 she became secretary general of Latortue´s party, AAA, which has led the opposition against Martelly and Moise since the 2016 elections. Now Latortue is “waiting for the party nomination” and Mevs is running his campaign.
Latortue and Mevs have proposed a special police unit, trained by international experts, to fight the gangs. And they want to put Barbecue behind bars.
But in the meantime, Mevs has to deal with him.
At the AAA headquarters, a truck departs. It stops three times, on three parallel streets. Every corner is guarded by a dozen young men. They unload the truck into a house, a school, a party office.
Behind them, on empty streets, gunshots ring out and armed young men stand guard at a barricade. They call themselves a self-defense group. They are simply one of Port-Au-Prince’s gangs.
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