Who is Haitian gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier?

Rights groups accuse former police officer’s G9 gang alliance of committing atrocities, including killings and rape.

Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier
Former Haitian police officer and G9 gang alliance chief Jimmy 'Barbecue' Cherizier speaks to the media in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 11, 2024 [Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters]

Haitian gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier is once again making headlines.

The former police officer and his G9 Family and Allies gang alliance have been major contributors to years of escalating violence and political instability in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

They have blockaded fuel terminals, clashed with rival gangs, and used violence to cement their grip on areas under their control, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee their homes.

But in recent weeks, Cherizier — who is under sanctions from the United Nations, United States and other countries — has been at the centre of a new surge in unrest in Port-au-Prince as he called for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

In early March, Cherizier warned that Haiti faced the prospect of “civil war” if Henry, who was unelected, did not step down.

The embattled prime minister tendered his resignation this week. He said he would formally step down once a presidential transitional council is set up and his interim successor is chosen, in terms outlined by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) bloc of nations.

But that did little to address the grip of the gangs, which control about 80 percent of Port-au-Prince.

Cherizier also continues to denounce outside interference in Haiti’s affairs, including a push to deploy a Kenya-led multinational force, which has the backing of the UN, to help the country respond to gang violence.

Here, Al Jazeera looks at Cherizier’s background, alleged abuses and professed goals:

Ex-police officer

A former officer of the Haitian National Police (HNP), Cherizier has been linked to various human rights violations and fatal attacks against civilians, according to multiple reports by media outlets, international observers and rights groups.

His G9 gang alliance has been involved in a surge in violence across Port-au-Prince since the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, which created a power vacuum.

Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented a range of abuses committed by members of his G9 gang alliance, particularly in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince’s impoverished Cite Soleil district.

In one instance in April 2023, a Brooklyn resident called Josephine told HRW that she was stopped by G9 members while walking home with her sister.

“The criminals cut open some of the men’s bodies before gathering them all together and setting them on fire,” Josephine said. She and her sister were raped repeatedly by the G9 members, and she later found out that her brother had been killed, HRW said.

The UN also has blamed the powerful confederation of gangs that Cherizier leads for one of Haiti’s most pressing and recurring problems over the last years: severe fuel shortages. In 2022, the gang alliance blocked a major fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince, forcing hospitals to cut back on services and pushing the country towards a major humanitarian disaster.

Cherizier had said a year earlier that the tactic of blocking fuel terminals was aimed at forcing Henry to resign.

“If Ariel Henry resigns at 8:00, then at 8:05, we remove all the barricades, so the trucks can come to the fuel depot and fill up, and then the crisis will stop,” Cherizier told Al Jazeera in an interview that aired in October 2021.

Henry came to power after the assassination of Moise in July of 2021. While he long enjoyed Western support, Haitian civil rights groups had questioned his legitimacy, especially after he indefinitely postponed presidential and legislative elections.

Jimmy Cherizier
Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer, leads the G9 gang alliance [Odelyn Joseph/AP Photo]

Self-described revolutionary

Cherizier has presented himself as a revolutionary, fighting a system of inequality and the elites who control it.

“We are fighting for another society — another Haiti that is not only for the 5 percent of the people who keep all the wealth, but a new Haiti where everyone can have food and clean water, so they can have a decent house to live, another Haiti where we don’t have to leave the country,” he said in the 2021 interview with Al Jazeera.

According to Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, Cherizier likes to compare himself to historical figures like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Cuba’s longtime President Fidel Castro.

“And he likes to say that he’s essentially a revolutionary … and he’s going to redistribute wealth,” Fatton told Al Jazeera this week.

Fatton said that, while Cherizier has distributed some food and resources to people in areas under the control of his G9 gang, “that’s hardly a vision of the future or some sort of revolutionary [act]”.

“It’s more that he wants to control his turf,” said Fatton. The professor also noted that those who have suffered the most from the continued gang violence in the Haitian capital are “the very, very poor people in the major slums”.

“Something like over 200,000 Haitians had to leave their houses. They had to move into really very poorly equipped camps,” Fatton said. “You have, in other words, a situation where the people who are suffering the most are the very poor, the very people that Barbecue says he wants to help.”

‘I’m not a gangster’

Accusations of abuse against Cherizier date back to his days with the security forces.

The UN and the US have said Cherizier was an HNP officer when he was involved in a 2018 massacre in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of La Saline that killed dozens of people.

The attack was coordinated between Haitian officials and local gangs to “repress political dissent” in the capital, the US Department of the Treasury said in a 2020 statement announcing sanctions against Cherizier.

“During this attack, at least 71 people were killed, over 400 houses were destroyed, and at least seven women were raped by armed gangs,” a US government report said in 2021. “Throughout 2018 and 2019, Cherizier led armed groups in coordinated, brutal attacks in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods.”

According to local news reports, Cherizier was fired from the police late in 2018, and months later, an arrest warrant was issued against him on accusations he participated in the execution of civilians during a police raid in the Grand Ravine area of Port-au-Prince in 2017.

Cherizier has denied the accusations. “I’m not a gangster. I never will be a gangster,” he told Al Jazeera in 2021. “It’s the system I’m fighting against today. The system has a lot of money; they own the media. Now, they try to make me look like a gangster.”

Early years, political goals

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2019, Cherizier said he was born close to Port-au-Prince’s La Saline as the youngest of eight children, and his father died when he was five.

Cherizier also told the news agency at that time about the origins of his alias, “Barbecue”, denying that it was about burning people. He said he acquired the name as a child when his mother was a street vendor, selling fried chicken.

During his conversation with Al Jazeera in 2021, Cherizier walked through the desolate streets of La Saline and had friendly interactions with residents. He often has a large rifle strapped around his body during public appearances.

Since President Moise’s assassination, Haitian gangs, including Cherizier’s G9, have tried to exert greater influence on Haitian politics.

Amid the recent surge in violence in Port-au-Prince, Cherizier has said he wants to help lead the Caribbean nation out of its current crisis.

“They gain their income through illicit activities, and they are willing to use their arms for political purposes,” Mariano de Alba, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera this week.

“These are groups that increasingly think that the only way to retain not only their relevance but their existence is if they are able to at least manage some important degree of political power.”

But Haitian rights advocates have demanded accountability for years of deadly attacks by the gangs, as well as widespread sexual violence.

‘Coordinated, brutal attacks’

Indeed, the image that Cherizier has tried to project as a leader on the side of the poor stands in stark contrast with some of the accusations levelled against him and the gangs he leads.

Haiti’s National Network for the Defense of Human Rights released a report (PDF) in August 2022 documenting “mass and repeated rape perpetrated against women and girls” during violence between Cherizier’s followers and rival gangs in Cite Soleil.

An earlier report by the group in 2021 also accused Cherizier of ordering killings and the burning of homes in various attacks in the country.

That documentation was echoed by a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Cherizier in 2022. In explaining its decision, the council cited multiple instances of violence.

“Throughout 2018 and 2019, Cherizier led armed groups in coordinated, brutal attacks in Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods,” the resolution said.

“In May 2020, Cherizier led armed gangs in a five-day attack in multiple Port-au-Prince neighborhoods in which civilians were killed and houses were set on fire.”

It added that his actions, including the blocking of the fuel terminal, “have directly contributed to the economic paralysis and humanitarian crisis in Haiti“.

Source: Al Jazeera