Gedeon Jean describes it as a “collective awakening”.
Over the past several weeks, groups of Haitian citizens armed with machetes, sticks and other makeshift weapons have banded together to root out suspected gang members and try to end the killings, rapes and kidnappings destroying their communities.
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The Centre d’analyse et de recherche en droits de l’homme (CARDH) rights group that Jean leads said suspects have been “chased, beaten, decapitated and then burned alive” by members of the grassroots vigilante movement – dubbed “Bwa Kale”, or “peeled wood” in Haitian Creole.
At least 160 suspected gang members were killed between April 24 and May 24, CARDH said in a report this month, and as a result, Haiti has seen “a dramatic decrease” in kidnappings, killings and other forms of violence linked to the armed groups.
However, Jean said while the movement has had “considerable” effects, it does not present a long-term solution to the violence gripping the Caribbean nation of about 12 million people. Instead, he said Haitian state institutions must be reinforced and take responsibility for protecting citizens.
“We’re in a situation in which the population has to defend itself,” Jean, CARDH’s executive director, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “Bwa Kale is symptomatic of the collapse of the state,” he said.
“Citizens can’t really protect themselves … It’s the role of the institutions, of the police, of the state – to take steps so that [they] can exercise their mandates.”
The Bwa Kale movement formally began on April 24, when a mob lynched more than a dozen suspected gang members and set their bodies on fire in the streets of Canape Vert, a neighbourhood of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
In a brief statement on Facebook that day, the Haitian National Police (PNH) said officers had confiscated weapons from “armed individuals” travelling in a minibus. “More than a dozen individuals travelling in this vehicle were unfortunately lynched by members of the population,” the force said.
Images shared online and by international news agencies showed a crowd of people standing near a pile of charred human remains.
The lynching came after nearly two years of escalating violence in Port-au-Prince and other parts of Haiti, where armed groups have been vying for control in the political vacuum caused by the July 2021 assassination of former President Jovenel Moise.
Haiti’s de facto leader, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whom Moise chose for the post just days before he was killed, has faced a crisis of legitimacy — and attempts to chart a political transition for the country have failed.
Haitian state institutions largely do not function, the PNH is underfunded and lacks resources, and rights groups have denounced the authorities for failing to hold gang members and their backers accountable for the rising violence.
Against that backdrop, Bwa Kale emerged not as an organised movement, but rather as a “spontaneous” push by residents going around, “looking for known gang members” and killing them, said Louis-Henri Mars, executive director of Lakou Lape, a peacebuilding group in Port-au-Prince.
Mars cautioned that the wave of vigilante killings could potentially ensnare people who are not involved with gangs, or serve as a means for people to enact revenge for unrelated slights. It also is not a long-term solution, he said.
But Mars told Al Jazeera that it is difficult to blame the population for “taking matters into their own hands” because the Haitian authorities have failed to protect them. “It’s a testimony to the ineffectiveness of the [police] and to the ineffectiveness of the government to subdue the gangs,” he said.
History of vigilantism
This also is not the first time that vigilantism has gripped Haiti.
After the brutal reigns of former Haitian President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, ended in 1986, Haitians sought to rid the nation of all signs of Duvalierism in a process known as “dechoukaj” – literally, uprooting.
The period of political and social change included lynchings of suspected Duvalier supporters and members of the duo’s widely feared Tonton Macoutes paramilitary brigade, which killed and tortured thousands of people during the Duvaliers’ combined 29-year dictatorship.
“Beyond advocating political changes, some Haitians periodically attacked suspected ‘Macoutes’ and, in some cases, hacked their presumed former persecutors to death,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a 1996 report marking a decade since the formal end of Duvalierism.
The rights group said the Haitian population’s “frustration with the judiciary’s historic corruption and complicity with the military” had fuelled further incidents of vigilante violence, including “public accusations of thievery after which mobs descend on and beat the accused to death”.
Danielle Jung, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in the United States and co-author of the book, Lynching and Local Justice: Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States, said collective vigilantism tends to emerge more often in places with weak rule of law.
Jung, who did research on the practice in Haiti in 2017, told Al Jazeera that one Haitian focus group participant summed it up succinctly at the time: “It might not be the best justice, but it’s justice.”
While collective vigilantism is not unique to the Caribbean country – similar movements have emerged in South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere – Jung said it enjoyed relatively high levels of approval and legitimacy in Haiti.
Still, she said that generally speaking, creating a robust judicial system and strong state institutions through which community members can achieve justice could disrupt the phenomenon and “be a really important piece of the solution”.
“It’s no one’s first choice. I think in most of these cases, [people] would prefer to turn to state institutions and state courts,” Jung said. “But because they feel like they don’t have that option, communities take this on themselves.”
Back in Port-au-Prince, Mars at Lakou Lape said the Haitian authorities and society at large need a multi-pronged approach to go beyond Bwa Kale and end the cycle of violence.
Building trust in Haitian state institutions will be a critical step, he said, that can only be achieved if the authorities take action against all the illegal armed groups operating in the country, “not just some of them”.
Mars said the government should threaten to use “a big stick” but at the same time offer a “planned, exit strategy” for gang members, as well as a form of transitional justice for those who have suffered.
“The victims of the gangs, as the population demonstrated with the Bwa Kale movement, are very resentful of what they’ve gone through. They’ve lost loved ones, they had to pay money that they didn’t have, they lost homes,” he said.
The state must bolster its presence and establish programmes to address the underlying issues underpinning the violence, including poverty and unemployment, Mars said. The relationships between armed groups and some politicians and businesspeople also must be addressed.
“People know that the population in the neighbourhoods [is] fed up with the situation, but the tendency a lot of times is for this awareness to come to the forefront and for some reason, the movement slows down or dies, and people go back to business as usual,” he said.
With Haiti’s population expected to rise in the coming years, inaction could lead to dangerous results, Mars added.
“If we are in the same economic and social system and structures and conditions that we’re now in, what’s going to happen 10 years from now? It’s not Bwa Kale that we’re going to have any more. We’re going to have something far worse.”