Haiti PM lands in Puerto Rico as gangs displace thousands at home © Reuters. Residents who fled violence gather to receive meals at a school being used as shelter as the government declared state of emergency amid violence, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 4, 2024. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol


(Corrects date to Monday, not Tuesday, for quote in paragraph 7)

By Steven Aristil and Harold Isaac

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry landed in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, as questions as to why he had not returned to his country swirled amid escalating gang violence that has threatened to topple his government and left thousands homeless.

Puerto Rico’s governor’s office confirmed Henry had landed in capital San Juan. Local media had reported that the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, had earlier not authorized his plane to land.

It was unclear why Henry did not fly directly to Haiti, though heavy gunfire was heard near the capital’s international airport on Monday and the fighting makes travel difficult.

Haiti’s already fragile security situation worsened over the weekend while Henry was in Kenya to tie up a deal for the deployment of foreign troops to restore order. On Sunday, Haiti’s threadbare government declared a state of emergency after inmates escaped in two major prison breaks.

“Armed gangs forced us to leave our homes. They destroyed our houses, and we’re on the streets,” said a man who gave his name as Nicolas on Tuesday and is living in a camp.

The United Nations’ immigration office said during the weekend that at least 15,000 people had been displaced due to violence.

“I didn’t have time to take any of my things, not even my underwear,” said Jasmine, who declined to give her last name, at a shelter on Monday. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Rights group Plan International said many were fleeing the capital for Artibonite, traditionally Haiti’s breadbasket farming region but whose residents are now facing food shortages as fighting spreads north.

Following an assessment of 500 testimonies, it found many families were skipping food for a day, over half of children were out of school, and a lack of money meant many felt they had no choice but to join gangs. Some 30% to 50% of gang members are estimated to be minors, the children’s rights group said.

Country director Allassane Drabo said girls were at particular risk of forced marriage, with parents unable to meet basic needs. “Widespread violence is robbing too many of their childhood, with girls being forced to swap schoolbooks and bread for guns and wedding dresses,” he said.

Kwanli Kladstrup, country director of aid agency Concern Worldwide, said an estimated five million of Haiti’s 11 million people faced acute hunger.

Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021, violent gangs have expanded control of their territory. Henry – who leads an unelected interim government – had pledged to step down by February, but delayed the process, citing the lack of security.


In recent days, countries in the region have withdrawn embassy staff and advised their citizens to leave.

The Dominican Republic, which has had an often fractious relationship with its island neighbor, has sought to strengthen its border security and said it will not set up refugee camps for fleeing Haitians.

Jean Tholbert Alexis, an official from Henry’s government, said on X on Wednesday that the Dominican decision not to allow the prime minister’s plane to land was an unprecedented “diplomatic blunder.”

Support from abroad has been scarce. The U.N last year authorized a security mission but a deployment date has not been set. As of late February, the U.N. said five nations had formally pledged troops, with less than $11 million deposited into a fund for the mission.

Humanitarian aid groups say they are chronically under-funded and that their workers have struggled to keep delivering their services due to the violence.

Sinisa Vukovic, a senior conflict lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s school of advanced international studies, said moving the capital to Cap-Haitien, which has a port and international airport, could help coordinate humanitarian support and launch the international force.

“It would not be the first time that the government was temporarily relocated,” he said, pointing to a relocation following a disastrous 2010 earthquake. “Desperate times require drastic measures.”

The U.N. estimates the conflict has driven some 300,000 from their homes and that gangs last year killed close to 5,000 people and kidnapped nearly 2,500 – sometimes using videos of rape and torture to extort costly ransoms from victims’ friends and families.

Hoping to shore up public support, gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, known as Barbeque, said an alliance of gangs known as Viv Ansanm (Living Together) would soon release their hostages without ransom, local media reported on Tuesday.


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