The leader of a notorious Haitian gang has released a rap song. Here’s why that’s dangerous

·7 min read

His goes by the name “Izo 5 Segonn” — Izo Five Seconds — and he rules one of Haiti’s poorest slums and most notorious kidnapping lairs, Village of God, where five Haitian police officers were killed earlier this year in a botched raid, their bodies never recovered.

Now the gang chief, linked to dozens of kidnappings, is trying to use his voice to rally a vulnerable population.

As 17 foreign missionaries remain hostages of another gang, 400 Mawozo, after being abducted at gunpoint more than a week ago, Izo 5 Segonn released a rap song over weekend. In the song, he accuses the Haitian government of arming them with assault rifles, and using them to do its bidding. And amid the infectious beat, he argues in Creole that the dire situation the country’s poor masses find themselves in is the fault of public authorities.

The chorus: If you see we don’t have good hospitals, it’s their fault / If schools can’t function, it’s their fault! / If all the youth leave the country, it’s their fault! / Yes, it’s their fault!

The gang leader and wannabe rapper also raps threats. He warns that after providing them Galils, Israeli-made automatic rifles, police would be ill-advised to try to get them back.

The government entered the ghetto / It gave us Galils and it gave us Taurus / Who did they send to get them back? / You will see that they still gave us the police

Gédéon Jean, a human rights lawyer and director of Haiti’s Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, which is tracking Haiti’s kidnapping phenomenon and the rise of gangs, cited the song in his latest report as an example of how gangs in Haiti are on the verge of becoming a proto-state.

Using technology, and in some cases their own online media, gang leaders are trying to rally the population to their cause “by exposing the misery being lived by the population.”

“What is Izo doing? He’s showing in his music that it’s the government who gave him the guns, it’s the government that has been using them and today they are using the guns to defend themselves,” Jean said. “Psychologically speaking, they have taken conscience of the force that they are.”

Most cops nowadays are in gangs. Even the top ones have their own parties.

The gangs, which have united under the banner of G-9 Family and Allies, control a significant portion of the Haitian capital. They have more guns and more money, while the government is in a state of collapse. They are led by a former policeman turned gang leader, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, who fashions himself as a savior of the streets as he speaks of the country’s dismal poverty and unacceptable inequality.

These people take us for animals, we’re are the worst in their eyes / They take off with the people’s money, they didn’t bother even building a hospital / I am talking about the opposition as well as those in power / They waste the money. Look at the trash in the city.

While the reflection about the dire state of affairs in Haiti isn’t far from the truth, it is also dangerous, observers point out. Pierre Esperance, who runs the National Human Rights Defense Network, noted that the Village of God gang is among three responsible for the country’s kidnapping epidemic. The other is connected to the nearby Grand Ravine slum, and the third is 400 Mawozo, the gang behind the kidnapped Americans.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasized that the administration is “doing everything we can to bring these missionaries, U.S. citizens, home safely. “

“We have FBI — we’ve sent an enormous number of law enforcement officials to help assist with that. And obviously our embassy in Port-au-Prince is running point,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Port-au-Prince, gangs are continuing to hold the country hostage by preventing fuel trucks from getting from the port to gas stations, and fancying themselves as looking out for the people.

Chérizier, who has been sanctioned by the United States, has been linked to at least three massacres in impoverished Haiti neighborhoods between 2018 and 2020.

In April, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic issued a report pointing to evidence that the three massacres, carried out by gangs, had government support. Chérizier, who has denied involvement, was linked to each of the attacks, which took place in La Saline, Bel-Air and Cite Soleil.

As the fuel shortage worsened this week, Chérizier declared that the gangs are a political force.

“Today, the gangs want to promote themselves as a force to be reckoned with,” said Jean, who views the song by Izo 5 Segonn as one more vehicle the gangs are using to elicit sympathy. “They want to pass as a political, social and ideological force.

“They are using the music to indoctrinate the population,” he added. “They are constructing an ideology in the midst of a vulnerable generation that has no reference and no maturity, in a way for them to accept what they are doing and show that it’s the state that is responsible for the misery.”

Damian Blake, an associate professor of political science at Elon University in North Carolina, who has done extensive research on violence and organized crime, said while there are differences between Haitian gangs and those in his native Jamaica, there are some similarities in their thinking and how the problem needs to be tackled.

“Those themes are quite consistent,” he said. “They see themselves as creatures of an environment which did not offer them a lot of opportunities to legitimately embed themselves within society, and so they have decided based on what has been put to them to take up a life of crime, but this life of crime has been beneficial to persons within their jurisdictions.”

Gangs in Jamaica have long worked in the English-speaking Caribbean nation as the social system, espousing giving back to the community and touting the clinics they have built in the country’s neglected ghettos.

Haiti’s gangs have tried to make similar assertions. Earlier this year, the leader of the Grand Ravine gang told two kidnapped Dominican filmmakers and their Haitian translator that they were targeted because of their generator. He needed it he said for the hospital he was building in the teeming slum at the southern edge of Port-au-Prince.

But observers of both the criminal phenomenons say while there are similarities between them, there is a huge difference: Jamaica’s gangs are not into kidnapping.

“With Jamaican gangs they will say.. we help with providing services that the state has not provided, services like protection. People don’t trust the police and we resolve this,” Blake said. “This all leads to what I term ‘jungle justice.’ They become the judge, the jury and executioner. They will say, look at our communities, these are communities reeling from poverty, young men don’t have jobs. We provide them with jobs within our gangs.”

“Part of the problem,” Blake said gangs argue, “is really that the state has failed or is failing and we are simply filling this vacuum.”

In some communities, Blake said, some people actually revere gang leaders because they serve as symbols of upward mobility in an environment where the legitimate pathways are very narrow.

This is the danger in Haiti, where the gang phenomenon is a fairly new one compared to Jamaica.

“We know that Haiti has been one of those states that has been very fragile so the opportunities for legitimate employment, for embedding oneself in the society in a legitimate sort of way is quite restricted,” he said.

“As Haiti continues to slip down the slope becoming a failed state essentially, people in Haiti are reeling from the impoverishment from the failed state. Guys are now trading food items for guns,” Blake said.

During a visit by hemispheric diplomats with the Organization of American States earlier this year to assess the political crisis in Haiti to see if the government and the opposition could agree on an election timetable, the gang problem was uppermost in their minds.

Diplomats peppered Haitian political leaders with questions about the gangs, trying to get a greater understanding while expressing fears about its potential spillover into the larger Caribbean and Latin America region.

“Haiti can become a hub where other regional criminal actors can go and access weapons. It can become a hot spot for the radicalization of criminal groups essentially, so that is a big problem for the region,” Blake said.

McClatchy Washington Bureau Senior National Security Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.

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