Haiti: Hundreds of inmates escape as armed gangs storm main prison

Prison at Port-au-Prince, Haiti
The majority of the 4,000 prisoners have escaped - Getty
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Hundreds of inmates have escaped from Haiti’s main prison after armed gangs stormed the facility in an overnight explosion of violence that engulfed much of the capital. At least five people were dead by Sunday.

The jailbreak marked a new low in Haiti’s downward spiral of violence as gangs step up coordinated attacks in Port-au-Prince.

Ariel Henry, the country’s embattled prime minister, is abroad trying to salvage support for a UN-backed security force to stabilise the country.

Three bodies with gunshot wounds were seen lying at the prison entrance which was wide open on Sunday with no guards in sight. Plastic sandals, clothing and electric fans were strewn across normally overcrowded concrete patios. Several gang leaders were being held at the facility.

In another neighbourhood, the bloodied corpses of two men with their hands tied behind the backs lay face down as residents walked past roadblocks set up with burning tyres.

Haitian National Penitentiary
The gangs have stepped up coordinated attacks - Johnson Sabin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A drone view of the National Penitentiary
Family members rushed to the jail to check on loved ones - Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

Authorities had yet to provide an account of what happened. But Arnel Remy, a human rights attorney whose non-profit organisation works inside the prison, said on X that fewer than 100 of the nearly 4,000 inmates remained behind bars.

Those choosing to stay included 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse. On Saturday night, several of the Colombians shared a video pleading for their lives.

‘They are massacring people’

“Please, please help us,” one of the men, Francisco Uribe, said in the message widely shared on social media. “They are massacring people indiscriminately inside the cells.”

On Sunday, Uribe said: “I didn’t flee because I’m innocent.”

In the absence of official information, inmates’ family members rushed to the prison to check on loved ones.

“I don’t know whether my son is alive or not,” said Alexandre Jean as she roamed around the cells looking for any sign of him. “I don’t know what to do.”

National Penitentiary
Those choosing to stay at the facility included 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries - Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

The violence that erupted on Saturday night appeared to be widespread, with several neighbourhoods reporting gunfire.

There were reports of a second jailbreak at a smaller Port-au-Prince prison containing around 1,400 inmates. Armed gangs also occupied and vandalised the nation’s top soccer stadium, taking one employee hostage for hours, the nation’s soccer federation said. Internet service for many residents was down as Haiti’s top mobile network said a fibre-optic cable connection was slashed during the rampage.

The gangs are increasingly coordinating their actions and choosing once unthinkable targets. After gangs opened fire at Haiti’s international airport last week, the US Embassy said it was temporarily halting all official travel to the country.

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, has claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks. He said the goal was to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Mr Henry’s return from overseas.

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