He survived a gang ambush in Haiti that killed two reporters. Now this journalist is in exile

Wilmann Vil had just published a video report questioning the circumstances surrounding the brutal killing of a Haitian national police divisional inspector by armed men in the hills above Port-au-Prince when the first menacing call came, warning him that he wasn’t careful as a journalist and not all truths should be revealed, he recalls.

Refusing to be dissuaded, Vil says he continued with his investigation of the New Year’s Day death of Dan Jerry Toussaint, a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who was in charge of the police sub-station in Thomassin 25 when he was shot in the head during an anti-gang police operation.

Five days after Toussaint was gunned down, Vil returned to the hillside to continue his reporting. Two other journalists, John Wesley Amady and Wilguens Louis-Saint, were working on the same story when the three ran into each other on a windswept mountaintop and decided to make the visit to a gang leader together.

After getting the go-ahead from the leader to advance, the three found themselves under a hail of gunfire as they attempted to cross a river dividing rival gang territories. Amady and Louis-Saint were killed.

“We didn’t see anyone, just bullets raining down on us,” Vil said. “There was nothing I could do for them except run.”

Vil is now on the run, he says, forced to flee Haiti after his life and that of his family were threatened because of the report he did on Toussaint’s still unsolved murder, and what he knows about the inner workings of Haitian gangs who have been increasingly expanding their grip throughout the country.

The murder of his two fellow journalists, along with that of photojournalist Maxiben Lazarre a month later while covering a workers’ strike in Port-au-Prince, has made Haiti the most dangerous place in the hemisphere today for a journalist, according to the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists .

“We just see a clear deterioration for conditions for the press to operate in Haiti, and all of this is underlined by total impunity in the cases of violence against journalists,” said Ana Cristina Núñez, senior researcher for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Committee.

The killings of the three journalist in the first two months of this year have earned the volatile Caribbean nation its dubious recognition as the plight of media workers around the globe get highlighted Tuesday on World Press Freedom Day.

Among the cases of the killing of Haitian journalists over the past four years is that of photojournalist Vladjimir Legagneur, who went went missing in 2018. Considered dead, Legagneur was killed while working on an independent project inside the Port-au-Prince slum of Grand Ravine. A year later, radio journalist Néhémie Joseph was killed in the country’s Central Plateau region.

CPJ became aware of Vil’s case after putting out a statement following the killing of Amady and Louis-Saint, and has been helping him since his deadly escape and ongoing threats, Núñez said.

“There is no case reported in the last year of violence against the press where authorities have been able to identify those responsible and bring justice to the families,” Núñez said. “So this perpetuates the cycle of violence and impunity.”

The United Nations office in Haiti said Tuesday that the three journalists killed earlier this year are among 16 journalists killed in Haiti since 2000. In a statement, it urged public authorities to do everything possible to prevent and punish crimes committed against journalists and encourage media professionals to reflect on issues relating to professional ethics and compliance with the code of ethics and professional conduct for Haitian media and journalists adopted in 2011.

“In Haiti, the insecurity of journalists and the expected impunity risk encouraging violations of many human rights other than freedom of expression and freedom of the press, while encouraging other forms of crime,” the UN said. “On this World Press Freedom Day, the United Nations would like to remind all national actors and the population in general of the central dimension of press freedom in safeguarding democracy and the State of law in Haiti.”

Vil, 31, is part of a new generation of Haitian journalists who, born and raised in blighted urban areas, have garnered an unusual access to Haiti’s deadly gangs — access that has raised concerns about their penchant for risks and lack of journalistic and safety training.

Using their relationships and video cameras, the journalists take viewers inside the sordid world of gang members as they gather weapons, make death threats and promote their violence as a just cause. Overnight, the videos have helped transform gang leaders into instant celebrities, leading to debate in Haitian society about who should and shouldn’t have access to a journalist’s microphone.

A video Vil released in the past week has triggered another debate while sending shock waves through Haitian society. It shows a 10-year-old boy with his face covered, holding an automatic black M4 rifle, his tiny hands barely able to grasp it securely. The video was shot Dec. 6 across the street from a police sub-station in the Martissant neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The station had just been attacked and raided by gang leader “Izo 5 Segonn,” who controls a significant portion of the Village of God slum all the way to Martissant.

In the video, a presumed gang member is seen walking back and forth while wearing a Haiti National Police uniform.

“We’ve hit the ground to confront our opponent Christla,” the 10-year-old says in Haitian Creole, as Vil’s voice can be heard in the background explaining how the gang attack forced the police to flee and rival gang leader Christla had his people waiting down the road. “Christla’s guys are hiding inside the armored truck and they need to step down and fight.”

The 10-year-old goes on to explain in a longer clip that he’s from the rice-growing Artibonite Valley, north of Port-au-Prince, but is now living in Martissant.

Until nine days ago, when chaos and violence broke out on the eastern edge of metropolitan Port-au-Prince leading to a least 20 deaths, Martissant had been ground zero in the country’s surging gang violence. At least five gangs operate in the area, including one that flies the American flag and calls itself Team America, according to Vil, who says he has exclusive video of the group.

The gangs have been able to control the main road at the southern entrance of the capital, cutting off access to four regional departments of Haiti, including those devastated by last year’s deadly Aug. 14 earthquake. They have also been able to control access to a strategic seaport and fuel terminal in the Martissant area.

Vil says he released the video because he wanted to wake Haitians and the world to what’s happening in the country, where children as young as 8 are armed.

“Eighty percent of Haitian youth are in gangs.... I asked myself where the future of this country is headed,” he said.

“I published it to bring the attention of the government in Haiti, to show them that they didn’t do their job and today these children, who were living on the streets, have been recruited by the gangs,” Vil added.

Vil said his information on gang activities in Haiti comes from his own investigation and his ability to “walk through all of the ghettos to get information” before he was forced into self-exile.

His years of work, he said, have allowed him to amass a library of unseen videos that until now he hasn’t been unable to make public.

In the four months since the killing of his fellow journalists, Vil said there have been efforts to use close associates and friends to try and lure him into a trap.

“I spent four months hiding in Haiti with my wife and child, and have since left, but I am still in difficulty at this moment,” he said.

“There are a lot of journalists who have been killed, and when they die the government doesn’t say anything,” he added. “A career as a journalist in Haiti is very difficult. When a young person says he’s going to go study journalism, for his parents it’s like a child who has died.

“In Haiti, it’s a sacrifice when you decide to be a journalist because the bandit is protected, he has a big patron,” he added. “Journalists are not protected.”