Haiti declares state of emergency after thousands escape prison amid surge in gang violence

A person rides a motorcycle through street fires in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday, a day after gang violence erupted. Photo by Johnson Sabin/EPA-EFE
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March 4 (UPI) -- The government of Haiti has declared a 72-hour state of emergency following a weekend of violence that included violent gangs attacking two prisons, facilitating the escape of nearly 3,600 inmates.

The state of emergency, announced Sunday in a statement, covers the country's Western Department, which includes the nation's capital of Port-au-Prince. Curfews that run from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. will also be enforced until at least Wednesday, it said.

The announcement comes after armed gangs attacked two of the Hispaniola nation's largest prisons in the capital and Croix-des-Bouquets on Saturday, resulting in deaths and injuries sustained by police.

Of the nearly 3,7000 inmates incarcerated at the two facilities, an estimated 100 remain behind bars, human rights lawyer Arnel Remy, whose nonprofit organization works in the National Penitentiary, said on X.

The government said there has been a "security degradation" in the capital that is the result of "increasingly violent criminal acts perpetrated by armed gangs," including kidnappings and murder, violence against women and children and looting and the theft of public property.

The violence, which began in the capital on Thursday, is "casing massive population displacements," it said.

Following the attack on the capital prison, the police union called on all officers with access to cars and weapons to assist those defending the facility, saying in a statement Saturday that "No one will be spared in the capital because there will be 3,000 extra bandits now effective."

On Friday, the union had warned that there were multiple shootings in downtown Port-au-Prince.

"Students and merchants are running in all directions like crazy ants," it said while calling on Haiti National Police to dispatch all available officers to regain control of the situation.

No stranger to violence, Haiti has been subsumed by it since July of 2021, when its president, Jovenel Moise, was assassinated at his home.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry was in Kenya seeking support for a United Nations police force for Haiti when the penitentiary attacks occurred.

Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer who goes by the name Barbecue, has seemingly taken credit for the recent outbreak in violence.

According to CNN, he said Friday that the violence would continue until Henry was unseated.

"We ask the Haitian National Police and the military to take responsibility and arrest Ariel Henry. Once again, the population is not our enemy; the armed groups are not your enemy. You arrest Ariel Henry for the country's liberation," he said.

"With these weapons, we will liberate the country and these weapons will change the country."