SWAT and other specialized units of the Haiti National Police were moving in and out of Port-au-Prince’s main courthouse as they tried to figure out how to carry an oversized safe with sensitive documents from some of the country’s most high-profile criminal cases out of the former U.S. government building onto a vehicle to transport it elsewhere.
In one of the courtrooms, six jailed defendants, including the most recent head of the National Penitentiary, were being questioned about a check cashing scheme. All faced accusations that they had been cashing the checks of police officers who had abandoned their posts, and had been using their debit cards for years.
It seemed like a normal day inside Haiti’s sometimes working, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes closed court system. That is, until a notorious gang decided to take it over.
Over the course of two hours Friday, courthouse employees, lawyers and government prosecutors would be subjected to a barrage of high-powered bullets from the heavily armed “5 segonn” — Five Seconds — gang that has now decided to unleash its lethal havoc on the already broken system.
The brazen attack, which left at least one person wounded and part of the courthouse reportedly in flames, is the latest gauntlet thrown down to the government and the international community as gangs continue their takeover of the country. It is also the latest act of unbridled banditry in a crisis-racked Haiti that was already unraveling even before last year’s assassination of its former president, Jovenel Moïse. The nation appears on the brink of anarchy as the ongoing criminality by gangs dismantle what is left of Haiti’s institutions.
“Imagine driving by a public building in your community where armed thugs are now openly sitting on the stairs of a deserted courthouse in close vicinity of a police precinct filled with out-gunned policemen,” said Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister and one of the Caribbean nation’s leading law experts.
The violent gang attack unfolded on the same day that members of the United Nations Security Council in New York received U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’ latest report on the dire situation in Haiti. Due to the timing, there is no mention of the takeover of the courthouse, which includes the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince. However, Guterres highlighted recent food, water and medicine shortages in the overcrowded prison system and the paralysis of the judiciary, among other concerns.
“The Haitian judicial system continues to be plagued by corruption, insufficient resources and a lack of political will, all of which have helped to bring judicial proceedings to a standstill,” he wrote, while advocating for the “timely entry into force” of the country’s new controversial penal and criminal procedure codes, scheduled to become effective June 24.
“It is essential that all of the country’s courts resume their proper functioning, not only to advance the investigation and adjudication of the myriad of pending cases, but also to accelerate ongoing efforts to address the perennial problem of pretrial detention,” the report said.
On Thursday, the courthouse was still in the hands of the gang. Human rights advocates, lawyers and the head of the National Association of Haitian Clerks all agree that while this is only the latest in a string of burglaries and other attacks on the justice system — it is by far the worst.
“They have taken the justice palace hostage,” said Ainé Martin, who heads the national court clerks association.
Among what are currently under the gang’s control: the offices of the Dean of the Civil Court of Port-au-Prince, who is also president of the court and assigns judges to cases; 28 investigating judges and 18 acting prosecutors; and the office of the chief government commissioner who is responsible for applying Haiti’s criminal code. Also under the control of the bandits are registries, archives of the Court of Port-au-Prince, the library and certain offices of the Court of Appeal of Port-au-Prince.
Martin said he was inside when the “spectacular” attack started.
“Everyone came running inside saying armed men are surrounding us. No one knew what to do,” he said. “Judges and lawyers started climbing a wall to get out.”
Police sent two armored vehicles to evacuate other employees, which they managed to do even while their forces lost a gun battle with the heavily armed gang. Martin, who had not long entered the building, said he managed to get to his car and took off in the direction of the port authority. He said the gang, which is lodged next door in the neighboring Village de Dieu or City of God slum, had been spying on the courthouse for awhile.
Using drones and video cameras, gang members had the area under surveillance, keeping watch over the ins and outs of prosecutors, criminal defendants and investigative judges whose work is akin to a grand jury.
In addition to the safe, which stored investigative judges’ files, the courthouse also had sensitive documents that are necessary to prove a claim or a defense. This includes criminal complaints, marriage, birth and death certificates; land titles, surveys, contracts.
After seeing smoke coming from the courthouse many fear that some — if not all — of those documents have now been set ablaze.
“Today everyone who is in the jurisdiction of Port-au-Prince is a victim of what’s happening here,” Martin said, noting that the gang has also taken several safes with documents and evidence.
The safes, he said, were taken into the gang’s stronghold, a notorious kidnapping lair where five police officers were killed last March during a botched anti-gang operation by specialized forces. The officers’ bodies have never been recovered.
The courthouse takeover is many people’s worst nightmare. Since 2018, the clerk of courts and prosecution offices have been subjected to one burglary after another with the most recent break-in occurring just days before the gang attack. Lawyers, judges and clerks have all complained that kidnappings and gang violence in the vicinity of the justice palace present a serious threat.
In April, lawyers’ unions protested what they perceived to be a lack of action on the part of national authorities to protect at-risk justice workers. None of the incidents nor the demonstrations have been taken seriously by the justice ministry, Martin said. Nor has the long-standing request to move the courthouse to a safer environment.
“Today it’s bandits who are lodged inside the Justice Palace of Port-au-Prince and they have done so with the complicity and laxness of judicial authorities,” said Martin, whose court clerks association staged a month-long nationwide strike in April over pay and working conditions that prevented courts from conducting hearings in most of Haiti’s 18 jurisdictions.
As he spoke, he and other Haitians were hit with another sad reminder of the country’s lawlessness. Images of a vehicle belonging to the head of traffic in Croix-des-Bouquets and Haiti National Police Inspector Robert Médard began circulating on WhatsApp. Médard, whose rank is the equivalent of a lieutenant in the United States, was covered in blood and slouched over in the seat of his vehicle. He had been riddled with bullets by armed individuals at Carrefour Marassa, just north of the capital.
Haiti National Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers said Médard, who was in his police uniform but traveling in his private vehicle, appeared to have come across a tentative kidnapping when unknown individuals opened fire on his vehicle. Another officer who was also in the vehicle was wounded and transported to the hospital.
The Port-au-Prince human rights watchdog group Fondasyon Je Klere, or Eyes Wide Open Foundation, said the violent attack on the courthouse, once the former headquarters of the U.S. Agency for International Development, was just the latest siege by gangs in the capital.
Weeks earlier, gangs had taken possession of the Center for Planning Techniques and of Applied Economics or CTPEA, a specialized school that is located on Harry Truman Boulevard next to the courthouse that is under the planning ministry and gives the equivalent of master’s degrees in planning and development.
“All of yesterday the bandits had control of the courthouse and the CTPEA, and the government didn’t do anything; not even a report,” said Marie Yolène Gilles, who runs the human rights group. “This shows that there is no political will to establish rule of law in the country; so now the space that occupies the courthouse is going to be the space where the bandits are going to kidnap people, torture and hold them. It’s going to turn into a gang hideout.”
Fondasyon Je Klere, or FJK, described a scene of mayhem on Friday where magistrates, lawyers, employees in the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Port-au-Prince, defendants and litigants were forced to dodge bullets and save themselves by climbing the walls.
Its initial investigation, the human rights group said, shows that at least one person was injured after being shot; seven vehicles were stolen including two that belong to the prosecutor’s office, two that belong to the Haiti National Police and others belonging to judges.
The gang members were also observed carrying away computers, desks, chairs and air conditioners that had been installed in the judges’ already bare-bones offices.
“On Monday,” the report said, “one could notice the furniture that had once adorned the Port-au-Prince Courthouse was on display for sale on the rue du Champs de Mars in full view of all.”
The report makes note of the presence of the former prison director and his fellow defendants inside the courthouse at the time of the attack, but said it could not say if the gang attack was connected to their questioning on the check cashing allegations.
Another source said that police, fearing an attack, had suggested that the questioning of the police officer and other defendants take place at the offices of the judicial police near the airport, rather than at the courthouse, which has become a high-risk area due to shootings and kidnappings. But the request was ignored and the defendants, all of whom are back in jail, were brought to the courthouse.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who presented his latest report on the situation in Haiti to members of the security council last week, said “in an environment rife with impunity and corruption, the paralysis of the justice sector, including the prison administration, is devastating.”
With the courthouse still under gang control, the chief prosecutor, Jacques Lafontant, on Wednesday wrote to the director of the Haiti National Police responsible for the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, under whose jurisdiction the gang takeover occurred, to come escort him to go do an incident report.
Lafontant, who wasn’t ready to speak to the press about the incident, demanded that the police departmental director come with two armored vehicles and police officers. He noted that on two separate occasions, the police director had refused such a request. His written request, he implied, was no longer a casual invitation — but an order.