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Artibonite: an agricultural area turned into a valley of crime


The rise of crime in this agricultural area can be traced at least as far back as October 2022.

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Far from the cameras and the attention received by insecurity in Port-au-Prince; gangs have been stealing livestock, attacking and looting peasants in the Artibonite region.

Sexual abuse has become commonplace in towns like Liancourt, Petite-Rivière and Verrettes.

From April 2023 to March 2024, the Platform of Women Organized for the Development of Artibonite (PLAFODA) counted over 1,370 cases of rape in the department.

Moreover, bandits have been attacking the peasants. In April last year, the World Food Programme (WFP) recorded 5,000 hectares of abandoned farmland in the department.

Sexual abuse has become commonplace in towns like Liancourt, Petite-Rivière and Verrettes.

The commune of Liancourt comprises 54 localities, only 34 of which are currently habitable, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The dead are piling up.

Between January 2022 and November 2023, more than 1,690 people were killed, injured or abducted in Bas-Artibonite, according to a United Nations report.

Read also: Small businesses are closing due to gangs in Bas Artibonite

Located in the north-west, the Artibonite Valley, with its 28,000 hectares, remains the largest in the country for rice cultivation.

To understand how crime has taken hold in this agricultural ara, we have to look at least as far back as October 2022.

That month, the « Lika » gang leader, Widzer Estimable, was killed in violent clashes with police.

At the beginning of the year, the violence had caused thousands of citizens to flee.

When the kingpin, also known as « Lodè », died; his supporters vowed to return to avenge him, according to the testimonies of several local residents.

The threat was taken seriously.

Dozens of citizens then set up a self-defense brigade and erected barricades in several neighborhoods in Petite-Rivière, the commercial heart of the department.

Read also: Saint-Michel clairin producers struggle to make deliveries, as gangs guard roads

Recently back from Port-au-Prince to work in his hometown of Petite-Rivière, Wendel Pierre contributed to these efforts.

Behind improvised barriers in the streets, wrecked cars and used tires, the young electro-mechanic and other young people vowed to do everything they could to prevent the gangs from returning.

Petite-Rivière de l'Artibonite

In October 2022, locals erected a barricade at the entrance to the downtown area of Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite, on the « Pon Bouk, » as it is locally known.

Armed with machetes, sticks, and cans filled with petrol, young people—who until recently were living with their parents and going to school—became neighborhood guards.

From October 2022 to the beginning of January 2023, they watched for the arrival of the bandits, day and night.

But early last year, a group of citizens, concerned about the situation, announced that they had reached an agreement with the gangs to renounce their revenge.

Petite-Rivière de l'Artibonite

Like several neighborhoods of the commune of Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite, this alley at the bottom of the city was barricaded, in October 2022, by members of the population, to prevent the free movement of bandits.

The barricades were then lifted with the promise that activities could resume their normal course.

It was a bad decision, several residents of the area told AyiboPost.

« People started to let their guard down and that’s when the bandits managed to break into downtown Petite-Rivière, » says Wendel Pierre.

Petite-Rivière de l'Artibonite

One of the houses burnt down by bandits in October 2022 in Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite. Residents had to flee the lower part of the city.

Gang attacks have intensified, with more than 9,000 people forced to flee their homes in search of a safer place, according to city hall data.

Petite-Rivière de l'Artibonite

In October 2022, houses were torched and destroyed by bandits; the inhabitants then deserted the lower part of the town of Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite.

On January 27, 2023, police officers abandoned the Petite-Rivière police station.

Threatened with death by a gang leader, Wendel Pierre abandoned everything and returned to take refuge in Port-au-Prince in January 2023.

According to him, some of his fellow brigadiers had to leave the country to escape death.

« Somethingis broken inside me and I need time to heal, » Pierre told AyiboPost, referring to the psychological problems he faced during those three months.

More than 9,000 people had to flee their homes in search of a safer place, according to city hall data.

Today, the bandits have free rein in Petite-Rivière.

This phenomenon is not new.

Since 2018, the rise of gangs in Bas-Artibonite has stifled local life, impacting all spheres of activity in the region.

The inhabitants of Liancourt, Petite-Rivière and Verrettes were constantly tortured by armed men.

For the past 6 years, this area with high agricultural potential has seen a significant increase in crime, and has seen its agricultural potential decline.

« We are living in an untenable situation, » said Petite-Rivière’s interim mayor, Lereste Dort.

City hall is no longer functioning. The city’s schools are moving at a slower pace. The magistrates’ court is no longer able to carry out legal proceedings.

Since 2018, the rise of gangs in Bas-Artibonite has stifled local life, impacting all spheres of activity in the region.

The Dupuy Public Market in Petite-Rivière fell under the control of armed gangs. « We haven’t been able to collect taxes for some time, » says Lereste Dort.

The Charles Colimon Hospital — supported by the NGO, Zanmi Lasante — is one of the few institutions still operating in the commune.

The institution’s officials are forced to treat gang members, according to testimonies received on-site by AyiboPost.

Continuing the hospital’s operations remains the priority, Bob Eden Gaston, a general practitioner and interim director of the facility, told AyiboPost.

« We can’t forbid anyone from coming to the hospital for treatment, » the doctor told AyiboPost.

It is not clear how long this institution will continue to serve the population in a context of fuel and medicine shortages.

The institution’s officials are forced to treat gang members.

During an attempted invasion by Savien’s gangs in July 2023, some of the non-local staff were temporarily relocated, as a precautionary measure. This leaves the operating room for caesarean deliveries without a gynecologist.

The manager, Gaston, says he has observed an increase in cases of diabetes and high blood pressure at the hospital in recent months. « It could be related to the current situation, » he says.

Citizens are desperate. « We are living with fear in our stomachs, gangs are setting up everywhere, » a sweets merchant from Petite-Rivière told AyiboPost. « We have to keep a low profile to avoid being robbed or kidnapped, » she said.

According to the woman, two members of her family were kidnapped and then released for ransom in November 2023. One of them was severely beaten and has not yet fully recovered from the attack.

We live with fear in our stomachs, gangs are setting up everywhere. We are forced to keep a low profile to avoid being robbed or kidnapped.

The peasants of Artibonite are paying a heavy price for the bandits’ actions, according to testimonies collected on-site.

In the localities of Laverdure and Grasèt, gangs do not hesitate to loot, steal cattle and rape with impunity.

In December last year, bandits broke into Ylèné’s family home in Laverdure. The thieves stole cattle and poultry.

« Since then, , they’ve been coming back all the time and unexpectedly stealing our belongings, » says Ylèné.

In the Artibonite Valley, irrigation is now under the control of bandits.

Read also: Sugarcane cultivation explodes in Saint-Michel-de-l’Attalaye

Many peasants abandon arable land because they cannot afford to pay the bandits to harvest their produce.

Due to a tax imposed by the gangs on water, it was almost impossible for farmers to water their plants; since the beginning of the bean planting period between the end of last year until January 2024.

« You can pay up to 1,500 gourdes every time you want to water, » says farmer Ylèné.

On the other hand, the irrigation canals are being diverted.

In the locality of Boudèt, in Savien, for example, the gangs have diverted the trajectory of the Bidone canal, which usually waters more than 5 localities.

You can pay up to 1,500 gourdes each time you want to water.

« This situation is aggravating the irrigation problem in the valley and is making things catastrophic for farmers, » says technician André Saint-Louis, an agricultural technician and head of the association Réseau des Organisations pour l’Intégration des Planteurs du Bas-Artibonite (ROIPBA).

This is all in addition to the fact that the main markets, such as the one in Pont Sondé, have not been accessible to farmers for at least 3 years, as the price of agricultural inputs continue to rise.

« At the moment, a bag of Urea fertilizer costs 8,000 gourdes and the full one goes for about 8,500 gourdes, » says the Saint-Louis technician.

Five years ago, these products were selling for about 1,000 gourdes. As a result, most farmers are abandoning arable land due to continuing losses.

The Artibonite Valley Development Organization (ODVA), which has historically been involved in agriculture, is at its wit’s end.

Faced with staff attrition, cases of corruption and other internal problems, ODVA « does not have the means » to continue the fight, says agronomist Jacques Donatien, assigned to the soil conservation directorate within the institution.

At the moment, a bag of Urea fertilizer costs 8,000 gourdes and the full one goes for about 8,500 gourdes.

Gangs are increasingly controlling remote areas in the Artibonite.

An IOM report published in June 2023 revealed that more than 22,000 people have fled rural areas to seek refuge in urban centres between January 2022 and October 2023.

Rodney Paul lives in Verrettes.

Pursued by gangs, the teacher and native of Liancourt left the area 3 months ago, to take refuge with family members, who were displaced before him.

« Personally, I’m having a very hard time with it, » Paul told AyiboPost. « I’m surviving in indignation and with the help of other people, » he said.

Read also: El Niño is affecting farmers in Haiti

Of the 54 localities of Liancourt, only 3 are still inhabited today.

« Most of the people who remain are those who have nowhere else to go, » said a source on the ground, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

In Liancourt and other surrounding areas, public services are at a standstill.

« No electricity, no drinking water. The police station, the town hall, the main health center, the radio stations have all closed their doors. Only the civil registry office is still functioning in the commune, » the source told AyiboPost.

The people who stay are mostly those who have nowhere else to go.

In January 2023, Savien bandits launched a bloody attack on the police station in this commune bordering Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite, causing the death of 6 police officers.

As a result of the gang’s repeated attacks, an armed protection brigade at Liancourt, called the Coalition, was formed.

With the support of members of the population and the diaspora, they armed themselves, patrol the roads and collect money in different places to sustain their operations.

Read also: In Haiti, ordinary citizens become big weapons buyers

With formal justice almost no longer in existence, the brigadiers themselves apprehended and killed people suspected of belonging to Savien’s gang.

Slip-ups occur regularly, according to several testimonies collected by AyiboPost.

People who come from Petite-Rivière de l’Artibonite are sometimes accused of being scouts, bandits or gang members on the run.

« As soon as your identity card mentions Petite-Rivière, it’s already a first condition for your execution, » Exumé Rotchild, a journalist with Radio communautaire de Desarmes (RCD), told AyiboPost.

In 2023, a taxi driver from Desarmes was killed because people identified him as a scout for the gangs.

During the same year, a tap-tap driver on the Petite-Rivière – Verrettes route was also lynched and burned based on unclear suspicions.

As soon as your identity card mentions Petite-Rivière, it is already a first condition for your execution.

From a humanitarian point of view, « this is unprecedented, » said Bressiac Lubien, coordinator of the National Federation for Human Rights Organizations based in Gonaives. « Thousands of people are dispossessed and are now living by begging, » he said.

According to the official, « more and more students, without any support from their families, are no longer able to go to school, which increases the number of street children. »

Women, already vulnerable, are swelling the ranks of victims of violence.

Lisette Vertyl, departmental coordinator of the Platform of Women Organized for the Development of Artibonite, is surprised by the statistics collected by the organization on cases of sexual violence.

« This is the first time we have faced such an explosion of rape cases, » Vertyl told AyiboPost.

Many women are unable to support themselves.

« To survive, many women are forced into prostitution, » Vertyl told AyiboPost.

By Jerome Wendy Norestyl & Wethzer Piercin

Cover image: Haitian farmers working in a field. | © RHINEWS

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Journaliste-rédacteur à AyiboPost, Jérôme Wendy Norestyl fait des études en linguistique. Il est fasciné par l’univers multimédia, la photographie et le journalisme.