From police officer to head of a criminal gang: Meet Jimmy "Barbecue" Chérizier, the fearsome new de facto leader of Haiti

The gang member is accused by the UN and the United States of committing human rights abuses and carrying out deadly attacks against civilians.

A new attack carried out by dozens of criminal gangs shook Haiti this morning, causing a fire in the country’s largest prison. This event adds to a growing wave of violent episodes led by Jimmy Chérizier, alias “Barbecue,” who has emerged as the leader.

Haiti, marked by poverty, recurring natural disasters and overwhelming historical debt, faces a perpetual crisis. Following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, the situation in the Caribbean country has deteriorated further with the increase in the activity of criminal gangs, which seek to control different regions of the country.

However, the country was plunged to the brink of collapse when Chérizier urged armed groups to take action to force the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. The gang leader achieved his goal and now presents himself as the liberator of the Haitian people.

Who is Jimmy Chérizier?

Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier is a former police officer who was born in Port-au-Prince on March 30, 1977. He began his career in law enforcement as part of an elite anti-gang unit. However, his path took a dark turn when he was implicated in the death of nine civilians during an operation against mafias in 2017 in Grand Ravine, a neighborhood of the capital.

Since then, suspicions about his ties to gangs intensified, and Chérizier became one of the spokespersons for Delmas 6, one of the most notorious criminal gangs in the country.

The shadow of violence followed him when both the UN and the United States accused him of committing human rights abuses and carrying out deadly attacks against civilians after his alleged participation in the La Saline massacre, where police and gangs allegedly joined together to attack the local population. This violent episode resulted in the death of 71 people.

Barbecue later gained relevance after promoting the unification of nine gangs, leading to the formation of the G-9 and Familia, a dangerous gang close to President Moïse.

In fact, in 2021, after the assassination of the president, Chérizier made calls to protest the death of Moïse and led riots since then, as Ariel Henry assumed the leadership of Haiti instead of calling for new elections.

“We have chosen to take our destiny into our own hands. The battle we are fighting will not only overthrow Ariel’s government. It is a battle that will change the entire system,” Chérizier said then.

Where does his nickname come from?

Although many versions have emerged about the origin of the gang leader’s alias, Barbecue has assured that the nickname “Barbecue” is due to his family’s food-selling business.

Fire in a prison in Haiti

The wave of violence continues to increase in the Caribbean country. This Thursday, local media reported a fire in a block of the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s largest prison.

The fire caused by dozens of criminal gangs forced the inmates who remained in the facility to be evacuated. However, until now, all the damage caused by the incident is unknown.

A massive wave of illegal immigrants is expected in the United States

The deterioration of the crisis in the Caribbean country could trigger a significant increase in the emigration of Haitians. U.S. Border Patrol agents in Florida are already warning of the possibility of a massive surge of illegal immigrants from Haiti as the country falls under the control of violent gangs. Furthermore, they warn that the agency is unprepared to face this situation.

It is important to highlight that the United States has become one of the preferred destinations for Haitians since the mid-20th century. According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), in 2022, approximately 731,000 Haitian immigrants were already residing in the country, placing them as the fifteenth largest foreign-born population.

Between fiscal years 2022 and 2023, U.S. authorities detected Haitians on the border with Mexico on more than 76,100 occasions. Additionally, the United States Coast Guard intercepted approximately 7,200 Haitians at sea during fiscal year 2022, reflecting a significant increase in migration.

Despite the worrying increase in the number of Haitians entering the country, the Biden administration has implemented measures to facilitate their entry.

An immigration permit program has been expanded to allow those with a U.S. sponsor and traveling by air to be paroled to reside and work in the United States for two years. Until September 2023, a total of 85,300 people have benefited from this measure.

Additionally, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which provides work authorization and protection from deportation, covers more than 116,500 Haitians as of March 2023.