PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (CMC) – Criminal gangs in Haiti have established their own toll stations to collect money from road users travelling by car or motorcycle in several parts of the Caribbean country torn apart by a deep political and humanitarian crisis.
Leaders of several drivers’ unions have denounced the tactic by gangs who have imposed the illegal toll, which travellers are forced to pay for safe passage on the roads they have taken control of.
Passengers often have to pay the equivalent of several hundred US dollars to be allowed to proceed.
“Recently, the bandits hijacked two buses, one carrying 30 people and another one with 18 people aboard, and those people had to pay money to be allowed to leave,” Mehu Changeux, a drivers’ union leader said on Thursday.
The criminal gangs have also made a list of the drivers whose vehicles are authorised to go past roadblocks they arbitrarily set up to control traffic.
“The bandits distribute a small card to the drivers that are forced to pay them an amount of money every Saturday,” said Changeux. “They also have a form they hand out to drivers who have to subscribe and agree to regularly pay a certain amount of money to buy their right to cross safely certain areas.”
“Otherwise, anything can happen. If you try to defy them they are ready to use their weapons,” he continued.
Several people have already been killed during such incidents over the past months, witnesses say.
Haiti has been mired in unprecedented political, social and humanitarian chaos for some time now and observers do not see, for the moment, any sign of improvement in the troubled country’s situation.
A 38-year-old driver, Jonas Michel, has explained how organised the gangs are. He said the gangs have people assigned to different tasks.
“The bandits are very well organised. They want you to pay a fixed amount; if there is one dollar missing, they won’t accept it,” Michel disclosed.
“They make you pay whether you carry passengers, goods or not,” said Michel, stating that “people driving cars or motorcycles all have to pay to be allowed to go their way through”.
The situation also badly affects the cost of transportation for many people who are requested to pay much more than usual to help the driver find enough money to pay additional fees to bandits.
The gangs often hijack truckloads of food products and construction materials.
“What is worse is that they operate in broad daylight and are totally unchallenged,” said Michel.
There are several drivers who have refused to be part of this illegal enterprise, which also means they have to leave their vehicles at home and abandon, even if momentarily, their only source of revenue.
“It is practically impossible for us, drivers, to function under such conditions, but given our responsabilities we have to make the sacrifice,” Michel stated.
Usually, gangsters tell drivers to give them money, but others don’t even wait to be approached by gangs. Before being confronted, drivers go ahead and collect money among themselves to pay the gangs.
“I don’t want to take any risk. Since I know the gangs are going to ask for the money, I prepare and make sure I have it available on me. Otherwise, I’ll be in trouble,” Maxime Dupuy, a minibus driver in Saint-Marc, in the northern Artibonite region said.
“I have a friend who almost got killed last week for trying to flee a group of bandits who had stopped him at a ‘checkpoint’ near the Kanaan neighbourhood on the northern national road. How can you imagine that the bandits operate every day in broad daylight and in full view of the authorities who have failed to take the least action to stop them?” Dupuy questioned.
Heavily armed gangsters on Wednesday morning attacked a police station in the L’Etère district in northern Haiti. A group of police officers there had to flee for their lives, witnesses said.
It is the sixth police station abandoned over the past weeks in the Artibonite region. The Haitian government, as well as the United Nations Secretary-General, has repeatedly called on the international community to deploy a multinational rapid action force to help cope with the dire security situation in Haiti. A definite decision is yet to be made about such a possibility.