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Police Shoot and Kill Known Haitian Gang Leader After Jailbreak

FILE - Arnel Joseph dressed and on a stretcher as a UN helicopter prepares to transfer him to Port au Prince, Haiti, in 2019.

Arnel Joseph, the notorious leader of the Village de Dieu gang, was killed in a gun battle with police Friday in the town of L'Estere, near Gonaives in Haiti's north, officials said.

"He opened fire on a police patrol who had stopped his motorbike at a checkpoint. The police returned fire and Arnel Joseph was killed," Frantz Exantus, Haiti's secretary of state for communication, told reporters during an afternoon press conference.

Pressed on how sure he was that it was the gang leader who was killed, Exantus said several police "technical services" had confirmed the identity of the body at the scene.

The gang leader’s prison break from the Croix des Bouquets civilian jail Thursday shocked Haitians worldwide. Fear spread throughout the nation as people took to social media for information and to react, sharing photos and videos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

In a statement emailed to VOA on Friday morning, Exantus described the jailbreak as "deplorable."

Who is Arnel Joseph?

Joseph, in his 20s, had been arrested and sentenced to six years in prison in 2011 for the murder of several policemen. He was released in May 2017.

He was rearrested in July 2019 as he was going into surgery for a leg injury.

Law enforcement charged him with terrorizing residents of the Village de Dieu slum of Port-au-Prince, the capital. He was also charged with robbing trucks loaded with merchandise, raping, kidnapping and attacking motorists on National Highway #1, which links Port-au-Prince and cities to the north.

He was awaiting trial on those charges when he escaped Thursday.

In a conversation with journalists posted on YouTube, Joseph said he considers himself to be a "representative" of the Village de Dieu slum.

"Our revolution is the Haitian people's revolution," he said.

The escape

The prison break began around midday at the maximum-security facility during a recreation period. A group of armed prisoners exchanged gunfire with guards, then made their way out through a back door. They were met on the outside by armed men, who had vehicles to help with the getaway.

A government official told a local radio station that Joseph had spent the night in the Croix des Bouquets area, and that law enforcement had tracked his movements.

Prison Civile de la Croix-des-Bouquets, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Prison Civile de la Croix-des-Bouquets, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Prison Civile de la Croix des Bouquets, about 13 kilometers northeast of Port-au-Prince, is one of Haiti's most modern and secure facilities.

"There are some details [of the mutiny] that are not yet available, but what we can tell you is that the goal was to empty the prison," Exantus told reporters. "Thanks to the vigilance of the police, that did not happen. The cellblock where Arnel Joseph was held had the most activity so that is where the police focused their attention."

According to Exantus, there were 25 deaths as a result of the mutiny, including six prisoners, Joseph among them. The prison inspector general, Hector Paul Joseph, also was killed during the gunfight.

Exantus said before the jailbreak, 1,542 prisoners were in detention and there are now 1,125. Two hundred prisoners remain at large, and a nationwide search continues, law enforcement officials said. Sixty of those who escaped have been caught and are back in custody.

Exantus said 17 firearms were recovered and that multiple tear gas cannisters were recovered in the prison yard.

Notorious history

The Croix des Bouquets prison is no stranger to controversy. It holds some high-profile detainees such as former member of Haiti’s Chamber of Deputies Arnel Belizaire, who is accused of illegal possession of firearms and conspiring against national security. The alleged coup plotters involved in the attempt to overthrow President Jovenel Moise on Feb. 7 are also detained there.

Despite being a maximum-security facility, there have been multiple publicized jailbreaks. Most recently in July 2020, when Joseph escaped his prison cell and spent hours on the rooftop before being caught by prison guards and returned to his cell.

Reaction from President Moise

Shortly before the press conference to announce the gang leader’s death, Moise tweeted condemnation.

"We CONDEMN the CROIX DES BOUQUETS jailbreak and urge the population to remain calm. The #PNH is instructed to take all measures to bring the situation under control," he tweeted.

Earlier this week, he was criticized by United Nations, U.S., French, Chinese, Russian and Mexican representatives at a U.N. Security Council meeting for not getting gang violence under control and bringing those responsible to justice.

International reaction

A U.S. State Department spokesperson expressed sorrow over lives lost and urged the Haitian government to address security failures.

"We saw reports of Arnel Joseph’s escape from Croix des Bouquets prison yesterday and were saddened by reports of lives lost," the spokesperson told VOA.

"We have consistently urged the Haitian authorities to take steps to strengthen the rule of law and the justice sector. This event underscores the need for the Haitian government to invest further in the Haitian National Police (HNP), including the prison system,” the spokesperson said.

"It also highlights the importance of ending prolonged pretrial detention so the prison system can focus on securely detaining dangerous convicted prisoners like Arnel Joseph," the spokesperson added. "The U.S. government, through our INL (Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) programs, has provided technical assistance, training and equipment, and funded construction to assist the HNP in improving the prison system."

The U.N. secretary-general's special representative in Haiti, Helen La Lime, expressed concern.

"I am deeply concerned with the mutiny and prison escape which occurred in Croix-des-Bouquets on 25 February 2021," La Lime, who heads the U.N. Integrated Bureau for Haiti, told VOA.

"While the prompt response of the Haitian National Police likely prevented the escape of more inmates, I encourage the police to speed up investigations on the circumstances surrounding this incident, redouble its efforts to reapprehend the escapees, and strengthen security around prisons throughout the country," La Lime said.

Democratic U.S. Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan slammed Moise for the jailbreak on Twitter.

"This prison break massacre is a tragic sign of the rule of law collapsing in Haiti," Levin tweeted. "Jovenel Moïse's antidemocratic rule is costing Haitians their lives and eliminating any sense of safety.

What's next?

Exantus said three commissions have been created to investigate the mutiny.

One will be led by the inspector general of the national police, who will investigate administrative failures. A second judicial commission will be led by the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciare, the investigative unit of the national police force, to determine who should be charged. A third commission will be led by the penitentiary administration and will investigate what conditions led to the jailbreak and determine who was involved.

Exantus told VOA he did not think the jailbreak would affect plans to hold elections later this year.