They raped women, burned homes and killed dozens of people, including children, chopping up their bodies with machetes and throwing their remains to pigs.
The gruesome massacre three years ago, considered the worst in Haiti in decades, was more than the work of rival gangs fighting over territory. It was organized by senior Haitian officials, who provided weapons and vehicles to gang members to punish people in a poor area protesting government corruption, the U.S. Treasury Department announced last year.
Since then, Haiti’s gang members have grown so strong that they rule swaths of the country. The most notorious of them, a former police officer named Jimmy Cherizier, known as Barbecue, fashions himself as a political leader, holding news conferences, leading marches and, this week, even parading around as a replacement for the prime minister in the violent capital.
After gangs shot at a government convoy and shut down the official commemoration of the death of the country’s founding president on Sunday, Mr. Cherizier presided over the ceremony himself, dressed in a white three-piece suit, surrounded by cameras and masked guards with assault rifles as he laid wreaths at the site.
“The gangs have more authority than our leaders,” said Marie Yolène Gilles, the head of a local human rights group, the Clear Eyes Foundation. “If they say, ‘Stay home,’ you stay home. If they say, ‘Go out,’ you can go out. It’s terror.”
The brazen kidnapping of 17 people with an American missionary group over the weekend, believed to have been carried out by a rival gang called 400 Mawozo, underscored the growing power of Haiti’s gangs. The kidnappers have demanded $17 million to release the hostages, and the leader of 400 Mawozo has threatened to kill them unless the ransom is paid, according to two people present when the threat was made and captured in a video recording.
“I will unload a big weapon to each of their heads,” the gang leader, Wilson Joseph, said in the video.
By some estimates, gangs now control more than half of Haiti and in some places, they operate like de facto governments, with their own courts, “police stations” and residential fees for everything from electricity to school permits.
They have long held sway in many poor neighborhoods, but they began to gain more dominance after Jovenel Moïse was sworn in as president in 2017, experts say, fueled by the erosion of democratic institutions under his watch and his government’s deployment of gangs as tools of oppression.
And while the American government and United Nations have long been aware of the growing connection between the gangs, the government and the Haitian police, they made few moves to combat the problem, partly for fear of upending what little stability Haiti had, current and former officials say.
That semblance of stability collapsed in July, when Mr. Moïse was assassinated in his bedroom in a killing that remains unsolved and has further exposed the country’s institutional weakness.
“His administration weakened the police and justice system,” Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, said of Mr. Moïse’s government. “There were no controls on the port, the border, the airport — weapons and ammunition arrive easily in Haiti. And then, they used the gangs to massacre the people in the slums.”
The attacks, he said, were attempts to secure political control in the run-up to elections in the capital region, which represents 40 percent of the country’s electorate — much of it in crowded slums.
Mr. Espérence’s organization has documented more than a dozen armed attacks by gangs since 2018, leading to the death or disappearance of more than 600 people. In many cases, those reports cite a police role in the killings, including the involvement of active officers and the use of equipment like armored cars or tear gas.
In at least two cases, the organization highlighted the involvement of members of Mr. Moïse’s government.
None have resulted in arrests or robust investigations by the police, according to Rosy Auguste Ducéna, the network’s program director. Nor have any police officers been penalized over allegations of their involvement.
“That’s why we say the violence that is established in Haiti today is a violence of the state,” she said.
A senior official in the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was tapped by Mr. Moise and took over the nation in July, said Mr. Henry had no link to the abuses the previous administration is accused of facilitating. To the contrary, the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Mr. Henry, a doctor, was brought in to clean up the mess in Haiti, and has pledged to bring justice for past massacres and make every effort to eliminate the gangs.
At the center of the allegations is Mr. Cherizier and the alliance of nine gangs he leads, known as the G9 in Family and Allies coalition. But the…