Inmates Escape After an Attack on Haiti’s Largest Prison

Gangs attacked Haiti’s biggest prison and allowed prisoners to escape on Saturday night, according to local police unions and a lawyer for some of the incarcerated, the latest instance of escalating violence and disorder in the country’s capital, which has been ravaged by gang violence for more than two years.

While details of the attack remained murky, at least two of the country’s police unions went on social media on Saturday requesting that all police officers report to the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, the capital, to help control the situation and prevent the inmates from fleeing.

“If we let gangs take the penitentiary we are done,” the national police union SNPH-17 said in a post on X. “No one will be spared in the capital.”

Haiti’s national penitentiary — with nearly 4,000 inmates, though built to hold only 800 — has several high-profile inmates, such as the Colombian commandos accused of being part of the group that killed Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in 2021.

A Haitian lawyer for several of the soldiers accused in the assassination, Samuel Madistin, told The New York Times that he had spoken to his clients who said the national penitentiary was nearly emptied of inmates. Only those who were too old or disabled to flee and those accused in the Moïse killing remained, Mr. Madistin said, for fear of being hunted down if they left the prison.

Videos circulating on social media on Sunday appeared to show journalists wandering through parts of the national penitentiary mostly empty of prisoners.

Lionel Lazarre, coordinator of the National Union of Haitian Police Officers, told The Times that the penitentiary and a second prison in Port-au-Prince, the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison, were both attacked on Saturday and that some prisoners had escaped, but it was unclear how many.

Mr. Lazarre added that intense gunfire had broken out inside the prison, but that by Sunday the police had regained control.

“The attack was obvious,” said Mr. Lazarre, adding that gang members did not try to hide their plans to close in on the penitentiary. “There is a lack of care from police authorities who did not take these messages seriously or take enough measures to strengthen security.”

Commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille, a senior police officer in charge of operations in Port-au-Prince, said that the internet had gone out, so it was difficult to get a situation assessment. Still he thought most of the prisoners had escaped: “I don’t think there’s an inmate left down there,” he said, adding, “The gangs got together so the attack force was in their favor.”

The Haitian government has not commented on the episode.

Haiti has spiraled into a state of extreme unrest after Mr. Moïse’s assassination led to widespread gang violence and the near-complete collapse of security. Out of a force of about 15,000 officers, nearly 3,000 police officers have abandoned their posts in the past two years, according to police figures.

The country has no president nor any other elected national officials, and gangs — which have seized control of much of Port-au-Prince — terrorize thousands of people every day. Last year at least 5,000 people were killed in Haiti, according to the United Nations.

Violence in the country escalated last week after Prime Minister Ariel Henry traveled to Kenya to finalize an agreement under which that country would send 1,000 police officers to help restore order to Haiti.

The prison assault is part of a wave of attacks that armed gangs have carried out in recent days while Haiti’s prime minister is out of the country. The goal, according to Jimmy Chérizier, a gang leader known as Barbecue, is to overthrow what remains of the government.

In a video message on Thursday, Mr. Chérizier said, “With our guns and with the Haitian people, we will free the country.”

It is unclear whether an international police force led by Kenya, which has drawn criticism from human rights groups, could help check the violence. The recent attacks constitute a clear display of force in the gang-ravaged nation, experts say.

“The gangs seem to be sending an intimidation message to the troops that might be deploying soon in Haiti, saying, ‘Well, we are forming a united front and we can strike simultaneously,’” said Diego Da Rin, a Haiti expert with the International Crisis Group.

Romain Le Cour, a security analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said, “It’s honestly a situation in which you have absolute absence and silence of the state,” adding that some of the violence had probably been planned for weeks, while some was spontaneous.

Though the authorities in Haiti have been losing ground for years, Mr. Le Cour said, the past few days have shown the armed gangs have achieved a “crucial shift” in the balance of power.

“It is probably one of the first times that you have these directed, targeted attacks. It’s not like before,” he added. “Now they’re just going for it.”

Andre Paultre reported from Port-au-Prince, Emiliano Rodríguez Mega from Mexico City and David C. Adams from Miami.