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Man known as Barbeque is credited with uniting gangs against Haiti's government

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Haiti, a coalition of gangs toppled the country's prime minister.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And now, more than two months later, they control most of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. One of the most prominent gang leaders is Jimmy Cherizier, or, as he's more commonly known, Barbecue.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Port-au-Prince and was able to interview him, and he's with us now. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Eyder, I just have to say it's often controversial when journalists talk to people who are seen as causing chaos, like street criminals or gang leaders like Barbecue. So why did you think it was important to talk with him?

PERALTA: I mean, look, the gangs in Haiti can't be ignored.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: Earlier this week, for example, they took to the streets in the neighborhoods in a show of force. I saw dozens of men heavily armed. They had handguns, assault rifles, machetes. And Jimmy Cherizier, or Barbecue, is important because he is the gang leader who convinced a whole bunch of gangs here to stop fighting each other and start fighting against the government. In the last two months, they have burnt down police stations and shut down the port and the airport, and they brought down a prime minister.

MARTIN: So tell us more about Cherizier.

PERALTA: So I met him in his neighborhood. He arrived in a brand-new Land Cruiser, and he had a boy on his knees cleaning his flip-flops. Barbecue used to be a police officer. He used to lead operations against the gangs, and what he told me is that he had, quote, "an awakening."

BARBECUE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: And he says, "the system made me who I am." Essentially, as a cop, he says, he learned that politicians created the gangs, that they used them and the police to do what he called their dirty work, to target their business rivals and their enemies. And so he started fighting against the political elite, he says, to try to change the system. But we should mention that both the U.S. and the U.N. have sanctioned him, accusing him of massacre.

MARTIN: You know, at this point, Eyder, thousands of Haitians have been killed. What did he have to say about that?

PERALTA: Well, we spent much of the interview on that topic. I mean, Barbecue argues that the gangs are fighting against the rich who have exploited this country. I told him, that's not what I've seen. Let's hear a bit of the interview.

All I see here are dead poor people, and you are part of that.

BARBECUE: (Through interpreter) So in this fight, one of the first enemy we have is poor people like us because the rich - they used poor people against us. For example, if you take the police - they are the first people that they put in front of us.

PERALTA: But I'll tell you what I've seen in Haiti. The gangs are extorting poor people. Women are getting raped. Houses have been burnt. How are you any different?

BARBECUE: (Through interpreter) Everything you say right now is true, but all the extortion and all this mistreatment is because the government allowed these things to happen.

PERALTA: So he's blaming the government. He's saying that the government - the powerful people allow this to happen in Haiti to create chaos and to remain in power.

MARTIN: So a Kenyan-led multinational security force is expected to arrive soon with a mission to oust the gangs. What did he have to say about this new development?

PERALTA: So he says they're preparing for a long fight. He says he expects a lot of bloodshed and that eventually, the international forces will get tired, and they will leave. I asked him if he expected to survive.

BARBECUE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "My life depends on God and my ancestors," he said. "If Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines worried about his life," he says, "Haiti wouldn't be free today."

MARTIN: That is NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Eyder, thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.