The Haitian National Police have announced they will open an investigation into those responsible for a deadly incident on Saturday, when a church leader led parishioners on an armed protest through a gang-controlled area of the capital Port-au-Prince.
Frantz Elbé, the director general of the police, said the investigation would help ensure “that such irrational acts never occur again”.
“The National Police condemns this regrettable tragedy and presents its sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims,” Elbé added.
In a press release on Monday, Elbé described how an “immense crowd” rallied behind religious leader Marcorel Zidor over the weekend, wearing olive-green uniforms and clothes emblazoned with his name.
This “spontaneous demonstration” included hundreds of people, some of whom carried machetes and assault rifles.
“This crowd had the objective of going to dislodge members of gangs based in Canaan,” Elbé explained, referring to a suburb on the northern edge of the Haitian capital.
Once informed, Elbé said the police took steps to avoid “carnage” by erecting a security perimeter and employing spokespeople to dissuade the protesters.
“However, the protesters quickly overcame the security measures established by law enforcement and were nevertheless able to arrive in the areas they desired to confront the members of said gang,” Elbé said.
No official estimate of the fatalities has been released, but police have reported multiple deaths and kidnappings, as the gangs — led by a man known as “Jeff” — clashed with the protesters.
“They opened fire on us with all sorts of guns,” one protester, Francois Vicner, told the New York Times in a video interview.
Vicner also explained that Zidor, the evangelical pastor who led the demonstration, framed the bloodshed as a test of religious devotion.
“The pastor’s followers really believed what he told them,” Vicner said. “He said they were bulletproof, that those who were wounded had no faith.”
Amid outcry over the demonstrations, Zidor appeared on Haiti’s Mega Radio to defend his actions.
“Ninety-five percent of my parishioners were being shot at. None of them got hit,” he said on Monday, according to the news agency Reuters. “Those who died are those who went to hide in the houses.”
Gangs have taken control of large sections of Port-au-Prince, with the United Nations estimating last December that up to 60 percent of the city was under their command.
This has led to widespread violence and instability, with the UN documenting “gross human rights abuses” including murder, sexual exploitation and kidnapping.
Hospitals have shuttered in the wake of gang-led violence and nearly half the population faces “severe food insecurity“, as the worsening security situation impedes humanitarian assistance.
But vigilante groups have sprung up as communities take law enforcement into their own hands.
From late April to mid-August, vigilantes and community members have conducted more than 350 lynchings, according to the UN. While most of the victims were gang members, the UN estimated that 46 were simply members of the public. At least one victim was a police officer.
One vigilante movement — known as the “Bwa Kale” or “peeled wood” — emerged in April when more than a dozen gang members were lynched and burned in the streets of Canapé-Vert, a neighbourhood in southern Port-au-Prince.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry has appealed to the international community to help subdue the gang violence in the country, a controversial proposal among Haitians sceptical of foreign interference.
On July 29, Kenya’s government offered to lead a multinational force to the country, as well as deploy 1,000 of its police officers “to help train and assist” their Haitian counterparts as they work to “restore normalcy”.