Jacob Kushner is a foreign correspondent who writes from Africa, Germany and the Caribbean.
Photography by Allison Shelley.
This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
CANAAN, Haiti — It was a hot day in Haiti’s newest city, and hundreds of people were standing around a police station, sweating. The station was the city’s first, and they were waiting for the man who was supposed to inaugurate it.
It was December 2018. Nearly nine years had passed since the disaster that gave birth to this place: a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed between 46,000 and 316,000 people — exactly how many, nobody knows. Haiti’s government estimates some 1.5 million people — one out of every seven Haitians — were displaced.
A few weeks later, the U.N. and international NGOs started relocating some of the displaced to an empty plot of land north of the capital, an area known locally as Canaan. Soon, many more followed. They slept in tents and ramshackle shelters and, in time, began claiming small plots of land and building houses of their own. Numbers grew from the hundreds into the thousands, then the tens of thousands, then the hundreds of thousands. Nearly a decade after the earthquake, some 300,000 people called Canaan home.
There was just one problem: This city had no government. By the time I visited, residents had spread across multiple existing municipalities, but none had established any formal presence. There was no way to get a formal title to a plot of land — no forms to sign, no office to go to, no bureaucrat to beseech. No government department was responsible for digging wells or building parks or bus stations. There were no police.
One man promised to change that: Rony Colin, the mayor of the city next door, Croix-des-Bouquets. Rightly or wrongly, Colin decided Canaan was his domain.
Colin is a rags-to-riches guy. I heard his founding legend from a driver who hailed from his hometown on the sea: A young Colin, down on his luck, went into a forest to meet a fortune teller. The man conjured Colin’s three lucky numbers and told Colin to go buy a lottery ticket on each. Colin walked out of the forest, bought the three tickets, and won — twice. Won 7.5 million Haitian gourdes, the equivalent of more than $2 million. “That’s how Rony got rich,” the driver said.
Later, when I recounted this to Colin, he laughed, asking how I’d possibly learned it. “It’s a mystique thing,” he emphasized — superstition, not Vodou, a religion that draws on traditions from West Africa and is practiced widely by Haitians. But the story was true. “I made so much so much so much! They’re not even finished paying me.”
Decades before the earthquake, Colin used his winnings to open a construction company, buying machinery from Canada, shipping it to the Dominican Republic, then trucking it across the border to Haiti. After the quake, Haiti desperately needed to reconstruct the hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings that had been damaged or destroyed. Construction requires concrete and concrete requires sand. Luckily for Colin, sand had been his most lucrative investment of all — 1,650 acres of sand mines on the northern edge of Canaan. Each day, dozens of dump trucks ferry the sand to Port-au-Prince and other cities. It’s a stream of revenue that’s unlikely to dry up until the mountains are mined flat.
“All those are mine,” Colin told me, pointing to the depleted hillsides. “I can make a lot of money from the mines.”
In a short time, Colin entered politics, opened a radio station, staffed it with political pundits and, in 2015, was elected mayor of Croix-des-Bouquets. Colin rose to power in tandem with the flood of international aid that followed the quake. Charities like the Red Cross had raised billions of dollars to help Haiti recover, and they needed someone with authority to green-light construction. Colin was their man. He approved projects and legitimized NGOs, which in turn legitimized him. One by one, most NGOs spent their money and left, leaving the city’s residents to contend with Mayor Colin alone.
Some of Canaan’s residents saw him as an opportunity. They yearned for things that a government should bring: paved roads, security, electricity. They wanted to be able to vote, they wanted security. Gangs were beginning to infiltrate and extort residents, just like they were in Port-au-Prince — one of the realities of life in the capital that Canaan’s residents had come here to avoid.
That’s what the new police station was for.
At last, on that hot day in December, there arrived an entourage of SUVs flanked by half a dozen police officers with semiautomatic rifles. Colin got out, but something wasn’t right: The lamppost that was supposed to light up the building at night was on the ground. Colin couldn’t have that. A group of men hurriedly began digging a hole for it. After a few minutes, someone came over and told them to dig elsewhere instead, so they moved and started again.
Colin waited, sweating in a dark suit in the shade of a narrow alley behind the building. He leaned against a concrete wall, picking dirt from his nails. His assistant announced that he needed to relieve himself. “Where can I take a pee? Behind here?” he asked. He noticed my camera. “I don’t want photos on Facebook,” he joked with a grin.
After 20 more minutes, the diggers gave up on the lamppost and Colin stepped forward to deliver his speech. Hundreds of pairs of eyes fixated on him. One of the people in the audience was a middle-aged man with a sleepy expression named Salma Simeus. He was the community leader of a neighborhood called Onaville, at Canaan’s far-eastern edge. Simeus wondered: Would Colin be a benefactor, bringing legitimacy, prosperity and security? Or would Colin be a politician with his own personal interests and get in the way?
“Today has great importance for us when it comes to the question of security,” said Colin. “It’s true that it wasn’t the state that built this place.” Gesturing at the crowd, he said: “It was they themselves who put their heads together. But now, it’s up to the local authority to accompany them.”
By local authority, he meant himself. Haiti’s federal government had, by that point, accomplished little in Canaan. NGOs paid bribes to bureaucrats and bought gas for underpaid staffers to venture out to Canaan and do assessments for projects and surveys of land. Everywhere I went in Canaan, people told me that their new city had yet to flourish because the state had yet to govern. Now, Colin might be their last chance.
After his speech, dozens of supporters surrounded him, cheering “10 years! 15 years!”, a promise to vote to reelect him many times over. Colin smiled, pulled out a wad of banknotes from his pocket and started handing them out as if they were pieces of candy. Men squabbled over the money while Colin climbed into an SUV adorned with a gaudy, faux-gold license plate that read Mayor Rony Colin.
Colin looked out through the car window, and we locked eyes. He beckoned me over and invited me to attend a meeting the next day between him and the community leaders of Canaan. Gesturing to the police post, the first of six that he promised would soon dot the city, he assured me that “We’re going to put officers in every one — and quick.”
The next morning on my way to the meeting, I passed the police post. There was a fence around it and the gate was locked shut, not an officer in sight.
Colin’s modestly furnished mansion was on a large parcel of land with a guard and a metal gate. When I got there, I found him inspecting a front loader while Canaan’s community leaders began to arrive. Each neighborhood had nominated a leader to represent them — they were almost all men.
After what felt like hours, we were let into the mayor’s living room and seated on plastic chairs. Some of the neighborhood leaders wore black dress shoes, freshly polished. Lounging in a recliner with his shoes off, Colin wore a white undershirt that had a small rip in the side, accenting his belly.
He lamented Canaan’s overcrowded conditions: “Every little piece of land has someone who wants to claim it,” he said. “We can’t live in a society where everyone is afraid of each other. I am a man of the state. I am here for you, and you are here for me.” So long, that is, as nobody interfered with his “interests” — his mines.
There were just two problems with Colin’s plan. The first was that Canaan had no electoral office, which meant people could not register there to vote for him, or for anyone. And the second was that Colin was a political opponent of the president and his cabinet, who have enormous sway over the electoral process. Haiti’s leaders might want to keep Canaan off the electoral map because every vote for Colin was a vote against them.
At the time, Haiti was led by President Jovenel Moïse. During his campaign, Moïse described himself as a hardworking banana farmer — a man of the people. In reality, by the time of his candidacy, he was a wealthy owner of construction companies and a big-ag investor whose export-driven banana plantation evicted hundreds of farmers.
Moïse didn’t have much of a mandate. His 2015 election was later overturned due to irregularities, and he won a re-do election the following year with an abysmal turnout estimated at around 21%. By 2017, he was embroiled in a corruption scandal and facing down widespread protests, to which his administration responded by arming the notorious gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier. In late 2018, Chérizier and his thugs entered a Port-au-Prince neighborhood where there had been major protests against Moïse, and they massacred some 71 people, including children, raped at least 11 women and looted some 150 homes.
But Colin had another problem, one far closer to home.
Jean Adler Corriélus, better known by the nom de guerre Bob Anel, was a powerbroker who spent his days holding court like a king. Each morning, his backyard filled with people waiting for their chance to ask him for a favor or try to sell him something.
“You see all these people?” he said to me on the day I visited, gesturing around. “They’re all here to ask me for things — a little money, security. Maybe they had a problem with police. Everyone has something.” As Anel told it, Colin entered politics out of ambition, but Anel decided to throw his hat in the ring out of obligation. “I’ve never liked politics,” he said. “But it’s because of what’s happening to my people. We are victims.”
“We have a great dream for Canaan,” Anel told me. “My dream is for people to have electricity in their houses. For their kids to go to a good school. So they can have a pretty cemetery to bury their loved ones who die.” His goals were no different from Colin’s, no different from the residents’.
But Canaan was languishing, he alleged, because of Colin’s greed. Colin wanted to tax Canaan’s settlers without offering them anything in return, Anel said. Anel wasn’t the only person to raise eyebrows over what Mayor Colin was doing with his municipality’s tax money. “Maybe he will use that money to buy a house in Florida,” the head of a federal government land office in Port-au-Prince speculated to me.
“Many people say he’s a millionaire. But I think he’s a poor man. A man who robs stuff from poor people,” said Anel. He described Colin as a land baron — occupying land that isn’t his, then renting it or selling it to the highest bidder. In fact, Anel told me, that’s what Colin did to him. Anel claimed Colin appropriated a large swatch of land that was gifted to Anel’s grandfather for his military service long ago.
The conflict between the two went beyond politics and once spiraled into violence. According to Colin, Anel’s gunmen on motorcycles attacked his radio station. He showed me a grainy video of men with guns firing at the building. “It’s a whole army,” Colin remarked as we watched. The onslaught was filmed by the shaky hands of one of the station’s employees cowering on the upper floor. Vehicles circled the area, providing cover for the gunmen and a means of escape. Those same vehicles, Colin assured me, have been seen entering and leaving Bob Anel’s home. “He’s an assassin,” said Colin. “I’m going to arrest him and bring him to justice.”
But Haiti’s judiciary was in shambles. Judges and attorneys had been shot, kidnapped, killed. Men tried to abduct and kidnap two clerks at a court where the corruption case involving Moïse was underway. Two judges tasked with investigating the scandal fled the country after receiving death threats. In 2020, the head of the Port-au-Prince bar association was shot and killed on his way home, hours after going on the radio to rail against an array of Haitian politicians ranging from parliament to the presidential palace.
By early 2020, as Covid consumed the globe, the pandemic barely registered among Haiti’s problems. But that March, Colin’s 21-year-old son, who was living in Florida, died in his sleep; the cause is still unclear. To Colin, it must have seemed like a curse. Eminently superstitious, the man who had won the lottery twice decided his luck had run out. Another one of his kids was kidnapped on the way to school shortly after — by this time, kidnappings were rife, an easy way for gangs to extort money. Colin subsequently announced he would no longer seek reelection, even if the election went forward, and that he’d stop governing at the end of his term.
On June 26, 2021, Colin did what many of his countrymen dream of, some attempt, and few succeed: He left Canaan to find safety in the United States, boarding a flight to Florida.
The man who had tried to govern Haiti’s ungoverned city washed his hands of the place. He left without having earned Canaan formal recognition, leaving residents no clear path toward someday electing a leader of their own.
Eleven days later, on the evening of July 7, 2021, President Moïse was assassinated in his home by Colombian mercenaries. They were hired by, among others, a businessman who was sentenced this June in Florida to life in prison for his role in the plot. Security in Haiti has since deteriorated even further, with gangs raping and brutalizing women and children, shooting and killing with impunity. One of the most notorious gangs, 400 Mawozo, established its stronghold on the outskirts of Canaan. The gang attacked Colin’s radio station after one of his pundits criticized the gang for terrorizing the population. Colin said two of his employees were shot and a police officer he’d known was killed. The next month, the station shut down for good.
Today, the people left behind — Simeus and Canaan’s other residents who moved there hoping for peace and opportunity — have instead been extorted by gangs at gunpoint or had to duck and cover with their children as shootouts unfold outside their homes. The security that Colin promised never materialized. The grand hopes of the residents and Colin’s promises seem sanguine in retrospect.
In recent months, gang activity — muggings, burglary, shootings — has intensified, and many Canaan residents have left. Some moved in with relatives in the countryside. Others began squatting in parks and churches — even outside the U.S. embassy, lacking anywhere else to go. Last Saturday, a pastor persuaded hundreds of congregants to march through Canaan to rid it of the gang that has been terrorizing the town. Some carried rocks and machetes. When police at a station they passed refused to intervene, the gang responded by opening fire on the crowd. Residents are still counting the dead.
Haiti, to the extent it is being ruled at all, is led by an unelected interim prime minister, Ariel Henry — a man with ties to one of the suspects in his predecessor’s murder. Henry has called for the U.S. and other Western powers to send a military force to get the gangs under control — a popular but controversial demand in a country occupied for long periods by the U.S. military as well as by a U.N. peacekeeping force that killed civilians and whose soldiers raped women and children and introduced a cholera epidemic that left more than 10,000 people dead.
In August, Kenya — a nation whose soldiers and police have a reputation for torture and massacres — volunteered to send a stabilization force to bolster Haiti’s police in their fight against the gangs. The U.S. said it would submit a U.N. resolution in support of the plan for Kenya to lead a “multinational” stabilization force of 1,000 Kenyan soldiers. Haiti’s gangs have already threatened to fight back.
I recently called Colin in Florida, and he said he hopes to return to Haiti someday — if it ever becomes safe. But he said he’s through with politics, that he’ll never run for office again. “We need elections,” he said, raising his voice in exasperation. “We don’t have a president. We don’t have a parliament. We don’t have mayors. We don’t have a country.”
But when pressed, he had no clue what could be done to fix the collapse of governance in Haiti, placing the burden on the shoulders of the countrymen he left behind: “All Haitians can put their heads together to come up with an amenable solution,” he said.