In Haiti, gangs and poverty added to tragedy of deadly tanker blast
Cap-Haïtien (Haiti) (AFP) – The deep-seated struggles of daily life in Haiti -- worsened by the rising power of gangs -- created conditions that added to the death toll in a tanker explosion that killed at least 75 people in the country's second-largest city this week.
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"We have a population that lives in extreme poverty," said Marie-Rosy Auguste Ducena, an activist with the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights.
"That's what prompted people to go out and collect gasoline from the tanker, they thought they could resell the fuel," she said.
Patrick Almonor, deputy mayor of the northern city of Cap-Haitien where the accident occurred, said the driver of the tanker swerved to avoid hitting a motorcycle taxi, causing him to lose control of the vehicle, which then overturned.
"The driver immediately told people of the danger, but they didn't listen to him," said Ducena.
"On the contrary, they went to look for hammers and other tools to be able to pierce the tank and recover the gasoline."
She blamed "a cruel lack of education of the population, who think they can handle petroleum products in any way."
Sixty-two people died at the scene and at least a dozen died in hospital from their injuries.
About 50 injured were being treated in hospitals across the country, where another nine were reported to have died Wednesday.
The critical condition of some, following severe burn injuries, has raised fears that the death toll could climb even higher.
"Fuel is worth its weight in gold these days in the country, and there it was free for the taking: that's what worsened the toll," said the fforudeputy mayor of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second city.
He said some people who lived close by the explosion were killed in their homes but "the majority of the dead were around the tanker to take out fuel."
In a country plagued by natural disasters and political instability, including the president's assassination this summer, more than 60 percent of Haiti's 11 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Fuel shortages have been a frequent occurrence in recent years, with authorities regularly running out of cash to meet the pay the gas distributors.
But the crisis took on a whole new dimension when, in September, crime gangs that had long been confined to the slums of Port-au-Prince took control of roads leading to the country's three oil terminals. More than a dozen fuel tankers were hijacked by armed groups who demanded hefty ransoms for the drivers' release.
In the months since, the gangs' stranglehold has put all traffic in and out of Port-au-Prince at risk.
Two main highways connect Cap-Haitien with the capital, but goods vehicles have been forced to use the one that crosses through the mountains after the other one was taken over by a powerful crime gang.
"Sometimes bandits also block this road to the Central Plateau and, when that happens, no vehicles can reach the capital," said Almonor, who bemoaned the centralization of power and commerce in the country.
"We depend on Port-au-Prince because, although we have a port here, we do not have our own oil terminal," he said. "The availability of products is not guaranteed and that pushes people to use the black market to stock up on supplies, either for their businesses or for resale," said the deputy mayor of this city of nearly 300,000.
Civil society groups fear no lessons will be learned in order to avoid another tragedy.
"People who slept in their homes died of burns, and injured survivors are struggling to receive health care because there are no specialized hospitals," said Ducena.
"Are we just going to have these three days of mourning, just mourn our dead, count our corpses and then move on?" asked Ducena, a lawyer by training. "We cry, we do nothing afterwards, and then await the next disaster."
© 2021 AFP