“Haitians Kidnapped Every Day”: Missionary Kidnappings Highlight Growing Crisis

0
12
“Haitians Kidnapped Every Day”: Missionary Kidnappings Highlight Growing Crisis


Firel Joseph was driving through Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince one evening this year when he noticed a white Toyota Land Cruiser with official license plates lying around near its rear bumper. Assuming the other driver wanted to pass him, the 44-year-old development worker relented. Then things took a hell of a turn.

The car skidded and stopped in front of Joseph, while another vehicle appeared behind, dragging him into it. Six men, dressed in bulletproof vests and armed with guns, piled out of the Land Cruiser, moving with military discipline.

Four of them waved traffic away from the scene, shouting that they were police, while two approached Joseph.

“That’s when I realized I was in trouble – when they walked up to me and cocked their guns and it made a sound like in the movies,” Joseph said. “That’s when I knew I was being kidnapped.

Haiti is the kidnapping capital of the world, where rich and poor are targeted for ransom – victims are often chosen opportunistically in the traffic jams of Port-au-Prince.

A gang member poses for a photo in the Portail Léogâne neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in mid-September. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd / AP

Until recently, the kidnapping epidemic had barely registered outside the country as it grappled with overlapping crises, from natural disasters to the assassination of its president.

But on Saturday, 16 American missionaries and a Canadian were kidnapped while traveling by bus to the airport, putting the wave of kidnappings in the spotlight. Five children were among the hostages, including an eight-month-old baby. Their ransom was set at $ 1 million per person.

“There is obviously a lot of coverage because they are Americans, but Haitians are kidnapped every day,” said Joseph, who asked not to use his real name. “Sometimes it makes the news, but sometimes nobody cares. “

At least 628 kidnappings have taken place in Haiti this year – more than three times the total of last year, according to the local nonprofit Human Rights Research and Analysis Center. The increase in kidnappings reflects the growing power of violent criminal gangs. About 165 factions operate in the capital, often with the tacit support of politicians, and many groups are now better armed than the country’s fragile police force.

In April, the gang of “400 Mawozo” – according to the same leaders of the group, was responsible for the massive kidnapping of missionaries on Saturday – seized 10 people including seven members of the clergy, prompting the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince to warn that Haiti was facing a “descent into hell”.

People protest for the release of kidnapped missionaries near the missionary headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday. Photographie : Joseph Odelyn/AP

In July, President Jovenel Moïse was shot dead in his home; days later, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the country’s southern peninsula on August 14, killing more than 2,200 people. Amidst the chaos, the gangs seized their moment.

“The bigger the fish they catch, the fewer people they have to kidnap,” said Jay Cantave, who runs Brisec, a private security company in Port-au-Prince. “It’s the most lucrative crime right now in Haiti, and people are getting away with it – and getting away with a lot of money. “

After Joseph was forced out of his car, he was tied up and blindfolded and taken to a safe house, where he was questioned. Under duress, he unlocked his phone so that the kidnappers could go through his correspondence and issue a ransom. After contacting his brother, they set the payment at $ 1.1 million, to be paid in cash – in US dollars and Haitian gourdes.

“They’ve set the price so high you’re scared so you’ll pay whatever you can,” Joseph said. Eventually, $ 15,000 was paid to secure his release, as Joseph borrowed money from friends and family. “I always pay them back every month with every paycheck I get. “

People displaced by gang violence occupy a school transformed into a long-term shelter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in September.
People displaced by gang violence occupy a school transformed into a long-term shelter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in September. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd / AP

In neighborhoods controlled by gangs, residents are often detained and checked to see if a ransom would be paid before being kidnapped.

Theodor Ronald was taken in May by two men in the streets of the Martissant district. He was interrogated for three hours in a safe house before his captors decided he was too poor to deserve a ransom.

“Anything can happen here,” Ronald said at a shelter for people displaced by gang violence, where he has been staying with thousands of others since June. “These are your own brothers with bad thoughts that go crazy and violent. “

Some observers say Haiti’s continued lack of opportunities threatens to strengthen gang ranks. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with over 40% of its population food insecure.

People demonstrate for the release of kidnapped missionaries near the missionary headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.
People demonstrate for the release of kidnapped missionaries near the missionary headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Photographie : Joseph Odelyn/AP

“In the end, gang infantrymen have nothing to lose and no real alternative,” said Fiammetta Cappellini, country representative of the NGO Avsi. “We don’t want to limit the magnitude of the problem to the economy, but there is a factor of poverty and a lack of resources at play.”

But without a clear end in view of the country’s woes, many Haitians find it difficult to adjust to life in a country where kidnappings are a daily reality.

“I just try not to be on the streets too much and try to get home early and follow the news,” Joseph said. “But I don’t know what to do now because everywhere there is a stronghold of gangs. “

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here