Against the backdrop of a deteriorating security environment characterised by gang violence and persistent civil unrest, the prevalence of kidnapping in Haiti has increased dramatically. Markus Korhonen looks into the kidnapping business in Haiti, and explains why the underlying conditions promise little reprieve from this threat looking forward.
Haiti has a growing kidnapping problem. Amid growing gang violence, sustained anti-government protest and widespread poverty, the country is still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010 which killed 200,000 people, and caused infrastructure damage amounting to an estimated USD 8 billion. Growing Covid-19 cases in mid-2021 are likely to compound these issues, as an embattled healthcare system struggles to stay on its feet. The lack of political will to resolve insecurity coupled with few resources for effective law enforcement mean kidnapping will present a persistent threat in Haiti.
More kidnappings, broader victim profile
A recent report by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti published earlier this year suggests 234 kidnappings were reported to police in 2020, an increase of 200% from the year before, when 78 kidnappings took place. In reality, the figure will be much higher as kidnapping is underreported for fear of reprisal from gangs and distrust of the police forces. As the frequency of kidnapping has grown, victim profiles have also evolved. Where previously kidnapping gangs would predominantly target wealthy individuals, recent kidnappings appear more random, and victims have included children, civil servants, teachers and members of the clergy. In one of the more high-profile recent cases, a gang kidnapped five priests and two nuns, including two French nationals, in the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets northeast of Port-au-Prince, and demanded a USD 1 million for their release.
Kidnapping activity is, for the most part, highly organised. Victims have described how their captors operate under clear orders, and have discernible roles. For example, those responsible for the initial abduction of victims are not necessarily the same group that holds them, indicating specialised roles within these criminal organisations. The gangs also employ a broad network of spotters, who identify suitable targets.
"This pervasive threat affects not only ordinary Haitians, but also reduces the ability of aid workers to conduct much needed operations, and disincentivises tourism and investment."
A recent victim described how he and a friend had been selected as victims because they had been travelling “in a nice car.” Some recent reports suggest further victims are then identified from photos or other information on captives’ phones – this may account for several instances of people close to kidnap victims subsequently becoming victims themselves.
Ransom demands vary widely, from the USD 1 million noted above, to USD 4,000 recently demanded from a street vendor for the safe return of her child. Kidnappers initially demanded USD 300,000 and the equivalent of an additional USD 43,000 in local currency for the return of a US tourist abducted in February 2020. Kidnappers who kidnapped a local physician in November 2020 demanded USD 500,000 from his family, threatening to kill him when the first two members of his family they contacted were unable to pay. He was eventually released, though the final ransom sum his kidnappers were paid is unclear. While initial demands are generally adjusted down during the negotiating process, the wide variation in the figures tells us that almost anyone is a potential target. Recent accounts from victims show that kidnappers will evaluate ransom amounts after capture by, for example, looking through the photos on victims’ phones. Photos showing victims posing in front of expensive cars or travelling would indicate an increased ability to pay higher ransoms.
SPOTLIGHT: insecurity AND RISING Covid-19 cases
Haiti largely avoided the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, but in June 2021 medical staff on the ground warned of a substantial increase in case numbers. At the time of writing, Haiti had yet to administer its first vaccine dose, and healthcare workers were warning of reduced capacity prompted by violent unrest in the country. Gang violence and street protests have forced health facilities to close and prevented vital shipments of goods, including oxygen, from reaching hospitals. Medical staff have also had to redirect resources from Covid-19 patients to deal with victims of the violence. Doctors Without Borders warned in June that while they should be ramping up operations to combat the pandemic, they are struggling to keep their facilities open because of the deteriorating security situation.
Political connections and failing systems
150 armed gangs operate in Haiti, a remarkable number for a country with a land mass roughly equivalent to that of Belgium or the US state of Maryland. With a GDP per capita of USD 1,435 and decades of political instability it is no surprise that criminal groups have been allowed to proliferate. Kidnapping gangs can operate with near impunity. Some kidnapping victims have said their abductors wore police uniforms or drove in police vehicles. Accusations of collusion between gangs, police and politicians, even those at the highest levels, are rife. In fact, it is a former police officer, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, who was behind the formation of the “G9 alliance” between warring gangs in July 2020, reportedly made possible by promises of impunity and support from police and government.
Violent flare-ups over territory between two of the central groups within the G9 in mid-2021 bring into question the long-term prospects of the alliance. While it has resulted in a relative pacification of some areas in Haiti, it has not quelled the threat of violence or kidnapping. Gang violence has already forced an estimated 10,000 people to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, and some in the local community see the alliance as a “ticking time bomb”, which upon splintering will further deteriorate the Haitian security environment.
Compounding the problem is Haiti’s faltering judicial and penitentiary system. Corruption and lack of resources across the judicial system mean criminals are unlikely to be prosecuted, and if they are, there are few prospects for rehabilitation after entering the prison system. The country’s prisons have the highest overcrowding rates in the world at 454%, and four out of five prisoners are being held in pre-trial detention and are yet to be convicted, or in some cases even formally charged with a crime.
The apparent interconnections between criminal gangs, law enforcement and the political establishment make it clear that there is no quick fix to the kidnapping problem in Haiti. This pervasive threat affects not only ordinary Haitians, but also reduces the ability of aid workers to conduct much needed operations, and disincentivises tourism and investment. This will only serve to compound the security challenges the country faces. Colombia, France and the United States have supported the development of the anti-kidnapping capacity of Haiti, but broader socio-economic reforms will need to underpin these efforts to enact lasting change. Under these conditions, kidnapping will remain a perennial challenge for Haiti.