Kidnappers exploit Haiti's lawlessness

Hundreds of abductions have taken place in the last two months amid poverty and political uncertainty here.

At one point, the kidnappers gave Geneviève and Stephanie each a bullet and told them to hold onto them. As negotiations over ransom dragged into the night, Geneviève, a Haitian high school student, asked her captor why he was making her suffer. The gangster asked for the bullet, loaded his pistol, and pointed at her head. "You think you are suffering now?" he asked.

Kidnapping, an almost unheard of crime in Haiti a few years ago, has reached epidemic proportions in recent months. Businessmen, students, journalists, aid workers, and foreigners, including close to 30 US citizens, all have been targets.

According to Control Risks, a private business risk consultancy in Haiti, there were approximately 10 reported kidnappings per day during December in Port-au-Prince - the highest rate in the Americas, bypassing both the capitals of Colombia and Mexico. Over Christmas weekend alone, there were 50 abductions - most during daylight hours. Since then, the numbers have decreased, with 37 reported kidnappings in January, including those of six French nationals.

Observers say that while relentless poverty is part of the reason for the scourge, the growing lawlessness and political uncertainty here are the real driving factors behind the trend.

"The kidnappers are tolerated by the Haitian government, accepted by the population, and supported by the UN and the police," says Georges, Geneviève's father, echoing the charges of many angry Haitians. "The police know the gangsters by place, name, and cellphone number." The family asked that their last name not be published out of safety concerns.

"The funny thing was they were just regular guys," says Geneviève of her captors, who commandeered the Jeep carpooling her to class as she was studying for her biology test in the back seat. "If you saw them in town you might give them money so they could go get something to eat."

Dozens of morning commuters, she says, saw the kidnapping. The UN peacekeeper tanks guarding the slum they were driven into, she says, seemed to make way on the road so as to let the kidnappers pass. The police, following the girls' release 26 hours later, never did a proper investigation. One of the kidnappers still calls her father. He rang on Christmas Day to ask if the family had any gifts for him.

The lack of authority here begins with the fact that an unpopular, unelected, interim government has been in power for the past two years, ever since a rebellion toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. New elections, set to take place Tuesday, were originally scheduled for November, and postponed four times, as disorganization, logistical problems, and instability stymied good-will in the hemisphere's poorest nation.

The 9,000 strong UN mission sent in to secure the peace in this nation of 8 million and help prepare the country for the elections is widely disparaged as ineffectual or worse. Twice in the past month, the capital has come to an almost complete standstill as Haitians from all walks of life joined in strikes to protest what they see as the UN's failure to protect them or take firm action against the kidnappers in Cité Soleil, a square-mile slum crammed with 200,000 people and unmanageable crime.

Considering these circumstances, Control Risks stated in a recent report, the gangs will "take advantage of the unstable political environment and new delays to the elections," and kidnappings are "likely to continue."

Geneviève's kidnappers initially demanded $300,000, says her father, but finally settled for $3,600, which was delivered by a friend in a brown paper bag. Most kidnappings here end like this - with ransom paid and the prisoners released. "It's economic," says sociologist Michele Oriol, "But it's also hard to say where criminality ends and politics begins in Haiti."

Haitian national police chief Mario Andresol has, in several recent interviews with local media, accused politicians of encouraging and even orchestrating kidnappings in order to finance their campaigns through ransom payments.

"The police chief is widely known to be accusing mainly [front-runner] René Préval," explains Control Risks in its Jan. 9 report. "Local intelligence corroborates Andresol's accusation that politicians are complicit in and benefit from kidnappings. Préval is said to be financing the armed gangs in Cité Soleil to maintain political support there." Mr. Préval's office angrily denies these accusations.

Andresol has criticism for his own operation as well. He admits that, with only 6,000 police, he lacks the manpower, not to mention training or institutional credibility, to do much about the kidnappings. "High-ranking police officers' involvement in illegal activities has become institutionalized," he admitted.

Evans Jean, leader of the Boston Gang in Cité Soleil and one of the most notorious gangsters in the country, threw a New Year's party this year. It took place outdoors, in his patch of the slum, and everyone was invited to partake. There was rap music blaring, rice to eat - and everyone went home with cooking oil and a cash gift. The elderly, he says proudly, got $500 each, more than an average yearly salary in Haiti.

"These are my brothers and sisters and I can't see the poor suffering," he says, sauntering into the slum health clinic, a dozen gang members around him, to complain about a toothache. Two UN tanks idle a few blocks away but do not approach the area. Mr. Jean, wearing jean shorts and sandals, a toothpick stuck in his jelled hair, tells it like it is: "I give stuff to the people and they thank me and love me. That's how it goes."

Where did the money for the party come from? He considers. "It's complicated," he says. "It has to do with donations from businessmen.... Some of it is my own," he continues. "Kidnapping is a bad thing," he adds, and gets up to answer his cellphone.

He rejects any suggestion that he or his gang are kidnappers. "I would be arrested if we stepped out of the slum," he says. "So how can we kidnap anyone?"

"We always get the blame because we live in Cité Soleil. Everyone outside hates us, looks down on us, and treats us like animals," he says. "Why do they make us suffer like this?"

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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