The World

“These Gangs Are Better Armed Than the Police”

How kidnapping became normal in Haiti.

A man kneels in the street with his arms above his head as tires burn behind him.
A man participates in a general strike in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 18 in protest of the country’s rapidly disintegrating security situation highlighted by the recent kidnapping of American and Canadian missionaries. Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Listen to What Next:

Kidnapping has become normal in Haiti. So normal that when Jacqueline Charles, who reports on the Caribbean for the Miami Herald, talks about it, it’s almost like she’s talking about a bit of weather or a traffic jam. If people in a certain neighbor learn about a kidnapping nearby, she says, they might say, “Oh, wow, OK, so today I’m just going to stay home, or I have to go another route today, or I’m not going to be able to go downtown.”

Advertisement

“That is life every day today, for at the last year or two,” Charles says.

Given all this, when news broke a week or so ago that 17 missionaries had been kidnapped, just outside Port-au-Prince, it’s not that Jacqueline Charles was surprised. She was just surprised so many people were talking about it. “Those of us who cover Haiti on a regular basis, we are very apprehensive about writing about kidnapping cases when it involves individuals who are still being held,” she says. “We are very cautious, because the person might be killed. These gangs often do not take kindly to publicity.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

That’s at least part of the reason you maybe haven’t heard so much about the ongoing spate of kidnappings in Haiti. Jacqueline Charles, though, can rattle off victim after victim: one was a Navy veteran, another was an Army reservist on vacation, and an American pastor was snatched in his church parking lot just earlier this month. “When these cases happen, you feel a complete sense of helplessness, hopelessness,” she says.

Advertisement

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Charles about Haiti’s kidnapping crisis. And how these latest victims might convince the world to intervene. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: So let’s get into the details of this mass kidnaping that is getting so much attention. How much do we know about the victims and how they were taken?

Jacqueline Charles: So the victims are 16 Americans, one Canadian. They work for a charitable group, Christian Aid Ministries. They’re fairly new to the country, but they live there. The youngest one is 8 months old. There’s five children.

Do we have any idea how they’re doing?

No, we do not have any idea how they’re doing. Contact was made on Saturday between the gang and someone affiliated with the group who’s not among those that are kidnaped. And that’s where the ransom request was first made.

Advertisement
Advertisement

How much do we know about the gang that’s responsible for this kidnaping?

So this gang, 400 Mawozo, they basically control one of the largest gang territories in the country. They are east of Port-au-Prince in this area where these missionaries were taken. This is also the way out to the border with the Dominican Republic. So it’s a very well-traveled road.

Advertisement

It’s a very vast area. And I mention that because it’s one of the difficulties with this gang. Police are very much aware of them, but they haven’t been able to make huge amounts of arrests because the gang is well-informed. They’ve got antennas all over the place. So whenever the police are going to make an operation, they are already aware of it. They have people inside the police who also clue them into what’s happening. They have people on the streets who let them know. Where their base is located, if the cops go down there, they can easily get ambushed because you’re talking about going down a narrow road, dirt roads covered with trees, so they’ll see you before you see them.

Advertisement
Advertisement

They started off stealing cattle. Then they started stealing cars. And now we see that they’re doing these kidnappings. The gang itself, also, they tax. They’ve been taxing citizens in the area.

Taxing them? Like going around and saying, “Hey, you owe us money”?

Exactly. If you’re selling goats, we’re going to charge you this amount per goat. If you run a beauty salon, this is how much you have to pay every Friday. There’s actually a list of what people are supposed to pay, depending on the businesses that they run. And in some cases, the gang actually called up business people in the community to tell them what their quote-unquote tax bill will be.

Advertisement

Do they offer anything for the tax? Protection or services?

Well, the gang is in the extortion business, so they do extort and the assumption is that if you pay this tax, you get some sort of protection from the gang in the sense that they won’t come after you. But if you don’t pay the tax, will your business be there tomorrow? Will you even be able to function?

Advertisement

The gang that arranged this mass kidnapping of missionaries is asking for $17 million—a million for each person they abducted. And because kidnapping has become so regular in Haiti, what’s surprising is not the ransom so much. It’s how brazen the gang is being in taunting the entire U.S. government. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

People were shocked that this gang would risk bringing the wrath of the U.S. on their head.

You mentioned how you spoke to a family of an American citizen, this pastor, who was kidnapped just a few weeks back. They’re still waiting to hear what’s happening with him, even though they’ve paid a ransom. Do you think about why that case got so little publicity and this one’s getting so much? Do you think it’s a choice of the family or something else?

No, it’s not a choice of the family. In fact, the family, noticing the unfairness in terms of coverage, issued a video out of desperation this week to try and get some attention to this case and to remind people that it’s been more than three weeks. And this pastor, plus another one of his church members, is still being held by gang members, and nobody is talking about the case.

Advertisement

I reached out to people and asked them about this, and nobody wanted to go on the record, but off the record, what was brought up time and time again was the issue of race. That not all Americans are equal. And they felt that because this pastor was not born in the U.S., that perhaps this is why he’s not getting the focus that it’s getting.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And you can also take a step back and say, Well, why aren’t the other kidnaping cases out of Haiti getting the attention that they’ve gotten when they’ve been going on now for at least two years? We’ve seen a surge in kidnaping. It’s been no secret, but we haven’t seen this kind of publicity.

Advertisement
Advertisement

There was a case earlier this year where some Dominicans were also kidnapped, filmmakers. They were coming back from filming a movie, ironically enough about kidnaping, and they were grabbed by a gang

Oh my gosh.

I wrote about that extensively. But there was no other international press outside of the Dominican press writing about the case.

Fifteen years ago, when I was covering Haiti, we had a gang problem in mostly the slums in the capital. As journalists, we can do a convoy and we can go into those slums and we were allowed passage to go in there and do our reporting. That is not the case today. There’s no guarantee of that. There’s no guarantee of a humanitarian corridor for ambulances or things to go through.

Advertisement

And I think that this case stands out and says there’s also no guarantee for foreigners who are working in the country as missionaries and doing good. That was what was shocking. We’ve heard this where the gang may stop a vehicle to hijack it and when they realized that the occupants were Americans, they let it go. They would not take that risk of having the FBI, having the U.S. government on their head.

Advertisement

I want to talk about how Haiti got to this point. We can start that story so many different places, right? But you have done this reporting over the last couple of years documenting the rise in kidnappings, and you’ve even spoken to people after they’ve been released. So where would you start that story?

Advertisement

I would start that story in 2010. Around Christmas, December 2009, I wrote a story about how Haiti was on an upswing. And I told that story through the eyes of the Haitian elite—that instead of putting their money in banks in Miami, they were bringing their money back home to Haiti, and they were investing in projects and construction. And they really were starting to feel optimistic about the country and the country’s future. But the country still had United Nations peacekeepers there. You had President René Préval. There were issues, but you have stability. You had people saying to me after three decades of dictatorship and two ousters involving the same president, they were at a place in the country where they could be critical of the government, get in their car to drive home without thinking about the fact that they were going to be killed with a bullet in their head.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

A pretty basic guarantee.

So you have this, and then what happened? You have this earthquake, Jan. 12, 2010. Just unbelievable disaster. More than 300,000 people died, 1.5 million people homeless, another 1.5 million injured. The biggest hospital basically crushed, people living under tents and tarps. Port-Au-Prince was nearly destroyed.

What happened to those people that you’d been following who had all this optimism?

The country lost a lot of their leading thinkers and intellectuals. The international community stepped in and says, “We’re going to build back better.” There was billions of dollars in aid that was promised to the country—over $10 billion. So you fast forward today, 11 years later, most of that aid never materialized. Instead of things getting better, things got worse. Not only did the country not build back better, but it has gone on this downward to decay.

Advertisement

You had people who were affected by the quake, either because they lost their homes or they were victimized, or were just there even if their house was still standing, sort of waiting for things to turn around. It didn’t happen. And we started to see this migration out of Haiti to South America, something that was unusual. Instead of going to the Bahamas or coming off the Florida Straits, they were going to Brazil and then Chile. And by the way, these are people that you’re now seeing in the Southern border of the United States. You also had the United States involved with two elections that were controversial in the country.

Advertisement

And so when people look at Haiti today, they look at Haiti before 2010 and after 2010, and what you see after 2010 is that that optimism that was there, this feeling that things were on an upswing turning around, that it’s gone just downhill. Instead of talking about weak institutions today in the country, we’re talking about no institutions. The institutions have completely collapsed.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Are you saying the problem is now so diffuse that when there’s a kidnaping like this, people who you may think of as authorities, like, say, the FBI or the Haitian government, they don’t even know who to call?

That’s the oversimplification. So for instance, if you take the FBI, the FBI is not going to go in and resolve the problem. The FBI’s job is to offer guidance to the families or the organization. The FBI is not going to get on the phone and negotiate with the kidnappers because the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. And a lot of people seem to be under the impression that the FBI is going to help you pay the ransom, which they’re not going to do. That’s No. 1.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

No. 2, there is a lack of trust, definitely in terms of the police. So that’s why a lot of kidnapping cases are not reported. Because in most instances, these kidnappings end with families paying a ransom. Once somebody is taken to one of these kidnapping lairs, the police really doesn’t have any access. Earlier this year, five police officers went into one of these gang-controlled slums, and they did not come out alive. They were ambushed, attacked, and killed, even while in armored vehicles. So these gangs are better armed than the police. You have to find a way to address the insecurity in the country because it is now seeping into all parts of life.

Advertisement

You’ve written that the gangs are the de facto government in Haiti.

Yes, because where they are and the territory that they control, they decide everything. They decide when people can or can’t take the streets. They decide that they’re going to send you a tax bill. They decide whether you feel comfortable just going out because they’re striking today or they’re not striking.

Advertisement

People talk about elections. Who’s going to be able to run a campaign in some of these neighborhoods? And are you going to have to ask these gangs for passage in order for you to go campaigning? And what kind of deal are you going to have to make in order for that? So this has the potential of just spiraling so much more out of control.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s hard to think of how it would spiral more.

Oh, it’s easy. You still have places in the country that are not under the control of gangs, where it’s still fairly safe to walk around. But if we have a situation where what we’re seeing in Port-au-Prince, you start to see it elsewhere in the country and now have gangs controlling the in and out of all of the major ports in the country. If you start having potential candidates running for office basically colluding with gangs. It does have the potential to get worse.

Do you think how the U.S. and other countries respond to these kidnappings could indicate some kind of shift in how the wider world engages with Haiti at this point?

Advertisement

At this point, everybody, including Haitians, is looking to see how the United States responds to this particular kidnapping. I don’t know what that response should be, but everybody agrees that the response carries huge ramifications.

It seems to me that the U.S. is in an uncommonly tough spot when it comes to Haiti right now. The special envoy just resigned over how the Biden administration was dealing with Haitian migrants at the Mexico border. So it’s hard to imagine who’s even thinking through what the U.S. does now.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The one thing we’ve heard from the administration is after basically a year of pushing for elections in Haiti at all costs, it is now saying, “OK, you know what, when the conditions are right.” There is a recognition of the security crisis that exists in Haiti even before this kidnapping.

Advertisement
Advertisement

You’ve said that the administration has four options here for how to move forward. I wonder if you could lay those out quickly.

So the one option is a return of the United Nations peacekeeping troops. The U.N. was there for 13 years. But the problem with that option is they did bring cholera, there was the whole issue of U.N. peacekeepers fathering Haitian children and leaving them behind. And the U.N. does not enjoy a very good reputation in Haiti. But there needs to be a serious debate or discussion about that.

The next option is the U.S. military to go into Haiti. This was requested of the Biden administration right after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

Advertisement

To stabilize the country, theoretically?

Yes, to stabilize the country, theoretically, but the administration basically nixed that idea. There’s also members in Congress and some people in the diaspora who are not in favor of this. The U.S. once occupied Haiti for 19 years, and the legacy of the occupation, more than a hundred years later, is still there.

What’s option No. 3?

No. 3 is what former U.S. Special Envoy Daniel Foote presented, which was using U.S. special forces to train the Haitian National Police in anti-gang operations. That option also was dismissed by the White House.

But it speaks to another option, which was the use of contractors to accompany Haitian police in anti-gang operations. The problem with that option is you currently have 18 former Colombian military men who are in jail in a Haitian prison today accused of assassinating the president of Haiti.

Advertisement

So contractors don’t have a great reputation right now.

Exactly, and the police force is already demoralized, and this has not gone down well within the force. They basically see it as a slap in their faces whenever they bring in these private security firms to do police work.

OK, I want to take a deep breath because I feel like you laid out the four options so clearly and also all of the things that could go terribly wrong with them. How do Haitians talk about what they think needs to happen now?

They’re very divided. They all agree that there’s some help that’s needed, but they are divided on what the solution should be because there are no good solutions. So it all depends on who you talk to and how they view things. Some people are for or against the U.N. or a US intervention. I think Haitians who are in the diaspora might be more against it, versus those who are in the country who basically are saying at this point, “I’m drowning, I don’t care who’s the one that’s coming to rescue me. Just throw me the rope.”

Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts

Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.

Advertisement