A Brazen Kidnapping in Haiti

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S1: Jacqueline Charles, who reports on the Caribbean for the Miami Herald, she says when she goes to Haiti, she knows she’s got to have a plan. Every morning, it’s the same thing.

S2: You basically have to pick up your phone and you have to check the updates. You have to see, you know what’s going on? Are the streets clear? Is there an issue in the streets? Just, you know, a week ago, for instance, in the hills above Port au Prince, where you normally don’t have any problems. Those streets were shut down because five people had gotten kidnapped in the middle of the night.

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S1: Kidnapping has become normal in Haiti, so normal that when Jacqueline talks about it, it’s almost like she’s talking about a bit of weather or a traffic jam.

S2: And so for the people who were up there who probably never had to be concerned about this, they read this and they said, Oh, wow, OK, so today I’m just going to stay home. I’m going to stay put or I have to go another route today, or I’m not going to be able to go downtown. That is life every day today. You know, I would say for the last year or two.

S3: Developing this morning, 16 American missionaries, one Canadian missionary are missing in Haiti right now after being kidnapped by one of the most powerful gangs on the island again.

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S1: Given all this, when news broke out a week or so ago that 17 missionaries had been kidnapped just outside Port au Prince. It’s not. The Jacqueline was surprised. She was just surprised so many people were talking about it.

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S2: You know, I have to tell you 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. So we are very cautious.

S1: Hold it. Why? What do you worry will happen there?

S2: The person might be killed. You know, these gangs often do not take kindly to publicity.

S1: That’s at least part of the reason you maybe haven’t heard so much about the ongoing spate of kidnappings in Haiti. Jacqueline Though she can rattle off victim after victim one was a Navy veteran. Another was an army reservist on vacation and an American pastor got snatched up in his church parking lot just earlier this month.

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S2: And it’s been three weeks and counting, and he’s still in the hands of kidnappers, even though a ransom has been paid. When the ransom was paid, the gang said That’s not enough. We need more. And then he hung up the phone. When these cases happen, you feel a complete sense of helplessness, hopelessness. Oftentimes, you don’t know which gang has the person, you don’t know where the individual is being kept and you have no way of contacting the gang. You have to wait until they contact you.

S1: Today on the show, Haiti’s Kidnapping crisis and how these latest victims might convince the world to intervene. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.

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S4: So let’s get

S1: into just the details of this mass Kidnapping that is getting so much attention. How much do we know about the victims and how they were taken?

S2: So the victims are 16 Americans and one Canadian. They work for a charitable group, Christian Aid Ministries. They are part of the Mennonite community. You do have this community in Haiti. They, you know, participate in various aid activities in terms of education, health care. I personally saw a number of them when I was covering the quake in August. But in the case of these particular individuals who are being held hostage right now, they’ve been in Haiti for some time. They’re fairly new to the country, but they they live there. The youngest one is eight months old. There’s five children.

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S1: Do we have any idea how they’re doing?

S2: 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 is not among those that are Kidnapping. That’s where the ransom request was first made. Christian Aid Ministries, they’ve put out a thing up until now, maybe two press statements, but they’re not, you know, talking to the media. We’ve tried to reach out to them, to talk to them personally, but they’re not really taking any inquiries at this point.

S1: How much do we know about the gang that’s responsible for this kidnapping?

S2: So this gang cut some hours or 400 miles, or they basically control when the largest territory gang territories in the country. They are east of Port au Prince in an area, the quite a bulk area, which is where these missionaries were taken. This is also the way out to the border with the Dominican Republic. So it’s a very well role. You have buses, for instance, you know, transport buses of people, coach light buses, you know, bringing people back and forth between Haiti and Dominican Republic. So it’s a very vast area, and I mention it because it’s one of the difficulties with this gang. Police are very much aware of them, but they haven’t been able to really make huge amounts of arrests because the gang is basically well informed. They’ve got antennas for them 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. Her base is located, you know, if the cops go down there, they can easily get ambushed because basically you’re talking about going down a narrow road dirt road covered with trees. So they’ll see you before you see them. They started off stealing, you know, cattle. Then they started stealing cars. And now we see what they’re doing, these group kidnappings. The gang itself also they tax, they’ve been taxing citizens in the area,

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S1: taxing them like going around and saying, Hey, you owe us money.

S2: Exactly. Basically, you know, if you’re selling goats, we’re going to charge you this amount per goal. You have to pay 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 entrepreneurs or business people in the community where they’re located to tell them what their quote unquote tax bill will be. And in some cases, they left notes for them on their businesses.

S1: Do they offer anything for the tax like protection or services?

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S2: Well, you know, first of all, the gang is in the extortion business, so they do extortion. And the assumption is that if you pay this tax, I guess 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?

S1: The gang that arranged this mass kidnapping of missionaries is asking for $17 billion a million for each person they abducted. And because Kidnapping has become so regular in Haiti, what’s surprising isn’t the ransom so much. It’s how brazen the gang is being in taunting the entire U.S. government.

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S2: People were sort of shocked in the sense that this gang would risk bringing the wrath of the U.S. on their head. You know, there’s always an assumption or they used to be that certain groups or certain people were hands off. Right?

S1: Yeah. You mentioned how you spoke to a family of an American citizen who is 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 such, so little publicity and this one’s getting so much? Do you think it’s a choice of the family or something else?

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S2: No, it’s not a choice that the family, in fact, the family noticing the unlawfulness in terms of coverage, issued this video just this week sort of out of desperation to try and get some attention to this case and to remind people that it’s been more than three weeks and this past year, plus another one of his church members are still being held by gang members, and nobody’s talking about the case. You know, as a reporter, I reached out to people and asked them about this, and I will tell you, you know, on the record, 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 basically felt that because this pastor, you know, was not born in the USA, that perhaps this is why, you know, he’s not getting the focus that it’s getting. And you can also take a step back and say, Well, why are the other Kidnapping cases out of Haiti have not gotten the attention when they’ve been going on now for at least two years? We’ve we’ve seen a surge in Kidnapping. It’s been no secret, but we haven’t seen this kind of publicity. And I can tell you 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 Kidnapping, and they were in a convoy and they were grabbed by a gang. I wrote about that extensively, but there was no international press outside of Dominican Press writing about that case. You know, 15 years ago when I was covering Haiti and we had a gang problem in mostly, you know, slums in the capital, you know, as journalists, we can do a convoy and we can go into the slums and we were allowed passage to go in there and to go 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. And I think that what this case stands out and says there’s also no guarantee for foreigners who are working in the country as missionaries in doing good that, you know, and I think that that was what was shocking is that in some cases than we’ve heard, it is where the gang may stop a vehicle to hijack it. When they realized that the occupants were foreigners were Americans, they let it go. They would not take that risk of having the FBI having the U.S. government on their head.

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S1: I want to talk about how Haiti got to this point because, yeah, I mean, 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 in kidnappings, including kidnappings of American citizens, and you’ve even spoken to people after they’ve been released. So where would you start that story?

S2: I would start this story at 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 Haitian elite Haitian private sector that instead of putting their money in banks in Miami or in real estate in Miami, they were bringing their money back home to Haiti, and they were investing in projects in hotel projects and construction. And they really were starting to feel optimistic about the country and the country’s future. Hmm. At this time, the country still has United Nations peacekeepers that were there. You had President Rene Preval who was, you know, who was president. I mean, there were issues, right? But you have stability, even if Haitians at a time didn’t think that it was stable enough for them. But but you have stability. You had people saying to me, you know, after three decades of a dictatorship and two ouster, you know, involving the same president, you know, they were at a place in the country where, yeah, they could be critical of the government, get in their car, drive home and not thinking about the fact that they were going to be killed with a bullet in their head.

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S1: A pretty basic, pretty basic guarantee.

S2: Yeah. Yeah. So you so you had this and then what happened? You have this earthquake January 12, 2010. Just unbelievable, you know, disaster. More than 300000 people died, 1.5 million people homeless, another 1.5 million injured. Your biggest hospital basically crushed people living in, you know, tents and under tents and tarps. Port au Prince was nearly destroyed.

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S1: What happened to those people that you’d been following who had all this optimism?

S2: Well, 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. OK. 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. You had people who were affected by the quake, either because they lost your homes or they were victimized. They were just there even if their houses were still standing, but 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 up to Florida Straits, they were going to Brazil and then Chile. And by the way, these are people that you’re now seeing at the southern border of the, you know, of the United States. But with this, you also had, you know, the United States involved with two elections that were controversial in the country. And so I think when you start to look at that, 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 these 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.

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S1: You’ve written about whole neighborhoods that have fallen in this time to gangs like you wrote about one village together, you called it kidnappers lair and it was right next to all these government buildings in Port au Prince.

S2: Exactly. And so, you know, when I talk to the experts in Haiti, the human rights, you know, they basically believe that there was a nexus between neighborhoods falling to gangs and elections and politics, that these were neighborhoods where people were sort of most vocal in their sort of criticism of the government. These were people that were more likely to take the street in protest against the government and that when you saw these massacres that were happening at the hands of gangs, they allegedly had ties to the government that this was a way to basically shut those people up. Now I’ve talked to others, outside experts, you know, outside of Haiti about that theory. They don’t agree with it. They think that it’s more of a fight for money and for it for turf. You have a weak police force. You have an interim government. You have an international community that really has appeared like it didn’t really care. You know, you know, you have a case today, for instance, where you’ve got these 16 Americans and one Canadian, they’re in the hands of the gangs. Who do you know that has a contact with this gang that could call and get on the phone with the leader and say, Hey, you don’t want this kind of problem, you should release, you should release them. So, so that’s the issue. You’ve got a small minority of people that are somehow being sort of puppet masters.

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S1: Are you saying? The problem is now so diffuse with so many different people, with so many different motivations that now when there’s a Kidnapping like this, people who you may think of as authorities like, say, the FBI or the Haitian government, but they don’t even know who to call and say, Hey, listen, we need to resolve this Kidnapping problem.

S2: That’s an 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 as in contact with the kidnappers. In terms of what are the next steps. 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 pressure to the FBI is going to help you pay the ransom, which they’re not going to do. That’s number one. Number two, you know, 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. There have been instances where the Haitian police have gone in and have freed hostages, but those hostages are usually kept somewhere inside the capital where the police has access to them. Once somebody is taken to one of these Kidnapping layers, the police really doesn’t have any access and can’t get in. Earlier this year, five police officers went into one of these gang controlled slums and they did not come out alive. Neither did their corpses ever make it out. They were ambush, 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 security, the insecurity in the country because it is now seeping into all parts of life. Just yesterday, people were having issues with your cell phone because the cell phone company needs diesel in order to run their generators. And they couldn’t get the diesel because the gangs are blocking the exit at the port where the fuel trucks need to come from. And the fuel trucks, by the way, happened to be on protests because they’ve been fed up with getting their drivers kidnapped or getting their trucks hijacked by the gangs. And then that fuel is then resold on the black market.

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S1: I mean, you’ve written the gangs are the de facto government in Haiti.

S2: Yes, that because where they are and the territory that they control, they decide everything. They decide when people can or can’t take to the streets, they decide that they’re going to tax. You send you a tax bill. They decide whether you feel comfortable just going out because they’re striking today or they’re not striking. 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 axe 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 in order for that? So this has the potential of just spiraling so much more out of control.

S1: It’s hard to think of how it would spiral more.

S2: Oh, it’s easy. I mean, you still have places in the country. They’re not under the control of gangs is still fairly safe that you can walk around. But if we have a situation where what we’re seeing in Port au Prince, you start to see it elsewhere, you know, in the country and that you know, you now have gangs controlling, you know that the in and out of all of the major ports, you know, in the country, if you start having potential candidates running for office, basically colluding with gangs. It does have the potential to get worse.

S1: After the break. Jacqueline Charles explains what kind of options the U.S. and other major world powers are considering for intervening in Haiti’s security breakdown. 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?

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S2: I think that at this point, everybody, including Haitians, are looking to see how the United States responds to this particular Kidnapping. I think I don’t know what that response should be, what it looks like, but everybody agrees that the response carries huge ramifications. I spoke to a popular broadcaster here. Alex thinks you’re in just a few days ago, and he said the only country that the gangs are afraid of is the United States.

S1: I mean, it seems to me that the U.S. is in an uncommonly tough spot when it comes to Haiti right now, like the special envoy just resigned over how the Biden administration was dealing with Haitian migrants at the Mexico border. So it’s hard. It’s hard to imagine who’s even thinking through what the U.S. does now.

S2: They’re under a lot of pressure right now to think through it. And I think that 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 and there is a recognition of the security crisis that exists in Haiti even before this Kidnapping.

S1: Yeah, you’ve said that the administration has four options here for how to move forward. I wonder if you could lay those out quickly.

S2: So the one option is the return of United Nations peacekeeping troops that are in Haiti. The U.N. was there for 13 years. But the problem with that option, some say, is, you know, they did bring cholera. There was the whole issue of U.N. peacekeepers bothering 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 problem, though, is you have China that really has been very critical about the U.N. role in Haiti, as well as the U.S. and in fact recently wanted to shut down the current U.N. political office in Haiti. So all of these options come with their problems. 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 of now

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S1: to stabilize the country.

S2: Theoretically, yes, to stabilize the country, theoretically. But the administration basically nixed that idea. There’s also members in Congress and some people in Diaspora who are not in favor of this. U.S. once occupied Haiti for 19 years and the legacy of the occupation, you know, more than 100 years later, is still there.

S1: OK, so we have two options. We’ve got the U.N. going in. We’ve got the U.S. going in militarily. What’s option number three?

S2: Number three is what former U.S. special envoy Daniel Foot- presented, which was using U.S. special forces to train the Haitian National Police in anti-gang operations and that they can basically tackle the gangs. That option also was dismissed by by the White House. But it also speaks to another option. It’s sort of been thrown out with the use of contractors to accompany Haitian police and 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.

S1: Hmm. So contractors don’t have a great reputation.

S2: Exactly. And also the police, you know, 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 basically do police work.

S1: 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. You spoke to one expert who said it’s clear that the country’s climate of impunity nurtured by a total void of legitimate authority cannot last long. And I read that, and I just thought, what does that mean about what could happen next? Like what Haiti could look like in another month?

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S2: Well, another expert talked about the fact that you could end up with some sort of a gang led cool if nothing is done. I mean, it looks like that you can end up in a situation where it’s more chaotic, you know? And ironically, this is an expert who is, you know, not a fan of either U.S. or U.N. military intervention, but basically is, you know, quietly admits that that might be the route that the that may need to be taken. You know, if this country can’t figure out a way to pull back this, this insecurity crisis that it’s dealing with,

S1: how do Haitians talk about what they think needs to happen now? When you speak to them,

S2: they’re very divided. They all agree that there’s some help that’s needed, but they are divided on what the options should be, what the solution should be because there are no good solutions. So it all depends on on on who you talk to and how they view things. And that’s the issue that, you know, some people are for or against the U.N. or a U.S. intervention. I think Haitians who are in a diaspora who are not living at day to day there might be more against it than those who are in the country who basically are saying at this point, You know what, I’m drowning. I don’t care who’s the one is coming to rescue me just then, you know, just throw me the rope.

S1: Jacqueline Charles Thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. And that is our show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Davis Land, Elena Schwarze, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go see what I did this weekend. I’m on Twitter at Mary desk. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.