Kidnapping by Government-Backed Gangs Is Surging in Haiti

Demanding a ransom can seem an easy money in a country where 60 percent of people live below the poverty line.
January 13, 2021, 2:31pm
Haitians demonstrate on December 10, 2020, in Port-au-Prince, demanding their right to life in the face of an upsurge in kidnappings perpetrated by gangs

Two of the men behind the kidnapping of Evelyne Sincère in Haiti late last year gave different accounts of her final moments in a live interview from police custody on November 9. They exchanged blame for her suffocation, each claiming he played a largely passive role while the other one’s hands encircled her neck. 

All three of the men who participated in the crimes that killed the twenty-two year old student were close to tears. One bowed his head, as if to hide from the camera. 

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“I didn’t want to get into this,” said Obed Joseph, who lured Sincère to a secluded square in Port Au Prince on October 29. Strapped for cash, the three men resolved to kidnap Sincère, who they believed had a wealthy father. Their plan was to drug her so that she would be unable to identify them later, then release her after payment. In reality, Sincère’s father sells small goods on the street. Facing a demand of $8,000, the family could only lump together just over $1,000. 

Sincère’s body was discovered by her sister, Enette Sincère, four days after she disappeared, folded inside a metal barrel, perched atop a trash heap.

Kidnappings for ransom have surged in Haiti, from a total of 39 in 2019 to nearly 200 in 2020. At the same time, a spike in gang violence has caused several neighborhoods to go up in flames, murdered hundreds, and left a thousand people displaced.  “The gang phenomenon is going to be an issue in a place that has a deliberately underdeveloped state apparatus and deliberately poor and inegalitarian social structure.” Mark Schuller, president of the Haitian Studies Association told VICE World News. 

Recent victims of kidnapping for ransom include a prominent surgeon, a guitarist, and the wife of a security guard at the National Palace. 

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“I was driving when they intercepted me and shot bullets into the air. Six guys with big guns kept me in my car for two days and one night. I still don’t know who they were,” Hans Telemaque, a doctor finishing his residency in Port-Au-Prince, told VICE World News. “My loved ones don’t want to tell me how much they gave for the ransom. Now, I don’t go out often, and when I do, I wear glasses.”

In a country where 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, kidnapping a member of the professional class and demanding tens of thousands of dollars can be a ticket to easy money. In several instances last year, up to a million US dollars were demanded by kidnappers for victims being held captive. “Kidnapping is a very profitable business that does not require a lot of investment in terms of costs to benefits,” said Jean Eddy Saint Paul, director of the Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College. 

Though periodic spikes in gang violence are normal in Haiti, the escalation in kidnappings is not. The gangs’ seemingly indiscriminate selection of victims suggests the phenomenon sprouts from political as well as financial motivations. “It’s starting to affect people who are working class- neighborhoods that are strongholds of the [political] opposition. That’s a reason why people are deciding this is political in nature,” Schuller said. This year, kidnappers have begun to demand impossible sums of money from families in impoverished neighborhoods in Port Au Prince like Cite Soleil, a maze of fragile shacks where opposition to President Jovenel Moïse is thick on the ground. With families unable to bring forth the necessary funds, bodies are stacking up.

Since late 2019, Moïse has ruled by decree after the country failed to hold parliamentary elections in October 2019. He has lost public legitimacy while confronted with large-scale protests against his leadership. He has repeatedly refused to call new elections, despite international pressure. In May 2019, thousands of people went on strike and flooded the streets for six months after it emerged that Moïse had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars pledged to public programs.

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“It is pretty clear that for President Moïse, the source of his power is his close relationship with the United States.” said Schuller. 

An unexplained shift to kidnappings in opposition strongholds has led many to believe the government is working with gang members , neglecting official police departments and allowing gangs to serve as de-facto security forces. With collective fear in the air, streets in Port Au Prince are near empty - which is rare, even in the midst of a pandemic. “That is why gangs have become powerful, arrogant, because they are protected by the administration, armed with weapons, money and ammunition, involved in massacres, murders and kidnappings.” said Pierre Esperance of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network. 

The rise in kidnappings for ransom, which reached a level of nearly one per day towards the end of 2020, could also be a signal that the government has reduced the cash it dispenses to gangs. “Kidnappings have increased since October. That’s because the gangs say the administration hasn’t given them any money since August. The gangs say that’s why they kidnap - to make money,” Esperance said. 

“To end this, the living conditions need to improve. Vocational schools need to be set up to help people make money,” said Telemaque.

The Haitian state has created an “enabling environment for further violence” by allowing the demise of the rule of law, according to the UN Security Council. International aid could help remedy the situation, according to the body, although it acknowledged that foreign support, and its culture of post-crisis “short-termism,” has a history of helping aggravate violence, corruption, and social turmoil in Haiti. As recently as last year, hundreds of UN Peacekeepers stationed in Haiti were accused of sexual abuse, and of fathering children with Haitian women, then abandoning them.

Evelyne Sincère’s story embodies the fears of hundreds of other students, who fashioned hand-painted signs and popularized hashtags on social media to build a national movement against kidnapping using her image. President Moïse issued a statement when it became clear her story constituted significant national news, saying “such atrocities are unacceptable.” 

For those who hold Moïse’s administration partially responsible for this year’s kidnappings, the words ring hollow. “The state itself is operating as a gang,”  Saint Paul said.