Kidnappings have skyrocketed in Haiti, but the crisis has political as well as criminal roots.
Between January and October 16 of this year, there have been 782 kidnappings, according to the Haitian Human Rights Analysis and Research Center (Centre d'Analyse et de Recherche en Droits de l'Homme - CARDH). Haiti is certain to past last year's record total of 796, with 119 kidnappings recorded in the first half of October alone.
The country had not experienced these levels of kidnapping since 2005 when 760 were reported. Those kidnappings happened during an escalation of violence and political turmoil following the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the presidency. Aristide used gangs to exert political control over important voting blocs and instill fear in his rivals. When their leader was unceremoniously ushered from the country, they revolted. Part of that revolt was to kidnap people en masse.
As it was then, there are political reasons behind this current scourge, and some of them follow the same patterns as what happened following Aristide's departure. Below are three reasons why kidnappings are spiraling out of control in Haiti.
1. No Elections
Since Aristide's time, politicians have forged close alliances with gangs. The gangs' control of densely populated slums in Port-au-Prince makes them the gatekeepers of huge voting blocs. For many politicians, this deal with the devil can be the difference between winning and losing.
But to get access to these areas, politicians have to pay. Sometimes they give them cash via interlocutors, NGOs or foundations. And when it comes to the ruling party, much of this funding comes from petty cash drawers of ministries. One former interior minister, for example, told InSight Crime in a recent interview that, during his time in government, they paid the gangs from the budget they used to pay government informants.
Other times, the politicians get the gangs access to weapons, ammunition, or transportation. The quid pro quo can also include top-cover from prosecution or intelligence about police operations against them. In return, the politicians expect the gangs to attack political rivals, ensure their backers vote and the rivals' backers do not vote or protest.
Elections, in other words, are big business in Haiti, especially for poor communities and the gangs that inhabit them. But earlier this year, when then-President Jovenel Moise disputed the length of time he had left in office, the election season was postponed. Moise remained in office, but the congresspeople left, and no one replaced them. When Moise was assassinated in July, elections were postponed again.
In response, gangs may have resorted to kidnapping to fill their budget gap. What's more, they may be trying to pressure politicians to pay them more regularly, regardless of the election schedule.
2. Gangs Gaining Independence
While gangs have long served politicians, they are illustrating that they are increasingly the agents of their own destinies. In this regard, the G9 and Family (G9 an fanmi) gang alliance - which was established, according to some sources, by members of the Moise administration - is arguably the biggest gamechanger.
Following Moise's assassination, the G9 has maintained its position as one of the strongest criminal forces in the country. The coalition, under the leadership of former police officer, Jimmy Chérizier, alias 'Barbecue," brings together nine of Port-au-Prince's most powerful gangs, some of which are thought to be deeply involved in kidnapping. Barbecue himself is also facing kidnapping charges, according to the police.
SEE ALSO: Jimmy Chérizeier, alias "Barbecue"
Former members of the G9, such as the Grand Ravine and Village de Dieu, are also involved in kidnapping. In October 2020, when Grand Ravine was still part of the G9, it was involved in a high-level kidnapping case. Renel Destina, alias "Ti-Lapli," the gang leader, announced on the radio the abduction of Wolf Hall, a lottery entrepreneur.
While in the past, these gangs would have taken their cue (and their money, see above) from the politicians, now they are off the chain, free to pursue any course they deem necessary to fulfill their economic needs.
3. Proliferation and Expansion of Gangs
Moise's term was characterized by a certain "gangsterization" of Haiti. They were not only empowered by politicians like Moise, but they also grew in number and reach.
From the slums surrounding the capital port to Petion-Ville, one of the most exclusive areas of the country, to the central valley, gangs are proliferating. According to the United Nations, Haiti now has approximately 167 gangs.
Among these is the 400 Mawozo. Translated roughly as 400 Rednecks, the gang is one of the fastest-growing criminal groups in the country, expanding its territory from the neighborhood of Croix-des-Bouquets in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to the border with the Dominican Republic. More than half of the kidnappings in the last year are attributed to the 400 Mawozo, including the October 16-kidnapping of the 17 US missionaries.