Kidnappings in Haiti raise election-season fears

This article from the Bellingham Herald looks at the increasing fear of kidnappings in Haiti as we approach the height of the presidential campaign.

A trio of gunmen stormed a gated home in the well-to-do Pelerin neighborhood last week, shot dead a Florida man and kidnapped a 16-year-old relative. Gregoire-Ronald Chery, 56, died of a single shot to the head. Nadege Charlot, his cousin, continued to be held Tuesday as kidnappers demanded a $100,000 ransom.

Nadege’s abduction on Friday was the latest in a string of kidnappings in the hillside neighborhoods above Port-au-Prince, and it is raising fears that more could follow this election season.

Almost eight months after the Jan. 12 earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people, crime trends show an increase in kidnappings compared to this time last year. U.N. police have documented 68 abductions so far this year, compared to 51 a year ago.

The winner of the Nov. 28 presidential election will be faced with the task of sheltering 1.5 million people made homeless by the January earthquake and removing 20 million cubic meters of rubble – and reducing the growing numbers of kidnappings.

A recent U.S. travel advisory noted that bandits have attacked travelers leaving the Port-au-Prince international airport, and that at least two U.S. citizens were killed in recent months. Five have been kidnapped.

Even relief workers have been targeted. In March, bandits abducted – and released – two staff members of Doctors Without Borders in Port-au-Prince. Two months later, kidnappers grabbed a British national from the Pan-American Development Foundation and his Haitian driver. The Brit was released. The driver was killed.

“After Jan. 12, it looks like the good targets would be the NGOs,” said Reginald Delva, the head of a security consulting firm. “And I’m pretty sure they don’t have ransoms planned into their budgets.”

Delva said about 30 private security firms work in Haiti, each with about 1,500 guards.

Kidnappings in Port-au-Prince are down significantly from record highs of previous years – there were more than 800 in 2005. But the U.N. and others say they’re concerned about the 33 percent uptick they’ve seen so far this year over the same time in 2009. Many say they suspect politicians are tapping gang leaders to instigate unrest and carry out kidnappings to collect money to hire street protesters during the election.

“I’m not afraid of gangs and insecurity,” said Haitian National Police General Director Mario Andresol. “I’m afraid of political turmoil. Anything can happen – trouble on the streets, big riots, big demonstrations. This is when a government gets sent away.”

Rumors of an outbreak in violent demonstrations were abuzz in mid-August as prospective candidates and their supporters awaited the electoral council’s announcement on who would make the final cut.

A delay in an announcement made some to wonder if the council was trying to avert the possibility of violence.

Although the elections are the topic du jour, general insecurity is a close second.

On Jan. 12, about 4,000 prisoners escaped the national penitentiary. Police officials believe some of the escaped prisoners have organized into gangs in neighborhoods such as Martissant, just outside Port-au-Prince.

“These guys on the streets could create an insecurity situation,” Andresol said. “We’re after them. We arrested them before. We’ll arrest them again.”

The majority of the abductions have focused solely on Haitians, especially those living in Pelerin, Thomassin and other relatively affluent areas.

So far this year, 83 percent of the kidnappings have involved Haitians compared to 17 percent that involved foreigners, said Andre Leclerc, a spokesman for the U.N. policing unit.

Kidnappers may be following the affluent to their neighborhoods under the guise of holding everyday discussions and conducting business deals, said Frantz Lerebours, a Haitian police spokesman.

“Because the downtown area is broken, a lot of activity has gone up to Petionville,” Lerebours said. “Naturally, the criminals have followed.”

Kidnappings are not the only violent crime worrying police.

Chery, a Haitian fraud investigator with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was gunned down at his cousin’s home in Petionville. Family members say the middle-class host family was targeted because there were relatives visiting from the United States.

On Aug. 3, a doctor and opposition leader was shot dead after bandits stole his necklace and tried to take his wallet. A colleague said the killing was politically motivated; police say the case is under investigation.

Other violent crimes include a turf battle in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil that injured even bystanders – including four children – and protests that have demanded President Rene Preval’s departure. In June, unknown gunmen fired shots outside his home.

And then there are rapes of women in some of the 1,300 camps scattered around the city. In the first two months after the quake, the Haitian grass-roots women’s organization KOFAVIV documented 230 rapes. The medical humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has treated more than 200 victims of sexual violence.

Even as observers say kidnapping remains troublesome, they also say Haiti’s ratio of crime to population is low compared to Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. But observers also say they worry that the Caribbean nation could see a surge as the population grows frustrated with what they see as an unresponsive administration and inadequate relief effort from abroad.

“There are more violent places than Haiti,” said Bruce Bagley, chair and professor of the University of Miami’s Department of International Studies.

“But I would expect crime, gang-related activity, and kidnappings to continue to rise as people become increasingly disaffected with the government and the international response.”


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