It’s Not Just the Missionaries — There Were 782 Kidnappings in Haiti This Year

President Joe Biden has received daily briefings this week on the 17 North American missionaries and children who continue to be held hostage in Haiti, according to the White House, and the U.S. has reportedly deployed three FBI agents to Haiti as well.

The involvement of U.S. citizens and one Canadian citizen in this particular hostage situation have caused the kidnapping to draw some attention to this incident within U.S. media, but the broader context of widespread kidnappings in Haiti continues largely to go unnoticed in the U.S.

In the first half of October alone, at least 119 known kidnappings (that is the official number) have taken place in Haiti. And according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, there have been at least 782 known kidnappings in Haiti since January 2021.

The kidnapping that led to the hostage situation in which the U.S. has become politically involved occurred in Croix des Bouquets, a town located 11 miles from Port-au-Prince. According to the weekly New York-based Haitian Newspaper Haiti Observateur, on October 16, the notorious Haitian gang Katsan Mawozo (400 Mawozo) kidnapped more than 30 individuals, including 17 American and Canadian missionaries and children ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years who were in Haiti as part of the Ohio-based group Christian Aid Ministries. The gangs are asking for $17 million in U.S. dollars.

A day later, on October 17, another armed gang, the G-9 Family and Allies, drove off the de facto prime minister, Ariel Henry, prohibiting him from commemorating the assassination of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first leader of independent Haiti, who was assassinated on October 17, 1806. That this gang could categorically prevent the prime minister himself from entering the area of Pont Rouge for the ceremony speaks to the fact that gangs are becoming stronger and expanding their control of the country. Misery and fear continue for thousands of people in Haiti. Emperor Dessalines must be turning in his grave.

Because Americans are now being kidnapped in Haiti, we are hearing about an issue that has long plagued Haiti, which has the highest rate of kidnapping per capita of any country in the world. American and Canadian lives matter. Yet thousands of Haitians have been and continue to be tortured, killed, raped, extorted and kidnapped on a daily basis. Nearly 95 percent of kidnappings in Haiti since 2018 have targeted Haitian citizens. As a representative from the Christian Aid Ministries stated, “This time of difficulty reminds us of the ongoing suffering of millions of Haitians. While our workers chose to serve in Haiti, our Haitian friends endure crisis after crisis, continual violence, and economic hardship.”

A popular Haitian film, Kidnappings (2008), depicts the complexity and nuance of the kidnapping economy in Haiti. The rise of kidnappings is believed to have started in the early 2000s under former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who armed people in the slums as a way to protect himself because he didn’t have enough police. The great majority of the people who align themselves with Aristide — known as chimè — lived in Cité Soleil, a commune of Port-au-Prince.

Political parties, political authorities, the political elite and the business elite have been nurturing the gangs and fomenting the kidnapping crisis. The kidnapping business is in fact supported by the convergence of interests of the political and business elite and the international community, while the interests of the vast majority of Haitians are obviously not taken into account. Now the gangs cannot be tamed, and they are everywhere. The gangs need ammunition, weapons and ransom money in order to function. Clearly, all those resources flow through international channels.

Yet the gangs are now managing the very people who originally commissioned and controlled them. If the powers that be — both in Haiti and in the international community, including the United States — really want the kidnappings to stop, they have the ability to leverage banks and arms experts to make it harder for the gangs to continue their kidnapping business.

Some sources have stated that there are around 500,000 illegal guns in Haiti.

Indeed, there are so many guns that there are swaps between Haitian gangs and Jamaican gangs. The large number of illegal guns in Haiti facilitates the kidnapping trade. But Haiti does not produce guns. Where are the guns coming from? Who allows them into the country? Who benefits from their presence? Although Haiti signed the International Arms Trade Treaty in 2014, it is unclear to what extent it is respected. In spite of the U.S. arms embargo requiring that any firearms that are supposed to go to Haiti go through the U.S. State Department, it is still easy to import guns to Haiti, in part because of the weak police force and corruption of political and business elite.

Until there is real conversation about the deep inequality that marks Haitian society and sustainable change is enacted, the business of kidnapping will continue. We cannot and should not talk about the gang violence in Haiti without putting it in a larger historical, geopolitical and social context. Among the issues we should probe are the role of the police and criminal legal system in Haiti. The police are not respected or trusted by a majority of Haitians. It is estimated that over 70 percent of Haiti’s prison population is in pretrial detention.

The business of kidnapping is not unique to Haiti, nor is it new. Kidnapping was spread through the Americas by the Europeans. Gangs and kidnapping have been imported to Haiti the same way cholera and guns were imported. Europeans went to the African continent and kidnapped people to enslave them for profit in the Americas. Prior to the arrival of the enslaved, Europeans kidnapped Native Americans (in the case of Haiti, the Taínos). For instance, in the early 16th century, Queen Anacaona, ruler of the kingdom of Xaragua, was abducted by the Spanish under false pretenses. In June 1802, Toussaint Louverture, a prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution, was kidnapped and taken to France on a ship called Le Héros and imprisoned in the Jura mountains, where he died in 1803.

We could think of the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) as a form of kidnapping — an abduction of Haitian freedom and the very notion of liberty. The U.S. Marines took $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank in 1914, supposedly for safekeeping, but really to protect U.S. assets and prevent a German invasion. Smedley Butler, a career Marine, described his role in the occupation in the following terms: “[I was] a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

Kidnappings, power and greed are all connected.

In 2004, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said the U.S. kidnapped him and forced him to leave Haiti.

In 2010, Radio Prague International reported the release of a Czech humanitarian aid worker and a colleague after they were kidnapped. In October 2012, it made headlines in Haitian newspapers when Clifford Brandt, a member of a prominent Haitian family, was arrested because he had kidnapped the children of another bourgeois family.

In February 2021, two Dominican filmmakers and their Haitian interpreters were kidnapped in Haiti. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July, the number of kidnappings has increased. There have also been unconfirmed rumors circulating in Haiti that Moïse was supposed to be kidnapped and not assassinated by the mercenaries.

Two Haitian proverbs can speak to the kidnapping issue in Haiti: “Grangou nan vant pa dous” (Hunger in the belly is not an easy thing), and “Jou mwen leve a se li mwen wè” (The day I get up, that is the only day I can count on). In order to understand the gang issues in Haiti and the attendant issue of kidnapping, we must analyze the context of social inequality and structural violence. Imagine a person who does not have a job and cannot eat. That person can easily be manipulated due to their desperate need to gain access to these basic necessities. There are barely any opportunities for the youth. The structural violence in terms of lack of education, access to health care, lack of food sovereignty (to name but a few) must be addressed. Many people are forced by necessity to participate in the economy of kidnapping. According to a 2020 report by the National Human Rights Defense Network, some gang members are providing services that the state should be providing, stepping in support some community members with food, health care and education costs.

What are the solutions to this problem?

Kidnapping must be understood and dealt with in terms of class relations and local power relations. There needs to be agreement among Haitians of all classes about the type of government they want. This should be a government that can hold elections democratically and fairly and create a sustainable infrastructure that puts education, health care and security as its main priorities.

Haitians in Haiti and in the diaspora are channeling some of their collective efforts to build a better Haiti into a project called the Commission for Haitian Solution to the Crisis (Forum Société Civile Haïtienne). Formed by 13 commission members from different Haitian civil society groups, the group was founded in May 2021. The commission brings together over 300 locals and regional organizations based in Haiti, seeking local strategies to the ongoing political, social and economic crisis in Haiti.

We must also view this issue in a geopolitical context, including colonial, post-colonial and neocolonial histories as well as neoliberal policies. It is clear that foreign interventions in Haiti have only worsened the situation. Foreign troops, organized crime, class inequalities, corruption, and the so-called Core Group (made up of the United States plus ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, France, Germany and the European Union, along with representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States) are a dire combination.

The narratives of Haiti as a failed state do not take into account the ways in which the Haitian state in conjunction with the international community has continuously and actively failed Haiti. This failure has contributed to the neoliberal policies; structural violence and inequality; a lack of infrastructures; and political, social and economic instability leading to ongoing social disruptions.