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Illustration by Security Management

Kidnapping in Haiti on Sharp Incline, Missionaries Abducted

Kidnappers in Haiti demanded $17 million for the return of 17 missionaries—including Americans and Canadians. Five of the hostages are children. While it is likely that the ransom figure is up for negotiation, the kidnapping crisis in Haiti has been rising for years, driven by stagnant opportunity, economic stressors, political instability, and natural disasters.

Gangs have long been a part of Haiti’s landscape, and ever since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July, they have taken control of about half of the country’s territory, the New York Times reported. While many Haitian gangs profit from kidnaps for ransom, the 400 Mawozo—the gang believed to be responsible for the latest group kidnapping—capitalizes on the crime. The gang controls an area outside of Port-au-Prince where multiple highways and key roads converge, essentially forming a bottleneck for anyone seeking to travel across the country.

The kidnappings in Haiti are generally random, says Michael Center, chair of the ASIS Extremism and Political Instability Community, who had experience working in Haiti in the mid-2000s. The gangs use spotters along significant travel corridors and communicate with gang members further down the road to let them know when a potentially lucrative target—a vehicle filled with people or a target that looks like it could be connected with more money—is on the way, at which point it is stopped, carjacked, and hostages are taken, he says.

The kidnappings primarily affect Haitian nationals, NBC News reported. Haitian nonprofit Human Rights Analysis and Research Center said there were nearly 630 kidnappings in just the first nine months of 2021, including 29 kidnappings of foreign nationals—the nonprofit also reported a nearly 300 percent increase in kidnappings from July to September 2021. On average, gangs demand around $20,000 for the release of each hostage.

The U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory for Haiti on 23 August 2021, warning: “Kidnapping is widespread, and victims regularly include U.S. citizens. Kidnappers may use sophisticated planning or take advantage of unplanned opportunities, and even convoys have been attacked. Kidnapping cases often involve ransom negotiations, and U.S. citizen victims have been physically harmed during kidnappings. Victims’ families have paid thousands of dollars to rescue their family members.  

“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and carjacking, is common,” the warning continued. “Travelers are sometimes followed and violently attacked and robbed shortly after leaving the Port-au-Prince international airport. Robbers and carjackers also attack private vehicles stuck in heavy traffic congestion and often target lone drivers, particularly women.”

The influx of kidnapping events is due to a culmination of events that happens in many failed states, Center tells Security Management, including a convergence of political crises—a void in political leadership and infighting—on top of natural disasters, all of which can impose on a national police system that is already strained and weak. The void of security services (public and private), as well as a lack of economic opportunity, creates a space for gangs to take control of territory and become one of the only ways to earn significant amounts of money. Stationing kidnapping forces along essential roadways enables attackers to grab a wide variety of victims, crossing all demographics and ages.

This contrasts to other areas with notable levels of kidnapping, including within Mexico where cartels often use high levels of organization and planning to target specific victims, he says. The randomness of kidnappings in Haiti makes it challenging for organizations to avoid or mitigate the risk.

Normal kidnapping and ransom security advice involves altering routes or timing of travel, Center notes, but those tactics are unfeasible in Haiti, where there are no other roads to take and time of day is not a consideration for gangs. At this point, it is essential for organizations to consider their risk acceptance.

“There are a lot of organizations operating in Haiti, especially under the auspices of humanitarian support, and I fundamentally believe that they failed to do their research,” Center says. In a country of approximately 11 million people with rapidly rising kidnapping cases per month, the proportion of population to kidnapping exceeds most other nations.  

“That’s completely out of control,” he adds. “Even in Mexico with the cartels, they do not reach this percentage of kidnappings. But a lot of groups go into Haiti believing that their cause will protect them. I think what they failed in their research to understand is that in that local community—where they’re helping and causing support—but because the nature of kidnapping in Haiti is random... you now have to assess: is the reward you’re trying to achieve worth the risk? And if you’re an organization and you go in there and you don’t understand these things, you’re in an environment you shouldn’t be in, and you’ve got no support—you’re on your own.”

The top mistakes Center says he has seen non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and mission groups make when operating in politically unstable countries are to not complete an adequate level of research into the practical security risks in the area and to operate without full disclosure of the risks to personnel and volunteers.

He recommends that NGOs connect early with the local NGO forums and get to know the larger NGOs operating in the same area to start sharing information before entering the region, and then educate personnel who will be working in that region about the risk landscape and mitigation measures. 

Especially for countries like Haiti, it’s unusual for global media sources to report on local events unless something major takes place, so organizations should work with each other to get an accurate picture of risk, Center says.