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Targeting Haiti's kidnap trade

By Orin Gordon
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Luis stood on the spot where six months earlier his and Vanessa's life changed.

On the winding road up the hill, are wealthy homes with some of the best views of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. A week before Christmas, early in the evening, it had just gone dark and Vanessa was driving back to the house they shared.

Martissant market, Haiti
Poverty and unemployment are rife in Haiti

She did not make it.

Ahead a car blocked her path. Another one stopped behind her.

"The perpetrators just backed the car into Vanessa's Subaru," Luis said.

It was a swift and brutal abduction. Vanessa left Haiti after the attack and was not with us at the scene.

Speaking from the US, where she now lives, she said two men approached her car. One had a shotgun.

"I just started to scream from the bottom of my lungs and I was trying to get away. Everything happened really fast.

"They were saying 'open the door, open the door!' And, before I knew it, I heard a big bang and I felt extreme pain in my stomach.

"I looked down and my white pants and my white t-shirt were turning red very quickly."

Moments later they got in, bundled her into the back and drove away. Police rescued her three days later, following intense, unrelenting efforts by Luis.


Jacques Bouillon of UN Anti-kidnapping Police Unit

Reported kidnappings occur in Haiti at a rate of one or two every day.

Haiti is well known as a major trans-shipment point for drugs heading to North America, with the trade controlled by violent gangs.

It is also a country where the police and courts function poorly; destitution is widespread (most people live on less than $2 (1) a day; there is 70% unemployment.

Add to that the sheer number of guns on the streets and you have the perfect conditions for what can be described as a kidnap industry in Haiti.

Former President Jean Bertrand Aristide disbanded the army (which had overthrown him less than a year into his first term as president in 1991) when he was restored to power in the mid-1990s for a second term.

By the time he was forced from office again in February 2004 because of the armed violence enveloping the country, many of the army's weapons were the hands of gang members.

Haiti came close to meltdown that year and kidnappings were running at an estimated rate of five a day. By November 2004 a multinational stabilisation mission (Minustah) had been sent in by the UN.

Hedi Annabi, UN Special Representative in Haiti
It could become a political problem for the government, and a liability for the UN force
Hedi Annabi
United Nations Special Representative in Haiti

In 2005 there were 760 reported kidnappings. The UN, which has 9,000 soldiers and police in the Caribbean country, set up a special anti-kidnapping unit in 2006. Together with the Haitian police it gradually brought the numbers down to about 300 last year.

But in the first six months of this year, there was a significant upsurge in the number of abductions.

The United Nations Special Representative in Haiti, Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi, has taken a personal interest in the kidnapping issue and made a point of meeting victims, including Vanessa, after their ordeal.

He told the BBC there could be an increase of about 100 abductions on last year's numbers.

"It could become a political problem for the government, and a liability for the UN force", Mr Annabi said.

In recent weeks, however, the police have arrested some kidnappers and they say they have dealt a serious blow to the kidnap gangs.


Following the usual pattern, Vanessa's kidnappers demanded $300,000 ransom. In many cases, the kidnappers settle for less than a tenth of that, often between $5,000 and $20,000.

Please note: some listeners may find this audio distressing.

Kidnap victims are usually freed after six to 10 days, though the gangs do sometimes sell their hostages on to another gang, to demand another ransom.

"It's just a way to make money," says Ermenela Nanaj, an Albanian clinical psychologist who works for the UN, "and it works."

One of Ermenela's most important tasks has been to provide support and counselling to kidnap victims and their families.

Foreigners and relatively well-off Haitians are prime targets.

"I started making a list of people I know that were victims", Vanessa said.

"I found 25 people that were kidnapped. There will be a day in Haiti where not one family of a certain class, of the people who have a job and who earn money, who own a car and a house - middle class families - will not have been a victim of kidnapping."

However, an increasing number of poor Haitians from the slums are getting abducted, often for ransoms of just a few dollars. Many of these cases are not reported to the police.


The sentence for convicted kidnappers is life in prison with hard labour. But corruption in the judicial and prison systems means that they are sometimes back on the street - and back in business - in a few weeks.

Vanessa could have died of her injuries if she had been held for a few more days. Hundreds of shotgun pellets were lodged in her body. She was put on a course of anti-retroviral drugs to prevent possible HIV infection from one of the kidnappers who raped her.

She disputes that poverty motivated her kidnappers.

"It's not for economic reasons. It's because of greed and evil. The people who kidnapped me had money. There is no reason in the world, except evil, that can explain people treating others that way."

Vanessa could not bring herself to return to the house she shared with Luis, and they are now living in the US. She thinks the ultimate sanction should be considered for kidnappers.

"No prison in Haiti is working. We don't have the prisons to maintain them.

"So I really see it as a burden for the state. For me kidnapping calls for the death penalty. The death penalty would be the solution in the short term.

"Kidnappings are draining the country, destroying the country. Desperate times call for desperate measures."

Crossing Continents: Haiti was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 24 July at 1102 BST.

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17 Jul 08 |  Crossing Continents
Crossing Continents: Haiti
24 Jul 08 |  Special Reports
Country profile: Haiti
04 Jun 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Haiti
04 Jun 08 |  Country profiles
View from Haiti: Aid worker
10 Apr 08 |  Americas


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