Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has become the world’s kidnapping capital.
A little over a week ago, 17 individuals from a U.S.-based missionary group were abducted in the latest brazen attempt of its kind. In April, kidnappers interrupted an evangelical service being streamed on Facebook Live to seize the pastor and three churchgoers. A few days later, in yet another event, five Catholic priests, two nuns and three others were taken while heading to a church service in a suburb north of Port-au-Prince — only to be released after three agonizing weeks.
The incidents underscore the growing confidence and power of Haiti’s armed gangs.
Meanwhile, Haiti’s internal challenges continue to mount. It’s still reeling from an unresolved political crisis following the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the humanitarian fallout of an August earthquake. But until the Haitian government gets crime under control and brings the gangs to justice, the restoration of the constitutional order and the country’s humanitarian and economic recovery will remain elusive.
That’s a tall order for a barely functioning state. And despite a history of failed interventions in Haiti, there is nonetheless a role for influential outside players. Protecting and delivering humanitarian aid, supporting Haitian law enforcement with intelligence and operations planning, and investing in marginalized communities to prevent gang recruitment are all areas where international actors can make a difference.
Gangs have a long, inglorious history in Haiti’s political fabric.
Former President François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, guarded against military coups and popular dissent by organizing paramilitary groups that oversaw a reign of terror in the 1960s — a bloody time that resulted in some 60,000 extrajudicial killings. Likewise, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, relied on gangs of urban slum dwellers to defend his presidency against being overthrown, which nonetheless occurred in both 1991 and 2004.