Reflections on Kidnapping, Banditry, and Armed Violence in Haiti
Today’s first black republic faces a long history of terrorism, banditry, violence, and socio-political criminality. On October 17, 1806, less than three years after the declaration of national independence on January 1, 1804, the nation’s founding father, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was assassinated. Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ great-grandson, Cincinnatus Leconte, was assassinated on August 8, 1912, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. On July 28, 1915, President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was executed in Port-au-Prince.
From 1957 to 2021, insecurity and crime took on many faces. They were perhaps essentially political under the Duvalier dictatorship. But the average citizen who deviates from any political activity, if he was not the victim of abuse of power by the Tontons Macoutes or slanderous denunciation, could go about his activities freely and quietly at any time and no matter what anywhere in the national territory. Following the forced departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004, insecurity would retain another political flavor by gaining specific territories known as lawless zones.
In Port-au-Prince, it was mainly in Bel-Air and Cité Soleil that one could not move freely without fear of being victimized. Kidnapping was on a massive scale at that time. We remember the kidnapping followed by the heinous assassination of the well-known poet and journalist Jacques Roche, despite the fact that a ransom had been paid. According to some, it was, above all, a political crime.
Since then, crime and insecurity have experienced peaks and troughs. There was a major calm during the second term of President René Préval (2006-2011) before it resurfaced during the term of President Michel Joseph Martelly (2011-2016).
After the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier, insecurity and criminality still retained a political color during military governments. They peaked during the military coup period, that is to say, from September 30, 1991, to October 15, 1994.
According to public security and human rights experts, what is most worrying about this situation are the links that exist between particular gangs and state authorities, which manifests itself in the impunity enjoyed by the member gangs.
Since 2018, the predominance of armed gangs has again become the primary source of insecurity, with spectacular cases of kidnappings at the beginning of 2021. According to the Haitian Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission, from January to June, at least 243 people were victims of armed violence in Port -au-Prince only. Between September 2020 and February 2021, the number of children and women who were victims of armed attacks allegedly attributed to criminal gangs increased significantly in Haiti, from 45 to 73 in several incidents, including murders, injuries, rapes, and kidnappings, according to the United Nations. This represents a 62% increase from the previous report in September 2020. According to the Brigade for the Protection of Minors (BPM), at least 31 children were abducted between 2020 and 2021.
Gang leaders rule over neighborhoods by outwitting law enforcement. Moreover, the PNH seems to be utterly powerless against the guerrilla warfare of these armed gangs. The assassination of President Moïse has confirmed this hypothesis.
The evolution of insecurity and crime has been accompanied by an accelerated deterioration in the governance of judicial and police institutions as well as a deterioration in the living conditions of the Haitian population.
Over 150 murders and nearly 200 kidnappings were reported by the Center for Analysis and Research on Human Rights (CARDH) in the month of June alone, according to their latest report. According to Pierre Espérance, executive director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH), based in Port-au-Prince, insecurity results from the complicity of those in power: “This power trivializes life; he relies on the gangs as his only strength, thinking that with the gangs he can renew himself.”
The gangs who commit the kidnappings are interconnected, says Marie Yolène Gilles, head of the Fondasyon Je Klere (FJKL), a local human rights organization. “Some gangs kidnap, either for someone else or on their information. All sectors are on their own.”
In the opinion of the Working Group on Security (GTS) coordinator, insecurity in Haiti is, first and foremost, a problem of governance. During his participation in the “Panel Magik” program on Wednesday, March 9, Charles Prospère called for general mobilization to compel the state authorities to put an end to this scourge in the country.
The phenomenon of kidnapping worries all social strata to the highest degree. Most citizens fear walking the streets. Shopkeepers, professionals from all fields, schoolchildren, and students seem to be targeted by the kidnappers who demand large sums from their relatives for their release.
The economy has been in recession since 2019, with two consecutive years of negative economic growth: -1.7% in 2019 against -3.3% in 2020. This context has facilitated the emergence of a criminal economy.
The feeling of insecurity generates several perverse effects. It contributes to a decrease in the quality of life of those affected, they not only become more anxious, but they move less and live in isolation. Insecurity sometimes contributes to the development of acts of urban violence by leading to the abandonment of public places, leaving all the space for the demonstrators of acts of violence.