PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — One morning in late February, Jean Joseph was driving to his hardware store in Gressier, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Another car suddenly blocked the road.
Five well-armed men ordered him out of his car. They blindfolded him and took him to a room in an unknown location. There, he says, they beat, burned, and threatened to kill him.
He heard other hostages in the room. He thought his captors shot two of them.
His assailants demanded a phone number for his family, whom they called to seek ransom in exchange for Joseph’s release. His family scrambled to gather $37,000.
After five days, the kidnappers released him.
“I have never feared so much for my life,” says Joseph, 43, a married father of two, his voice trembling. “I cannot understand why I was kidnapped. I am not rich. The income I earn is to provide for my family.”
Joseph is among scores of Haitians who have been kidnapped, a crime now routine in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. The kidnappings have become a potent symbol of Haiti’s ongoing political and socioeconomic instability, which has left millions unemployed, frustrated and desperate.
Kidnapping spares no layer of this society, as perpetrators increasingly prey on ordinary Haitians. Kidnappers also target the poor, who, after arranging their ransom, are left even poorer.
“The issue we face is that all groups of people are at risk,” says Osnel Louis, 35, a street vendor. “Everyone has a price.”
Haiti ranks 169 out of 189 countries and territories in the World Bank’s Human Development Index. About 60% of the country’s 10 million people live in poverty, and about a quarter of its population has fallen into extreme poverty. The country’s gross domestic product per capita stands at $756.
Political protests have jolted Haiti since 2017, as demonstrators have sought to oust President Jovenel Moïse. In late 2017, a parliamentary probe accused government officials (including Moïse and other current officials) of stealing billions of dollars from 2008 to 2016. The judiciary is still investigating Moïse for corruption.
And after the government failed to hold elections last year, Parliament dissolved in January. Without a working legislature, Moïse rules by decree.
Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, says armed gangs have grown more powerful, overwhelming security forces hamstrung by corruption and a lack of resources.
Esperance adds that the network cannot count the number of kidnappings, as the majority of these cases go unreported. Kidnappers often threaten to kill both captives and their relatives if they go to the police.
At a news conference on April 7, the anti-kidnapping unit of the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police presented 10 alleged kidnappers they said they had arrested. Garry Desrosiers, deputy spokesman for the Haitian National Police, told reporters that the arrests show that the police are determined to end Haiti’s kidnapping crisis.
National police officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
Haitians say the kidnappings have transformed their lives and behavior, as they live in a state of fear.
Louis, a street vendor for more than 15 years, says one afternoon his cart was loaded with the electronic gadgets he sells when two men on a motorcycle abruptly stopped nearby. Noticing them, he sprinted through an open gate as they chased and shot at him. They missed, but he remains shaken.
“I doubled my vigilance,” says the friendly, muscular father of four. “I have to earn my living, but I have fear in my soul. These men are armed, but I have no weapon. I just give my day to the Almighty.”
He adds, “Each time I come home, I become anxious about the following day. We don’t know what tomorrow holds for us.”
Fear drove Tamara Mézil, 23, to drop out of the University of Port-au-Prince, where she studied management. She found herself so anxious on the street that every time a car came toward her, she ran to hide.
“It’s just the fear of being kidnapped that terrorizes me,” says Mézil, who plans to return to school when she feels safer. “When you’re a young woman, you have a high likelihood of being raped. I’ve heard so many stories about young women who were kidnapped and raped, and that really affected me. The best way to protect myself is to stay home.”
Meanwhile, Joseph’s trauma remains. Since being kidnapped, he has closed his hardware store and moved his family to a new neighborhood.
He takes sleeping pills and rarely leaves his house. When he does go out, he says, he always takes someone with him.
Calm and bespectacled, he replays the kidnapping in his mind over and over. He remembers how he feared he wouldn’t see his wife and children, ages 6 and 10, again. He recalls the odor of the room, which turned his stomach. His captors refused to let him use a toilet. For five days, he neither bathed nor slept.
He believes the two hostages who were shot ended up dying. A crying woman begged for her life.
He is grateful that family and friends in Haiti and abroad hustled to gather the ransom money that freed him. His relatives never called the police because his captors threatened to kill them.
Now he plans to use his savings to start a new life.
“I always feel the pain from the burns,” he says. “I will leave the country to take refuge somewhere. I don’t feel good here.”