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29809: Hermantin(News) 'Les kidnappings' are Haiti's latest misery (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

'Les kidnappings' are Haiti's latest misery
In Haiti, no one is immune, no time of day is safe from the threat of kidnapping. Police seem helpless to prevent the abductions.

PORT-AU-PRINCE - One victim was grabbed in the afternoon on her way home from work. Another was stopped at gunpoint in evening traffic and yanked out of the car. A third victim, this one a child, was snatched at midnight from inside a house as family members remained helpless in saving the child from heavily armed thugs.

Les kidnappings, as the crime is referred to here, is at an all-time high, averaging at least one a day after a short period of relative calm following the election of President René Préval in February. At least 47 citizens and foreigners were kidnapped last month -- the highest number so far this year.

''I thought they were going to kill me,'' said a woman released by kidnappers last week after three days of captivity. ``I was so scared. All I kept thinking was that I wanted to live. I didn't want to die.''

Almost everyone in this overpopulated city has heard about someone who was present one moment and gone the next. No one is immune from capture, no time of day is safe. The problem has gotten so out of control, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is likely to discuss the matter with Préval during a visit to Haiti today.


''Nobody wants the situation to stay like this,'' said the kidnap victim, who was beaten, burned and threatened with guns. ``My hope is that things will get better.''

Préval's government has taken some steps to deal with the crime issue: a former police official was recently appointed to serve as the national security undersecretary, the prime minister has promised a ''carrot and stick'' approach to reduce violence and the police chief has spoken out against a judicial system accused of accepting bribes in exchange for releasing suspected criminals without charges. But those efforts have yet to yield any results.

Although Haiti has a long history of political unrest and violence from warring gangs, kidnappings have been unusual. More than 100 cases have been reported so far this year -- nearly half of those in the month of July.

The problem is so prevalent, the U.N. security force last year formed an anti-kidnapping unit, which includes several Haitian-American police officers from South Florida who provide technical assistance to the understaffed Haitian National Police. The police component of the international security force, known as UNPOL, recently tried to raise public awareness by releasing tips on kidnapping preparedness. Among the advice: Don't discuss private affairs in public, install an alarm system and don't talk on the cellphone while driving.


Those calling for an end to the violence place kidnappings at the top of the long list of Haitian problems, but authorities are at a loss on how to combat it quickly -- unless the 8,800-strong U.N. peacekeeping force is allowed to take on a stronger role in assisting the Haitian police force.

''Kidnappings are the biggest threat right now,'' said Leslie Dallemand, coordinator of the anti-kidnapping unit for UNPOL. ``So many people are making financial gains, that it's become widespread. Every day, when you step out in the street, you're a potential victim.

''Those kidnappers are very well-organized and armed, probably more armed than [Haitian] police officers,'' said Dallemand, a retired Miami police officer and one of about 15 Haitian Americans that form part of the international peacekeeping mission.

The Haitian National Police do not have the manpower, equipment or training to launch an effective offensive, and the U.N. officers can only provide technical assistance. They are not allowed to make arrests or enforce the law, although there is widespread consensus that the Haitian and international security forces must be allowed to deal with the problem immediately.

''I can't tell [Haitian] police officers what to do,'' said Emmanuel Nelson, another retired Haitian-American officer from Miami-Dade County. ``I can only show them, if they are willing to learn.''

The woman abducted last week, a foreigner who has lived in Haiti for more than six years, is a typical case.

She was a passenger in a vehicle when several men climbed in and ordered the driver to keep going. The kidnappers put dark glasses over her eyes.

''When they put the glasses on me, I knew what was happening,'' said the woman, whose identity is being withheld because of the ongoing investigation. The men took her cellphone, had the driver take them to an unknown location and placed her into a room alone.


''Three people took turns hitting me,'' the woman said. The kidnappers told her they wanted money and threatened her with guns to make their point. ``I had like three or four firearms pointed at me, as if one wasn't enough to kill me.''

UNPOL has tried to address the kidnapping issue within the limits of their power.

They provide assistance with investigations, document cases and a year ago set up a hot line for citizens seeking help.

But victims' families are often too afraid to seek help because there is little faith in Haiti's severely broken justice system, even when arrests are made. Few kidnappers remain behind bars for long.

''They need to prosecute them fully, punish them,'' Dallemand said.

Nelson, a 25-year veteran who served with Miami-Dade police and retired as a lieutenant for Surfside, said recruiting more Haitian Americans for UNPOL could help bridge a cultural gap that is hindering efforts to properly train Haiti's understaffed police force.

''There is no country that can operate in a climate of insecurity,'' Nelson said. ``This is a real problem and that has to change. The only ones who can change that is a professional police force.''