The kidnapping of an American nurse in Haiti last week along with her young child has cast stark light on the Caribbean nation’s epidemic of lawlessness, where more than 1,000 people were taken hostage for ransom in the first six months of the year, according to United Nations figures.
Waves of crime and unrest have hit Haiti since the assassination of former President Jovenel Moise in 2021. His successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has struggled to staunch the violence, which is also a major impediment to holding crucial long-delayed elections in the country.
For months, Henry and the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres have called for a military intervention in the country. But Haiti’s neighbors in the Western Hemisphere have quietly declined a leading role.
Kenya finally responded to the call this weekend, when foreign minister Alfred Mutua announced on Twitter that his country would “positively consider leading a multi-national force to Haiti,” spearheaded by a 1,000-strong contingent of Kenyan police.
The commitment was praised by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and joined by the Bahamas on Tuesday, which offered 150 people for the force.
Their mission, if eventually approved by the UN Security Council, is hoped to “restore normalcy” to Haiti, Mutua said.
But such a state is increasingly difficult to envision in a nation where an entrenched network of gangs see kidnapping their countrymen as one of the few lucrative industries.
An ‘alarming’ cycle of violence
Over the past two years, warring gangs in Port-au-Prince have visited terror upon the country’s vital port city with rape, torture and killing as they vie for territorial control. Thousands of Haitians have fled their homes, gathering in makeshift encampments across the sprawling capital.
A vigilante movement known as “Bwa Kale” struck back brutally earlier this year, stoning and burning suspected gang members in the street – prompting United Nations Special Representative Maria Isabel Salvador to warn in a July report that the movement had set into motion “a new and alarming cycle of violence.”
Hundreds of alleged gang members have been killed by vigilantes across the country, she said.
Conflict in the capital has meanwhile choked the rest of the nation’s supply lines, causing the price of food and energy to spike in other parts of the country.
Flavia Maurello, country director for Italian aid group AVSI, told CNN earlier this month in the southern Haitian town of Les Cayes that a sense of lawlessness had also weakened the social fabric, with local communities turning a blind eye to petty crime and other abuses that before might not have been tolerated.
US tells citizens to leave
There have been a few fragile moments of peace in Port-au-Prince this year. The Bwa Kale movement successfully deterred some gang activity, according to Haitian monitoring group CARDH, with kidnappings slowing in early summer.
Further raising hopes for a period of respite, two of Haiti’s biggest gangs appeared to sign a peace deal in early July, per a press release from the Catholic charity that mediated the truce.
But normalcy remains far from reach.
Three weeks ago, in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Tabarre, medical NGO Doctors without Borders said that around 20 armed men broke in and forcibly removed a patient from the operating room.
Shortly after that, intense gang attacks prompted the mass exodus of dozens of Tabarre residents – including mothers with young children – who sought refuge at the US embassy. They were later dispersed from embassy grounds with tear gas.
On Thursday, the US State Department ordered all its non-emergency personnel to leave the country, following earlier warnings that Americans should not travel to the country.
The updated advisory came too late for nurse Alix Dorsainvil, who was kidnapped on the same day, per El Roi Haiti, the Christian humanitarian aid organization for which she works. Dorsainvil and her daughter have now been hostages for six days.
“Until Alix and her daughter are safely returned to us we will do as it says in Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord,” read a blogpost on Monday on the El Roi website.
Gedeon Jean, CARDH’s executive director, tells CNN that he was not surprised by Dorsainvil’s kidnapping. His organization has been expecting a resurgence in hostage-taking as gangs look to recoup some financial losses suffered due to international sanctions and at the height of the Bwa Kale movement.
After years of rampant violence, he is skeptical of declarations of peace. The latest truce between gangs could be just another ruse designed to lull an exhausted public off its guard, Jean added – “a way to trap the population” once again.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Hira Humayun in Atlanta.