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.”

I cannot understand why I was kidnapped. I am not rich. The income I earn is to provide for my family.Jean Joseph

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.   Continue reading

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