Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. On Saturday, a gang in Haiti kidnapped a group of 17 Christian missionaries, mostly Americans who were visiting an orphanage. Five of the captured are children. This particular gang was also responsible for the kidnappings of 10 Catholic clergy members back in April. Those clergy were released after about two weeks.
The Haitian police force is weak. While FBI agents have traveled to Haiti for support, they can only provide guidance, but can't directly negotiate with the gangs. As of this morning, the gang was seeking $17 million in ransom, one million for each person they'd abducted. Haiti has the world's highest number of kidnappings per capita. According to the United Nations Integrated Office, there have been 328 in the first eight months of this year. Let's talk with Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean and Haiti Correspondent for the Miami Herald. Jacqueline, welcome.
Jacqueline Charles: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. First, tell me a bit about this gang.
Jacqueline Charles: This gang, which is known as Katsan Mawozo or 400 Mawozo, they control a large part of the territory just east of Port-au-Prince along the very well-traveled road that connects the Haitian capital to the Dominican Republic border. It is an area that is rural so there are large plains. Even if police know where they're holding the Americans and the one Canadian, the reality is that they won't be able to access it. Every time police have tried to go in there, the gang is aware.
Police have not been able to make arrest of some of its more active leaders. Although one of its leaders is currently in the prison. I'm told by sources that he remains active unseen. This is a gang that's well-known because what they do in terms of kidnappings, they're not just kidnapping an individual person here or there, but they're kidnapping people by the busloads to carloads, to van loads. This is what we saw in this case with the 17 missionaries.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I presume that the kidnappings are primarily to raise revenue. Is that a fair assumption?
Jacqueline Charles: It's a fair assumption that they're motivated by money and not political ideology, but the question is where does that money go? Haiti is a country that is under US arms embargoes. Theoretically right, there shouldn't be arms, there shouldn't be heavy ammunition, but this is of course a serious problem because these gangs are better armed than the Haitian national police.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The group that was abducted in April, priests and nuns primarily, was there a ransom paid for their release?
Jacqueline Charles: Officially they've said that there was no ransom paid, but I've heard through sources who monitor gang activity, that there was a ransom that was paid. They were held for almost two weeks. In that group, there also included French nationals. In this case, as you're going to see in the United States or in the case of the US, no, the negotiations with the gang is not necessarily with the institutions the individuals represent but with their family members. The institutions have been very careful, especially the Catholic church in Haiti, not to be involved in this whole idea of paying ransom because it creates a vicious cycle.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us again, to understand when we say gangs and Haitian gangs, what we're talking about here, and the role that they play, particularly in this kind of moment of political crisis and post-earthquake, who are they?
Jacqueline Charles: You're talking about mainly young men in their 20s, some even younger who come from very poor neighborhoods, slums. They don't really have any prospects of the future so they made themselves available to the patronages of the business elite who are trying to secure their monopolies or trying to get one up on competition. They make themselves available to politicians who want to win re-election, run for office, or remain in power. We're also talking about former police officers. In some cases, active cops, bad cops who have now joined these gangs or a part of them. One of the country's most notorious and well-known leaders is a guy by the name of Jimmy Chérizier who goes by the [unintelligible 00:04:31] Barbecue.
He's a former cop who has been implicated in several massacres, including one in a poor neighborhood in Port-au-Prince where you have scores of people who were killed including babies. Though he is wanted by the Haitian national police, though he has been sanctioned by the US government, he continues to walk freely. In fact, on Sunday, when armed men prevented the country's acting prime minister from paying homage to the memory of assassinated founding father, Jean-Jacques Dessalines at a monument, hours later Barbecue appeared dressed in white, like a government official, and he laid the flowers. This is what you're talking about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does that tell you then about the likely condition that the missionaries are in? Do we think that they're relatively safe? Do you expect this to be completed in a way that ultimately doesn't lead to immediate violence against the missionaries?
Jacqueline Charles: Let me tell you, this is a very nerve-wracking and frightening process. For those of us who cover Haiti on a consistent basis, we actually shy away from writing about people when they are being held in captivity because we just don't know. Every case is different. In the case of the Catholic clergy from earlier this year, when they were finally free, they said that they were not mistreated despite the reports that are coming out at the time.
You had among them, some of them who did speak Creole, but there are cases where I've interviewed victims of kidnapping and it's horrible. Some of the things that have happened with them. One can only hope that in this case, because we're talking about foreign nationals, that the gang will use some sense of reasonableness. The question that Haitians are asking themselves is that when they stopped that vehicle at gunpoint and they saw that these are foreigners, why didn't they just walk away?
Why did they not let it go? How did they become so emboldened? Because the reality is that hundreds and hundreds of patients have been victims of kidnapping even more than what the United Nations has said because it's an under-reported crime in many instances. So far this year, the tally that we have for foreigners, including this group is about 42. Normally, when you're talking about foreigners, gangs don't want that kind of scrutiny. They don't want to deal with the embassies or the capitals of Washington and Paris, but we're seeing with this particular gang, Katsan Mawozo, that they have become increasingly emboldened in terms of who they take hostages, how they take, and how many they take.
Unlike other gangs in the capital that are very much heavily involving kidnappings as well, this particular gang, in order to avoid scrutiny, what they will do is that they will kidnap by the carload or the busload. In one day they can grab six, seven vehicles. Instead of making $200,000 a pop by ransoming someone, they can make that amount of money in a day by ransoming several vehicles that they've grabbed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jacqueline, given what we've seen at the US southern border with the treatment of Haitian migrants, many of whom have been migrating across South and Central America since the earthquake years ago, at this point, the situation you described to me sounds like the kind of moment when we end up with massive refugee situations coming out of nations. Is there a reason to think that that may happen in Haiti, that we'll see a flood of people seeking protection and shelter from the silence?
Jacqueline Charles: It is happening. They're not arriving at the Florida Straights as we're used to seeing because of the Coast Guard, but they're arriving in The Bahamas. They're arriving in the [unintelligible 00:08:11] What we've been reporting in the last couple of weeks is that the Haitian migration crisis isn't just a US-Mexico border crisis. It's a Latin America and Caribbean crisis. We're seeing Haitians all the way in Indiana.
What's particularly is happening in the case of the earthquake, is that those individuals desperate to get out, desperate for some help, they're now being targeted by traffickers who are basically having them pay hundreds, thousands of dollars in some cases, get on the boat only to turn around days later and to end up back in Haiti because they get caught or they break down on a reef in the Bahamian waters. We've even had Haitians end up in Cuba.
We are starting to see this crisis. Everybody's focus is on Del Rio but the reality is while those individuals in Del Rio don't want to go back to a country that they no longer recognize and they left maybe 10, 11 years ago, there are people today who are leaving, trying to either get to United States or get somewhere else in this region.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a clear sense of the ways that the international community could effectively intervene to address this level of gang violence? At this point, even the vulnerability of foreign nationals traveling on mission in a Catholic country?
Jacqueline Charles: It's interesting, Haiti is under travel warning from the United States. That doesn't really make a difference because when you talk to people, missionaries, they're committed to the work that they're doing. They understand that they are providing a service in a country where people are poor, where the government doesn't exist and there are no services. Today that is the question from the international community that has forever been dancing around this issue of Haiti saying, "No, there's Haiti fatigue."
The reality is if the US government and other in the international community are not proactive and figure out what their response is going to be to assist Haiti to deal with this violence, to deal with this surge in gang violence, then it's going to reach a moment, unfortunately, where they're going to run out of options. Today there are several debates or several options that have been thrown out. All of them are problematic, a return of UN peacekeepers, US military involvement, special forces, or private contractors, but nobody wants to pull the plug and make a decision. When you talk to Haitians what they tell you is time is running out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jacqueline Charles is Caribbean and Haiti Correspondent for the Miami Herald. As always Jacqueline, thank you so much for joining us today.
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