Anatomy of Haiti’s kidnapping epidemic: No one seems immune

In late 2018, Haiti National Police, with help of its community police officers, gained access to the Village de Dieu, Village of God, slum in Port-au-Prince. HAITI NATIONAL POLICE/ FACEBOOK

By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald, March 8, 2020

What Giscard Borgard remembers most about his recent kidnapping in Haiti is not the beating he took in the car with the butt of a gun or the blood splattered on the walls of the tiny, candle-lit room where he and a friend were held captive for two days.

And it’s not the multiple gunshots regularly fired inside the teeming seaside Port-au-Prince slum, built on top of a landfill, where he was held.

It was the faces he saw the day of his release. The placid faces of the women and the children inside Village de Dieu, Village of God, who ignored him as he was publicly led at gunpoint by one of his captors, past the narrow corridors and mosquito-infested gullies, after his uncle paid his ransom.

“Everybody was selling their little food. Music was playing in the background, people were watching TV at their houses. Kids were playing and guys were walking around with big guns at every corner, like a military base,” said Borgard, 36, a Haitian-American U.S. Navy veteran. “Everyone is immune to it. Everyone knew what was happening. It was shocking to me. Even the little kids, they are immune to it by now.”

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department raised its Haiti travel advisory to Level 4 — Do Not Travel — in the wake of what Haiti National Police have described as a “spectacular rise” in kidnappings for ransom, along with other violent crimes including carjackings and robberies, carried out mostly by armed criminal gangs.

“The updated Travel Advisory reflects that incidents of kidnapping are widespread and have rapidly increased in frequency since December 2019,” a U.S. Department of State official said. “Kidnappings have included targets of opportunity, and victims have included U.S. citizens, as well as Haitians and other foreign nationals.”

Since December, at least nine U.S. citizens and one French national employed by the United Nation’s World Food Program have been kidnapped and released after ransoms were paid, or they escaped. In 2018, there were zero reported kidnappings of U.S. citizens, the State Department official said. Just hours after the State Department’s advisory, three new kidnappings were confirmed.

A source told the Miami Herald that two of the individuals were kidnapped in the Pacot neighborhood of the capital by individuals driving around in an unmarked Toyota Land Cruiser, dressed as officers in a specialized police unit with ski masks.

Borgard and another Haitian American who recently returned from Haiti after being held captive, spoke with the Herald about their ordeal.

Both men are former active duty U.S. military, and one, Jerry Mardy, is still a reservist in the U.S. Army. Both were visiting Haiti on vacation last month when they were grabbed 12 days apart. Borgard had traveled to visit a hospital in the Cité Soleil slum to see about sponsoring children born to rape victims. Mardy was there to check on a house he’s building north of the capital.

Both men are among an unknown number of Haitians, some say dozens, who have been abducted in recent months while doing routine things —leaving church, driving home or riding in a Tap-Tap, the colorful buses and pick-up trucks that serve as public transport.

Some were released without harm, save for the psychological trauma of their captivity. Others never made it out — they were killed after trying to fight back or family and friends failed to secure enough money.

The story of how Borgard’s and Mardy’s abductions unfolded is similar. Both say they were stopped by a car loaded with heavily armed gang members as they drove through the city of Delmas, which has become a hotbed for the spiraling kidnapping epidemic. And both say they were taken across town to the Village de Dieu, the lawless slum that has become the kidnappers’ lair.

Located in the south of Port-au-Prince, the slum’s entrance is at the intersection of Oswald Durand and Boulevard Harry Truman. That’s less than 1,000 feet from the old U.S. embassy building that now houses the Office of the Prime Minister and 1,300 feet from the Haitian Parliament. The slum was, until recently, home to of one of Haiti’s most feared gang leaders, Arnel Joseph.

Joseph’s surprise capture last year by Haiti National Police hasn’t slowed the growing threat that appears indiscriminate in its attacks. His foot soldiers have fanned out across the capital snatching unsuspecting victims with the help of scouters to find their next hostages, and spotters to help nab them.

“The freedom of movement is not guaranteed,” Marie Yolène Gilles, a leading Haiti human-rights activist, told the United Nations Security Council recently about a country in which 23 armed gangs exist just in Port-au-Prince, and where a third of the nation is under gang control. “Roads are dangerous. The fiefdoms of armed gangs have become inaccessible to law enforcement officers and armed gangs claim total control over the civilian population living in these areas as well as those they have kidnapped.”

 

A LAWLESS SEASIDE SLUM

Haitian police had gained access to Village de Dieu back in November 2018, making some 80 arrests and organizing a mobile medical clinic during their two months’ presence inside. But with the government failing to build on police presence with social protection programs and other services, the area once again fell victim to gang control.

Today, police can’t even approach the entrance. This was underscored last weekend when specialized police units, supported by newly acquired armored vehicles, were met with heavy gunfire when they tried to mount an operation inside the slum. The gang’s fire power damaged several of the armored vehicles, which were later seen in the yard of the National Palace on blocks with missing tires and bullet holes.

“This situation is unacceptable,” Gilles told the Herald. “As the only people who revolted to break the chains of slavery, we cannot accept that a group of armed individuals are depriving citizens of their rights. It’s a crime that dehumanizes people... We cannot tolerate this crime in the society.”

Gilles said her human rights group, La Fondasyon Je Klere, has been unable to find out from police how many kidnapping cases have been reported since January and what they are doing to attack the problem. The Herald has also inquired and received no response. A crowd-funded effort to gather information has also been slow to gain traction.

But every day Haitians are sharing stories about individuals who have been kidnapped or videos of attempted kidnappings.

Complicating matters is also the spread of copycat kidnappings by less well-organized groups. Last weekend, one such incident was met with a deadly response when an angry mob in the rural town of Boucan Carré burned four gang members and presumed kidnappers alive after ripping them out of their jail cell.

As the anecdotes spread, some wonder if the abductions, which have involved both poor and rich, are as random as they appear. They also wonder about the role of police, who have said little about the terrifying reality. In a video of a botched kidnapping attempt in the hills above the capital, the armed kidnappers are seen dressed in Haiti National Police uniforms.

There is also another nagging matter. In several cases, after someone has been released, someone else close to the individual is also reported kidnapped. This has led some to believe that the kidnappers — already employing a network of systematic surveillance, spotters and “dispatchers” who deliver victims out of the slum after ransoms are paid — are also using victims’ phones to scout out their next targets.

 

MARDY’S STORY

Before traveling to Haiti, Jerry Mardy, 36, had heard that Haiti was experiencing a wave of kidnappings. He never thought he would become a victim. But that’s exactly what happened the day after he arrived in Port-au-Prince.

Mardy said he was driving back from the town of Arcahaie, about an hour-and-a-half north of Port-au-Prince, with a friend on Feb. 19. They were in a white pick-up truck in the Delmas 75 Fragneauville neighborhood shortly after 9 p.m. when he went to make a right turn to head to his hotel.

Suddenly, he said, there was a car in the middle of the road blocking him and five heavily armed men jumped out with “rifles pointing at me.”

“That’s when they grabbed me and put me in their car,” Mardy said. “Afterward, I kept hearing a lot of stories that there had been a lot of kidnappings in Delmas 75. I was not the first one.”

Mardy said he started fighting with his captors. Then, fearing they would kill his friend, he stopped.

“Because I was fighting with them, when I got to their place, that’s when they started beating us, a lot,” he said.

The beatings stopped, Mardy said, after his captors, members of Arnel Joseph’s gang, went through his telephone and saw a photo of him in his Army reservist uniform. They became nervous.

“They asked for us to give $1 million as ransom,” he said. “I said, ‘How am I going to pay that? There is no way I am going to find that money.’”

“Everyday, they kept calling our relatives to ask where the money was. And everyday, they kept dropping it because we didn’t have that kind of money,” said Mardy, who at the offset was handed his phone to make a call so negotiations could immediately begin.

Sources closely following Haiti’s kidnappings, where female captives also have been subjected to rape, say the gangs are notorious for asking for unreasonable amounts of cash. Eventually, however, they settle for whatever they can get depending on how well individuals negotiate. There is a limit by Haitian banks on the amount of U.S. dollars consumers can get, which perhaps explains why gangs have also started to ask for ransoms in not just dollars but also gourdes, the local currency.

Either way, it has meant that family and friends have had to turn to several banks to assemble the ransom payment, or if they live in the U.S., make multiple wire transactions.

The victims’ cellphones have also become a key prize for the gangs, who try to determine from photos and social media posts what someone may be worth.

The kidnappers apparently don’t care that the phones can be traced: They know that police can’t get into the slum where the bulk of victims are held hostage.

Mardy says he and his friend spent four days inside Village de Dieu. They were fed and allowed to shower, all at gunpoint.

There is no doubt his captors were part of a gang. “There’s a lot of them in that place,” he said, and it was obvious to him they were following strict orders.

“They were talking and one said, ‘That’s what I like about that man. Every time he goes out, he’s going to bring someone,’ “ Mardy said, recalling a conversation he heard between two gang members. “Everyday they go out, they got to bring someone; they don’t want to come back empty handed.”

For the people who live in the slum, there is complicity and indifference.

“Everybody inside knows what’s going on,” Mardy said, recalling how a young woman came into the room where he was being held to borrow a broom and a chair, and not even flinching at the site of him and his friend. “Even though you’re not the one going outside to grab people, you know what’s going on. I heard they give money to everybody.”

One day, as a gang member kept watch over his friend, Mardy said he quickly texted his Army sergeant, informing him of his predicament. The sergeant got the kidnappers’ number from his family and then called the U.S. embassy in Haiti.

“The embassy ended up calling the kidnappers on that Thursday to let them know, they knew about the case, ‘to be careful; we know who you are; we hope nothing happens to him,’ “ Mardy said. “I told the embassy, don’t call anymore because the guys were so mad because they felt threatened.”

He thought the embassy and later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which interviewed him after his release, would have done more to help.

“I thought they were going to help, money-wise, but they did not do anything,” he said of the U.S. embassy, which does not pay ransoms. “They didn’t do anything. We ended up borrowing money and paying everything by ourselves.’

“It’s kind of frustrating,” he said, going on about his disappointment in U.S. authorities. “I am serving the country, and you don’t need to be a soldier to get help from your country in that type of situation. They know what’s happening and you still didn’t get any help. It’s kind of degrading.”

When he and his friend were eventually released, only the SIM card from his phone was returned. The gang kept his personal effects, including his U.S. passport and clothes, along with some speakers and his rental vehicle.

He returned to New York a few days ago.

“I already told my mother... I am not going back,” Mardy said about Haiti. “Even with the Army, if I have to go, they have to approve it after what happened.”

 

BORGARD’S STORY

Borgard, who lives in Atlanta, also says it will be a long time before he visits Haiti again.

“Haiti is where I was born, it’s where I am from and where I went to school. I don’t think anyone can scare me off from going back,” he said. “But I would say I am not going back anytime soon; I mean not until maybe four, five years.”

Borgard was kidnapped around 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 , he said, not far from the mayor’s office in the Delmas 33 neighborhood. He and a friend, who also lives in Haiti, were driving home from dinner in a Kia SUV with dark tinted windows. Bogard was in the passenger seat

He didn’t know it at the time, but a black Toyota pickup truck had been following them with its lights off. Suddenly, the pickup turned on its high beams, pulled out in front of the Kia and crashed into its side.

In the split second it took his friend to decide whether to put the vehicle in reverse, Borgard said, six heavily armed men “were already pointing big guns in our faces,” banging on the windows, demanding that they open the door.

“Two of them had... 9 mm, small guns,” he said. “The other four had long-range guns.”

After putting both in the back seat of the Kia, while the pickup lead the way, Borgard said his captors started driving off and “hitting me from the side with their gun, telling me someone sent them and that they either are going to kill me or make some money with me.”

“We were scared,” he said. “I thought I was dreaming. I didn’t think something like this would happen to me.”

The car sped through drove Delmas to downtown Port-au-Prince, jumping over speed bumps. As they approached Grand Rue, the main street downtown, Borgard said the kidnappers blindfolded them both with a black shirt.

Recalling his military training, he “started counting seconds to see exactly where we were headed. I know Port-au-Prince and so as they were turning, I had a sense of where I was going.”

After arriving inside the cinderblock slum, they were pushed onto a patio with a carpet. “The first crew who grabbed us, we never saw them again,” he said. “They pick up people and drop them off to a second set of people.”

It was then, he realized he had been kidnapped.

“There were locks on every single door,” he said.

Like Mardy, he tried never to make eye contact.

Over time, Mardy, realized that no one had set him up, and perhaps he’d fallen prey because they had been riding “in a nice car.” After asking him to unlock his iPhone, one of his abductors started going through his photos.

“He saw pictures of me traveling; he saw pictures of me with nice cars and he was like, ‘You are better off than [President Jovenel Moise]; you’re traveling all over the place. You must have money,’ Bogard said. “Thankfully, he saw a picture of me holding a gun in uniform. He asked if I were the police. I said, ‘No. I am former military.’ ”

Borgard, like Mardy, believes this was a turning point in his captivity

“When he saw the pictures in the military uniform, he changed his whole tactic,” Borgard said. “He said to someone: ‘He’s military. Take off his clothes. He probably has GPS.’ ”

Even though his captors had removed his SIM, Borgard said authorities still managed to track his whereabouts. But when the information was turned over to Haitian police, they said they lacked the tactical capabilities to access the slum.

Kidnappers, Borgard said, initially asked $300,000 plus the equivalent of $42,749 in local Haitian currency for his release. In a voice note that was circulated on social media, one of the kidnappers is heard telling Borgard’s uncle that his nephew was at a cemetery and if they don’t bring the money, he would be shot.

During the two days he and his friend were held, Borgard said they didn’t see any other victims. But they heard them, from the other side of a wall.

“I could hear the negotiations of the other people who had gotten kidnapped,” he said. One was with the husband of a woman.

“She was screaming and the guy was on the phone talking to the husband,” Borgard said. “The husband offered $18,000 and he was like, ‘$18,000? Sa se lajan dlo. That’s too petty for him.’ He was like, ‘This lady isn’t going to go home then. Call me back when you have money.’ ’

The day of his release, Borgard said one of his abductors handed him the SIM for his cell phone, and his passport.

“He said, ‘I don’t want you to go to the embassy. Here’s your passport,’ ’Borgardsaid. “But he kept my license, telephone and wedding band.”

Ironically, the one time he felt he would likely be killed was the day of his release. As he was being escorted out of Village de Dieu, Borgard said his kidnapping became a discussion on the social networks, angering his armed escort.

“He said, ‘Oh, someone started posting your pictures, making this a political thing. I don’t think I am going to let you guys go,’ ” Borgard said. “That’s when I thought, ‘You know what, this guy is just going to walk us somewhere and shoot us.’ “

The gang member did not kill them. When they made it out onto the Bicentenaire, the strip that runs along Village de Dieu, near the National Theater, the gang member wished them farewell.

“I’m going to leave you guys here because at the next corner, on the other block, there is another gang in charge,” he said. “If you get kidnapped again, it’s not my fault.”

 

Posted March 15, 2020