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In Haiti, no one is safe from kidnappers

Everyone is a target — schoolchildren, foreign aid workers and pedestrians— to kidnappers in Haiti.
Quesnel Durosier, seen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Dec. 17, was safely released after being kidnapped and tortured once he gave abductors money he had saved for his wedding.
Quesnel Durosier, seen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Dec. 17, was safely released after being kidnapped and tortured once he gave abductors money he had saved for his wedding.Ariana Cubillos / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Quesnel Durosier walked out of a bank with $3,500 tucked into his sock, buoyed by thoughts of his upcoming wedding. Seconds later, a car cut him off, gunmen sprang out and shoved him into the car along with a woman passer-by.

What followed was a nightmare of torture and death threats for these latest victims of a wave of attacks that has made impoverished Haiti the kidnapping capital of the Americas.

Everyone is a target — schoolchildren, foreign aid workers and pedestrians in the upscale and heavily guarded Petionville district of the capital, where Durosier and the unidentified woman were snatched.

Tourists are not targeted, but only because they are virtually nonexistent.

Police and an 8,860-strong U.N. peacekeeping force have pledged to restore security, which evaporated after the February 2004 rebellion that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But kidnappings have skyrocketed, and as Jan. 8 presidential and parliamentary elections approach, stemming the kidnappings is an “absolute priority,” said Damian Onses-Cardona, the U.N. spokesman in Haiti.

The peacekeepers have been trying for months to penetrate the vast Cite Soleil slum, where gangs stash many of their hostages. A Canadian peacekeeper was shot dead near Cite Soleil in an apparent kidnap attempt five days before Christmas.

Abductions not always reported
Thirty kidnappings were reported in Haiti in November, and 30 during the first week of December alone, said police spokesman Frantz Lerebours. The actual number is probably much higher because many families prefer to negotiate with kidnappers rather than notify police.

Recent victims include 14 schoolchildren abducted on their school bus in December, and Emmanuel Cantave, a prominent leader of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party. Another was Phillip Snyder, an American missionary shot in an ambush and seized along with a Haitian boy he was taking to Michigan for eye surgery. All were eventually released after ransoms were paid.

Eight to 10 people are abducted every day in this Caribbean nation of 8 million, more than any other country in the Americas, said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman in Miami. That surpasses even Colombia, which for years has had the world’s highest kidnapping rate.

Since April, 28 U.S. citizens have been reported kidnapped in Haiti, Orihuela said.

“In the last year or so, it’s just exploded down there,” Dick Hildreth, a security consultant, said in a telephone interview from his office at Corporate Risk International in Fairfax, Va. The company advises its clients to hire bodyguards while visiting Haiti, or avoid it altogether.

A South Korean factory manager was recently kidnapped, held in Cite Soleil and released for $10,000.

Some freed victims have said that what they heard while being held captive suggest the kidnappings may be connected, at least loosely, to the election and to U.N. efforts to gain control of Cite Soleil, where 200,000 people live in squalor. It is a stronghold of armed gangs, allegedly close to Aristide, which are threatening to disrupt the elections.

Michael Lucius, chief of the Haitian Judiciary Police, said he doubts politics are involved.

“This is purely criminal activity. Gangs are raising cash to spend during the holiday season,” he said.

Kidnappers looking for money
All Durosier knows is that his abductors wanted money.

Forced to crouch in his seat and choking from a plastic bag placed over his head, he was brought to a house outside Port-au-Prince and tied to a chair. The kidnappers quickly found his wedding savings.

Durosier could hear the woman scream in another room as the kidnappers poured hot water onto her to make her say who could pay her ransom. The two hostages never got a chance to talk to each other, and the woman’s identity and fate remain unknown.

Durosier, a journalist for the newspaper Le Matin and an occasional AP contributor, said that after a few hours of questioning and threats, his abductors appeared satisfied with the cash they had stolen from him, and released him in the countryside.

“I still wonder what happened to the woman I was held with,” Durosier said.