Executive Protection Update: Abductions for Ransom Soar in Haiti

On a cool morning in October, an American missionary named Wes Morgan was riding in his church's Toyota 4-Runner when three gunmen stormed up to the vehicle. One put a pistol to his face.

Another shoved his Haitian driver into the back seat and took the wheel. Within 10 minutes, the 53-year-old from North Carolina said, he was driven into the Haitian capital's Cité Soleil slum as two of the kidnappers hung out the back windows and shot into the air to celebrate his capture.

Among Haiti's litany of woes, kidnapping has surged into an epidemic in recent months, with an estimated eight to 10 people abducted for ransom every day -- including 25 U.S. citizens just since April -- according to the FBI. The 25 were later released, the FBI added, but three other Americans were killed trying to resist apparent kidnapping attempts.

Security experts say the rate of kidnappings in this country of 8.1 million people now dwarfs the notoriously high levels in Colombia, a nation of 43 million people where about 2,200 abductions were reported in 2003.

In just one day last week, U.S. missionary Phillip Snyder and 11 children in a school bus were kidnapped in separate incidents. The students were freed hours later under unclear circumstances, and Snyder was released the following day. Haitian media reports said he paid an unknown ransom.

''He's out, he's safe,'' said Alejandro Barbeito, an FBI supervisory special agent in Miami who heads one of the three bureau squads that deploy for foreign cases like Snyder's. FBI agents routinely help when U.S. citizens are kidnapped abroad.

While the FBI said there's no indication that Americans are specifically targeted in Haiti, kidnappings have become such a common method for criminals to get money in this abjectly poor nation that anyone with even scant wealth is at risk.

''As far as numbers, it is worse now in Haiti than we ever saw in Colombia,'' Barbeito said.

HAITIAN AMERICANS

The U.S. citizens taken hostage are mostly Haitian Americans living here or visiting family, including a New York State trooper who was abducted in August and later freed, the FBI says. Often, the victims are children snatched to extort their parents.

More and more, they report being taken to Cité Soleil, a slum neighborhood so dominated by armed gangs that Haitian police almost never go there. U.N. peacekeepers have tried to seal off the area but kidnappers can still move in and out. Morgan says that when he was abducted, his vehicle didn't pass a single U.N. checkpoint on the way into the slum. Snyder was also held there.

The Haitian Red Cross appears to be one of the few groups that can move about the slum freely. After Snyder was shot in the arm, a Red Cross medic treated his wound, his family said.

The abductions are just one prong of the violence that has dogged Port-au-Prince since an armed rebellion ousted President JeanBertrand Aristide last year. While the security situation has improved in recent months, the chaos in Cité Soleil continues despite the presence in Haiti of nearly 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers.

''Cité Soleil is the deepest wound in Haiti's belly,'' said Juan Gabriel Valdés, the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, in an interview with The Herald last week. He called it the most ''complicated problem'' facing the U.N. mission here.

FBI INVOLVEMENT

The rash of abducted Americans, meanwhile, has made Haiti the No. 1 destination for FBI kidnap investigators like Barbeito's squad. Its members advise families on negotiating with captors, help the local authorities and arrange for FBI evidence teams that can build cases against the kidnappers.

On Oct. 7, they flew two kidnapping defendants to Washington, where they were indicted for holding a 9-year-old Haitian-American girl for a week, Barbeito said. Yves Jean Louis, 24, and Ernso Louis, 19, allegedly took the girl from her bed while she was sleeping at her family home and demanded $200,000. She was rescued after a tip to police.

Both the FBI and U.S. State Department praise the new Haitian National Police chief, Mario Andresol, for working closely with U.S. agents and going after some officers allegedly involved in the kidnappings. Andresol has ordered the arrests of more than 20 officers on charges of kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder, according to news reports.

UNIQUE PROBLEMS

But Haiti provides unique difficulties for the FBI agents. In many countries, they can zero in on the captors by tracking the location of their cellphones. But such analysis is difficult in Haiti because of its poor cellular system and telephone company record-keeping, agents said.

The nature of kidnapping in Haiti also is different.

In Colombia, for example, most abductions are carried out by highly organized guerrilla and paramilitary groups that carefully select their victims and demand large sums of money or political concessions, such as the release of government prisoners. Negotiations can go on for months.

'In Colombia, you're snatched and you're going to the jungle for `an ecological tour' for two years,'' said Barbeito. ``The infrastructure is in place to hold hostages for a long time.''

The largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, even has doctors for its hostages, he said.

But Haiti's kidnappers usually just want quick cash and don't have the means to feed a hostage for months, the FBI agent added.

Morgan, who said he has cancer and has had his stomach removed, needs to eat small doses every two hours. He was kidnapped Oct. 14, less than a week after getting out of chemotherapy.

ORDEAL RECOUNTED

The gunmen who captured him and his driver took them to a bare concrete shack in Cité Soleil where a gang leader waited with an M-16 assault rifle, Morgan recounted in an interview. The man leveled the gun between Morgan's eyes and said he would kill him if someone didn't pay $300,000.

The leader then left the pair under the guard of a man who had a pistol. Morgan said he called his church group, New Directions International, on his cellphone to tell them what happened. He described his captivity as loose -- he was allowed to step outside to urinate. He thought of escaping, he added, but figured he would never get out of the slum.

The church contacted the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, and the FBI began helping with the ransom negotiations, Morgan said. The same night as the kidnapping, Morgan and the driver were released after the church paid $10,000.

Morgan said his Haitian driver knew exactly where they were held in Cité Soleil. But because police cannot enter the slum without heavy U.N. military backing, the kidnappers remain free.

''You'd have to take over the whole neighborhood,'' Barbeito said.


Knight Ridder content Copyright 2005 provided via The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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