Article October 30, 2017

Kidnapping risks and dynamics in Haiti

red24 rates Haiti as a high-risk destination and operating environment due to various persistent security concerns. These include high threats of petty and violent crime, drug-related violence, kidnapping and political instability. Violent crimes, such as armed robbery, carjacking, drug-related violence and murder, remain a significant security concern in Haiti, especially in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where much of the country’s organised criminal activity is concentrated.

The below is an abridged version of the original report.

Of the 1,029 intentional homicides reported countrywide in 2016, more than 700 took place in the capital. Although violent crime is most prevalent in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, it does extend to other areas of the country, where general lawlessness, coupled with a poor security force presence, leaves local authorities largely unable to respond to crime incidents and emergency situations. The majority of crime in Haiti, including kidnapping, affects locals; however, foreign and dual nationals also present as attractive targets due to their perceived wealth and/or ability to raise funds. Despite the significant overall decrease in kidnapping activity in Haiti since 2006, kidnapping remains a credible security concern in the country, one that is unlikely to be completely eliminated in the short- to medium-term.

Kidnapping threat dynamics
red24 rates the threat of kidnapping in Haiti as high. Kidnapping, which was previously a rarity in the Caribbean country, became a common occurrence following a violent revolt that culminated in the 2004 overthrow of the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. However, annual reported kidnapping incidents have decreased significantly since the mid-2000s. Following an unprecedented national high of approximately 760 reported incidents in 2005, this figure decreased by more than half in 2007 following the launch of an offensive by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the Haitian National Police (NHP) against organised crime groups and street gangs known to engage in kidnapping activity in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere.

Annual reported kidnapping figures resurged following the 2010 earthquake, which devastated Port-au-Prince, leaving over 220,000 people dead and approximately 1.5 million people displaced. This humanitarian disaster triggered an influx of foreign aid workers and non-governmental organisation (NGO) personnel to Haiti. Thousands of incarcerated criminals had escaped during the earthquake and their return to criminal activities, coupled with the presence of these foreign personnel, perceived to be lucrative targets, as well as the general desperate and lawless post-earthquake environment, definitely contributed to the increase in kidnapping activity between 2010 and 2012.

Security offensives since 2013 have served to reduce kidnapping figures in recent years. In fact, annual reported kidnapping figures remained under 50 incidents per year between 2014 and 2016. That being said, a high percentage of kidnappings in Haiti go unreported and, the decreased presence of foreign aid personnel in the country prior to the 2016 hurricane depleted a primary target group, potentially speaking to the decreased incident figures of cases involving foreign nationals during this time.

Illustrating the ongoing security threats, on 22 May 2017, the US Department of State issued a warning to US citizens to carefully consider the risks of travelling to Haiti due to its current security environment and lack of adequate medical facilities and response, especially in the areas of Petionville and the storm-damaged southern peninsula departments of Grand Anse and Sud. This warning also highlighted increased kidnapping, murder and rape rates in Haiti in 2016 in comparison to previous years. This development has tentatively been linked to worsening economic conditions, the impact of the 2016 hurricane and political instability. This followed a September 2016 statement issued by the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince, which raised concerns regarding a possible increased threat from short-term kidnapping activity.

It is difficult to predict whether this recent uptick in incidents is an isolated development, or whether it signals the beginning of a longer-term trend. This possibility cannot be discounted, given the country’s various socio-economic, environmental, political and security challenges, which continue to contribute to an environment conducive to the presence of criminal gangs and subsequently, KRE activity.

Perpetrators and modus operandi
Kidnapping for ransom and extortion (KRE)
The vast majority of kidnappings in Haiti are purely criminal in nature and motivated by financial gain; politically motivated abductions are very uncommon, if present at all. Criminal perpetrators generally fall into two categories; small, well-organised urban gangs and inexperienced, opportunistic individuals, motivated by the perceived low risks and fast returns associated with KRE activity in Haiti. In addition, Haiti has high levels of corruption and police officers/security force members are often suspected of involvement in KRE activities, as are wealthy locals and individuals with close ties to the local elite.

Express and virtual kidnappings
In addition to traditional KRE activity, short-term express kidnappings and virtual kidnappings pose security concerns in Haiti’s urban settings. These types of crime offer criminals a lower-risk, faster-reward version of kidnapping. Express kidnapping perpetrators often choose victims almost at random, with intoxicated individuals and tourists (who are often easily identifiable and vulnerable) presenting as easy targets. The use of bogus taxis or rogue taxi drivers is the primary modus operandi of express kidnappers in Haiti; however, criminals also target individuals withdrawing cash from outdoor ATMs. Depending on the profile of the victim, express kidnappers may demand an additional ransom payment from the victim and/or family members to secure their release.

Virtual kidnapping is a growing trend in Central and South America, with incidents increasing in frequency in recent years. Although virtual kidnappings are less frequently reported in Haiti in comparison to regional hotspots, incidents are sporadically reported. Such scams often target wealthy locals in Haiti as well as dual nationals living outside of the country, or US/Canadian nationals with family members or dependants known to be visiting Haiti.

Geographical spread
Although Haiti is rated as high-risk for kidnapping countrywide, there are location-specific variations in KRE threat levels. The risk of being kidnapped is significantly higher in urban centres. Kidnappings do occur in rural areas; however, the risk is generally assessed to be lower in comparison to towns and cities. As a result of security operations against gangs in the capital, kidnapping incidents have increased in the more affluent, and previously less-affected, areas of upper Port-au-Prince, such as Petionville, as well as elsewhere in Ouest department.

Following regular kidnappings of foreign nationals between 2005 and 2008, and the particular targeting of aid workers between 2010 and 2013, the vast majority of KRE activity in Haiti in recent years has affected locals. While foreigners are targeted as they tend to be wealthier, within the local population, the targets of kidnapping gangs have varied greatly, with perpetrators making no evident distinctions in terms of income bracket, social standing, race, gender or age. However, wealthy locals and their dependants, as well as employees of large, multinational companies, face an elevated KRE risk.

Financial demands, incident duration and outcomes
The vast majority of kidnapping incidents in Haiti are orchestrated for financial gain, and thus involve the demand for and payment of a financial concession, followed by the release of the victim. KRE incidents are generally concluded within an immediate (<24 hours) to brief (1 to 7 days) period, although some past cases involving experienced criminal syndicates have taken longer to resolve, with periods in captivity lasting a short (1 to 4 weeks) duration. Hostage escapes and rescues are uncommon.
There is a high threat of violence associated with kidnappings in Haiti. Violence and torture is often threatened or used during the initial seizure phase of abduction, as well as during the captivity phase in order to expedite a ransom payment. Sexual assault of female hostages is not uncommon, and in comparison to regional and international figures, a fairly high number of hostages are killed.

red24 rates Haiti as a high-risk destination and operating environment. In addition to kidnapping, there are a number of other security concerns of which individuals, businesses or non-governmental organisations in or planning operations in Haiti should be aware. As a result, individuals should refrain from all non-essential travel to the country.

Individuals who need to or choose to travel to Haiti regardless, should take additional security measures. red24 can assist policyholders with this, and the CFC K&R team will be able to advise on the due process for engaging their services as part of the insurance coverage.

For the full report, contact our K&R insurance team.