As kidnappings, gang violence surge in Haiti, FBI warns Americans, residents to stay away

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The FBI is warning U.S. citizens and permanent residents, especially those living in South Florida, to stay away from Haiti.

The warning comes as Haiti’s embattled police force faces increasing attacks from warring gangs and as the violence in Port-au-Prince, according to the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, has reached levels similar to countries at war.

“The people of Haiti continue to suffer one of the worst human rights crises in decades and a major humanitarian emergency,” Guterres said in his latest report to the U.N. Security Council. “With the high number of fatalities and increasing areas under the control of armed gangs, insecurity in the capital has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict.”

With the U.N. Security Council scheduled to meet Wednesday about the situation in Haiti, Guterres is expected to reiterate his call for the rapid deployment of an international military force. Since the beginning of the year, Haiti has seen a surge in for-ransom kidnappings and several gang-orchestrated massacres, which is leading citizens to increasingly take justice into their own hands.

The FBI’s Miami office says it has seen a marked increase in the number of kidnappings reported to the agency, with a 300% increase for the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year.

The agency declined to release the exact figures, and directed its warning particularly toward South Florida residents, some of whom have fallen victims to Haitian gangs in recent weeks and held for hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom.

“While we understand that there are strong ties between Haiti and South Florida, before traveling there one should consider the trauma and financial costs of being kidnapped not only to themselves but to their family and friends as well,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Liz Santamaria.

On Monday, Haitians in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood lynched and burned alive 13 suspected gang members who were traveling on a minibus. The armed men were reportedly on their way to install a new gang chief in another community. It was the latest act of vigilantism by a population that is increasingly becoming desperate and frightened by the violence.

The Haiti National Police said several suspected bandits were fatally injured in exchanges of gunfire with the police, and four guns were seized in the area of Dubussy of Port-au-Prince. In a statement, the police alluded to the participation of the population in the “fight against organized crime.”

On Tuesday, remains of the dead were still in the streets and there were reports that the residents in another section of Port-au-Prince had joined the police in hunting down gang members.

In a report published Monday, the National Human Rights Defense Network noted that there have been an alarming number of gang attacks targeting neighborhoods since the beginning of the year. Several hundred people have been killedd, women and girls gang raped and people kidnapped.

Between Feb. 28 and March 5, the community of Bel-Air in Port-au-Prince was the scene of violent armed clashes between the members of the G-9 gang and its Family and Allies coalition and the Bel-Air gang. During the clashes, at least 148 people were killed or went missing, the human rights group said.

At least 62 houses were set on fire and 26 others looted and set on fire as well. Other attacks involved the localities of Bérette, Calebasse and Fort-Jacques, where an estimated 100 gang members swept through on March 31, burning homes and vehicles while executing local residents.

On Monday, the United Nations also sounded the alarm about Cité Soleil, where deadly gang violence last week led to the deaths of nearly 70 people. At least 48 others were killed between Wednesday and Sunday in the town of Cabaret, just north of the capital, when armed gangs attacked the rural town’s residents in the middle of the afternoon.

Condemning what it describes as “a climate of terror,” the National Human Rights Defense Network accused the current political coalition in place of protecting the bandits. The organization believes that at this stage, the de facto government’s policy of silence is no longer appropriate.”

In a series of tweets, Prime Minister Ariel Henry applauded the recent efforts by police to “restore order and peace” in the country’s neighborhoods while offering condolences to those killed and injured in the line of duty. Despite the challenges, he said, police are motivated and the government “will solve the problems related to security to move forward in the process of organizing elections with a view to the return to constitutional order desired by all.”

U.S. travelers are reminded that Haiti remains under a State Department Level 4: Do Not Travel Advisory. The State Department has urged all U.S. citizens to depart Haiti now in light of the current violence.

The FBI says every kidnapping is unique and inherently challenging. There are no guarantees. The best option is to avoid dangerous circumstances in the first place, the agency said.

If someone does decide to travel to Haiti, they are urged to read the State Department travel advisory in order to be fully aware of the safety and public health issues.