(HAITI) — While the whereabouts of an American nurse and her young child reportedly kidnapped in Haiti late last week are still a mystery, the alarming surge of abductions taking place in the country demonstrates a clear and growing danger for both foreign travelers and Haitian citizens.
The efforts to locate Alix Dorsainvil and her child continued Tuesday — five days after they were reportedly kidnapped. Dorsainvil was working near Port-au-Price with El Roi Haiti, a Christian aid organization, when the group says she and her child were taken by unknown assailants — the only publicly known details regarding the apparent abduction.
U.S. officials have been tight-lipped, declining to share any information that may put their efforts to recover the two in jeopardy.
“We’re in regular contact with Haitian authorities and continue to work with them and our U.S. government inter-agency partners, but because it’s an ongoing law enforcement investigation — there’s not any more detail I can offer,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday.
Miller declined to say whether the department knew who exactly was holding Dorsainvil and her child, or whether they had requested anything from the U.S. in exchange for their freedom.
White House spokesperson John Kirby said President Joe Biden has been briefed on the “precarious” situation, adding that they are “working on this as hard as we can,” but did not offer any additional details.
The investigation will almost certainly be sharply constrained by the Haitian government’s own limitations. The country admits that gangs control 80% of its capital city’s streets, creating a wide blind spot for law enforcement.
On Thursday, the deteriorating security situation also prompted the State Department to order all family members of U.S. government employees and non-emergency U.S. government employees to leave Haiti.
The crisis in Haiti is worsening, but it is not new: The State Department has for years warned Americans against traveling to the country, classifying it a “level four” — its most severe travel advisory — meaning U.S. citizens should not visit because of a “greater likelihood of life-threatening risks” and the department’s limited ability to provide assistance.
Haiti’s problems compounded in July 2021 when its president was assassinated. The country’s interim leader, Ariel Henry, has struggled to rein in gangs, resulting in escalating violence and exposing the government’s tenuous hold on power.
In the fall of 2022, the battle for control appeared to hit a chaotic crescendo when gangs blockaded Haiti’s largest fuel depot, crippling movement within the country, cutting off clean water supplies and exacerbating a cholera outbreak before negotiations ultimately cleared access to the energy source.
While the situation in Haiti remains dire, groups monitoring crime within the country say reports of offenses such as abductions had appeared to be on the decline — until they started to spike again in recent weeks.
The decrease, analysts say, was brought on not by the country’s authorities or direct assistance from international governments, but by Haitian citizens stepping into de facto law enforcement roles, creating what are known as “vigilance brigades” to patrol their own neighborhoods.
But Diego Da Rin, a Haiti expert with the International Crisis Group, said the gangs are now winning out over those groups, resulting in a resurgence of violent crime.
“That self-defense movement has waned over time,” he told ABC News. “Gangs need to resume their criminal activities and kidnapping is one of their main sources of income. Gang leaders have to pay their soldiers or else risk being overthrown.”
Da Rin says there have been a number of recent cases involving foreign nationals kidnapped in Haiti that have been resolved with the victim being released after a ransom is presumably paid. This could be a cause for some optimism in Dorsainvil’s case, Da Rin said. But he adds there have also been disturbing incidents involving captors filming themselves harming victims as a play to extort payments — and that law enforcement will likely be able to do very little to intervene even if they can identify the criminals.
“The Haitian security forces and U.S. forces present in Haiti are not able to enter the areas where most kidnapped people are held — they’re located in gang strongholds, neighborhoods where security forces haven’t been able to enter for months or even years,” he said.
Nearly 10 months ago, Henry urged foreign militaries to help restore law and order in Haiti. The world’s leading powers have waffled — uneager to embroil themselves in the conflict, especially when the Haitian public has signaled disapproval of outside intervention.
On Saturday, the government of Kenya announced it was ready to lead a multinational force into Haiti, a development that was welcomed by the West.
“We are committed to finding the resources to support this multinational force,” Miller said.
However, the plan faces a number of hurdles, and even if it ultimately succeeds, U.S. officials say it will likely be weeks or even months before it bears any result.
Renata Segura, the deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group, says the mission could also backfire.
“There is a danger that this force could just consolidate power for Henry, an illegitimate Prime Minister — particularly because we don’t see the likelihood of elections taking place anytime soon,” she said.
“The fact that Kenya is volunteering is significant,” Segura continued. “We do hope that the Henry administration doesn’t take this as a signal that they can stop negotiating with the opposition, because we are very concerned about the possibility of unrest and protests if people think that this is just something that is going to benefit Henry.”
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