SAN JUAN – When Doris Michel steps outside her home in Haiti, she packs her bulletproof vest and tries to use a bulletproof car.
Ever since her father was kidnapped last month in the capital of Port-au-Prince, the 34-year-old Haitian-American woman won’t take any chances. She already travels with one bodyguard, and when she feels extra unsafe, she takes two.
“The insecurity in Haiti has been something that has been going on for years, but now it’s taken a turn that’s just unbearable,” she said.
Her 85-year-old father, a Vietnam veteran, was abducted in late September, along with his driver and a friend who is the mother of a Haitian singer. They were traveling through Martissant, a gang-controlled territory that many try to avoid, but it was the only route that would take her father where he needed to go.
The same kind of gang activity is being blamed for the kidnapping Saturday of 16 Americans and one Canadian — missionaries for a U.S. religious organization and their relatives. Their disappearance highlighted the worsening problem and prompted the U.S. government to mobilize to solve one of the biggest abductions in recent years.
By contrast, many other kidnappings go unnoticed — something that bothers people like Michel, who said the FBI provided her family with scant assistance.
Her father and the two other people were abducted by a gang run by Ti Lipli, a member of G9 Family and Allies — a federation considered one of the largest and most powerful in Haiti. They asked for a ransom of $6 million.
Michel and her mother said they didn’t have that kind of money. Two days later, the ransom increased to $10 million.
“We kept saying, ‘We don’t have that kind of money,’” Michel recalled. “Then it switched to, ‘What kind of money do you have?’”
As the negotiations dragged on, her father’s health began declining. He didn’t have his blood pressure medications, nor the pills for his prostate or the blood thinners he’d been taking ever since undergoing brain surgery in January. But the gang didn't relent.
“When they called, they would say very harsh, cruel (things): ‘You don’t want your husband anymore? We don’t mind, we can kill him and you can pick him up from a pile of trash,’” Michel recalled.
The gang member never identified himself, but it was the same voice each time, with calls lasting no longer than two minutes.
During the ordeal, she subsisted on two boiled eggs and a few crackers a day. She and her mother each lost 8 pounds. At night, she took pills to help her sleep. During the day, she prayed.
Michel found out that her father and the two other hostages were given a single bowl of white rice each day and three small bags of water. They would ration what they had in case they didn’t get anything the next day. The three were kept in a locked room with boarded-up windows, where they heard voices of other people they believed also had been abducted.
“My dad, because he fought in Vietnam and had a tough life and dealt with a lot of stuff, he had the mechanism to cope,” she said. “But some days, he did crack.”
Michel blamed the Haitian government for the spike in kidnappings and the overall rise in violence that has plunged the country into one of its most unstable periods in recent years.
“They created the gangs," she said. "Now they can’t control the monster.”
Experts say Haiti’s gang phenomenon was created when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began arming people in slums in the early 2000s since he had an understaffed police department and no army. The private sector and political groups also are accused of arming gangs, according to a top international official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the topic.
Today, up to 40% of Port-au-Prince is under gang control, experts say, including the 400 Mawozo gang that police blame for the kidnapping of the missionaries on Saturday. That gang was born in a community east of the capital known as Canaan, which was established when people fled Port-au-Prince after a 2010 earthquake devastated the city.
Kidnapping is one way gangs make money, although abductions spike and wane depending on Haiti’s political and economic situation and, at one time, the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.
Many worry the situation will worsen as Haiti prepares for presidential and legislative elections next year following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Michel called on the U.S. government to get involved, saying, “One of these days, there's going to be at tragedy that they will be partly responsible for, because they themselves dictate how this country operates. ... It's time for them to step in.”
Haiti's National Police force is lean in resources, and officers find themselves overwhelmed by multiple, well-armed gangs who feed on poverty. More than 11 million people live in Haiti, and 60% of the population makes less than $2 a day.
Michel said the gang member who called told her mother that he was educated and worked hard to get a degree but couldn’t get a job so he got a gun. “That's how I make my money,” he said.
Ransom demands can range from a couple of hundred dollars to several million dollars, according to authorities.
Michel said she dropped off the money at a specific location, only for the gang members to claim they didn't receive it. They demanded another payment.
She said the FBI did little to help and advised her to gather more money and restart negotiations. So Michel paid them again.
Haitian police did not get involved, she said, or bother to take a statement once the gang released her father by placing him on a motorcycle that took him to his family. He had been held captive for 11 days.
“Healthwise, he's fine, but psychologically, not so great," she said.