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The U.S. and the world must step into Haiti, not just for the kidnappings — but for the kids

Haitian gang members ride on a motorcycle as children look on
Rodrigo Abd
Haitian gang members armed with assault rifles motorcycle past children and teens in a Port-au-Prince street market last month.

COMMENTARY The near certainty that Haiti's omnipotent gangs will forcefully recruit minors, à la Central America, should move the U.S. to act there.

The stakes in Haiti’s harrowing collapse just got more frightening, not only because of the kidnappings – but because of the kids. That makes me and a growing number of folks more convinced than ever that the world can no longer stand on the sidelines of this failed-state meltdown.

A month ago I caught some not-so-unexpected flak when I warned the time had passed for asking if the United States and the international community should step in to save Haiti from the political, economic and public security abyss it’s staring into. It was time, I argued, to ask how they should step in – and how to step in without stepping on Haiti the way the U.S. and the international community have so often done for two centuries.

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I’m hardly alone at the moment. This week a Washington Post editorial asserted: “The free fall in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country is accelerating, and it is a pipe dream to imagine it can pull itself together without outside intervention. To oppose a muscular international force that could restore some semblance of order is to shrug at an unfolding humanitarian disaster.”

READ MORE: U.S. Hoping Haiti Can Fix Its Failed State for Elections. It Can't - Not Without the U.S.

I'm wary of “muscular" international intervention in cases like this. But the Post, like other voices, was simply responding to the virtual takeover of Haiti by powerful, vicious — and politically affiliated — armed gangs, which control an estimated half of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Those mafias have re-upped their terrifying ransom kidnapping wave, including last month’s abduction of 16 Americans and a Canadian, five of them children, belonging to a U.S.-based Christian missionary group. Last week they started hijacking desperately needed fuel distribution as they demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

For those of us who also cover Central America, UNICEF issued a perhaps even more haunting advisory this week. The U.N. children’s agency reported that Haiti’s gangs are now targeting schools, forcing administrators, teachers and students to pay “protection” money or face abduction themselves. Or worse — as Haiti was reminded over the weekend when a gang murdered a kidnapped university professor, Patrice Derenoncourt, because his family couldn’t pay all of the $900,000 ransom it sought.

The same child-devouring monster that's ravaged Central America will surely raise its head among Haiti's gangs — sending thousands more Haitians kids on a treacherous trek to America's doorstep.

As gangs squeeze educational institutions in that extortion vise, Haitian parents will increasingly and understandably keep their kids at home. Then the vile cycle gets even darker. As UNICEF’s Latin American and Caribbean director Jean Gough put it: “In Haiti today, every child who is left outside the classroom is more vulnerable to gang recruitment.”

That’s the chilling part if you know anything about Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — which has long been overrun by ultra-violent, ultra-tattooed gangs known as maras, including the infamous MS-13.


The main mara ultimatum to kids is this: when we tell you to join our ranks, you join our ranks. Or we kill you. It’s the overriding reason the U.S. has seen so many thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors show up at its southern border in the past decade. And it’s a key reason the Northern Triangle is such a socio-economic horror show: if a country holds no future for youth, it holds no future at all.

It’s hard to imagine that same child-devouring monster won’t rear its head among Haiti’s gangs, if it hasn’t already.

 Haitian gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier with lieutenants in Port-au-Prince's Cite Soleil slum.
Rodrigo Abd
Haitian gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier with lieutenants in Port-au-Prince's Cite Soleil slum.

“I’m afraid to see kids I work with step out to the street,” Julio Warner-Loiseau, who heads the Haitian youth assistance nonprofit Nouvelle Perspective, told me from Port-au-Prince. “The Haitian government can’t — or won’t — stop these gangs, so if something isn’t done soon to contain them, I see them recruiting Haitian youths en masse.”

And the youths who resist? Like Northern Triangle kids, they’ll likely appear in greater numbers, and likely unaccompanied, at the U.S.’s doorstep. Which for Haitian kids means an even more dreadful if not deadly journey than Central Americans face. Two routes, really: smuggled across the Caribbean in flimsy boats that often sink or capsize from overcrowding in shark-infested waters; or, increasingly, up through Central America and Mexico starting in places like Panama’s forbidding Darien jungle.

Keeping young Haitians out of those treacherous seas and forests should be an urgent goal now for the world outside Haiti. Because it’s clear the government inside Haiti can't do anything about it anymore.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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