PORT-AU-PRINCE -- When Haiti National Police moved in to arrest the handsome, well-dressed man on kidnapping charges, it blew the lid off a deep, dark secret: no one is immune to the country’s newest crime wave.
Until now, kidnapping was painted as a deadly trend spawn out of Haiti’s ghettos, a quick way for thugs to get money off the misery and heartbreak of desperate family members.
But this was different. This was Clifford Brandt, the 40-year-old, well-heeled son of a prominent businessman who would eventually confess to his role in the abduction of the adult son and daughter of a business rival.
For the past few weeks, the “Brandt affair” has been on the tongues of everyone, from the bourgeoisie to the poor masses in and out of Haiti. It has become the country’s latest flashpoint, igniting anger and drawing a crowd of thousands Monday in the coastal village of Jacmel in Southeast Haiti after a man was killed trying to save his 3-year old nephew snatched by kidnappers in the middle of the night from his mother’s bed.
This was the second time in weeks the Jacmel population rose up against kidnappers.
“Haitians can take a lot of things, even an assassination,” said Reginald Delva, Secretary of State for Public Security. “But kidnappings remind us of slavery, and people can’t handle that.”
Still, victims or families rarely discuss their kidnapping publicly, for fear of being targeted again, on even killed. The crime remains shrouded in secrecy.
Observers say the high-profile Brandt arrest provides a glimmer of hope that the struggling Haiti National Police force – after undergoing millions of dollars in training by the international community - finally may be showing signs of strengthening. Investigators used cell phone records between Brandt and other accomplices, including former police officers and an employee of the victims’ father.
“One would hope this represents a major step forward for the HNP in terms of its capacity and its ability to enforce the law,” said Mark Schneider, senior vice president for the International Crisis Group, which has published numerous reports on Haiti’s security challenges since kidnapping became more prevalent starting in 2004 – after the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“Kidnapping in Haiti has traditionally been both a criminal enterprise with political objectives,’’ Schneider said. “And one hopes the arrests reflect a determination to halt that enterprise.”
But Brandt’s arrest also illustrates the deep class divisions in this polarized country, where kidnapping has been regarded as a phenomenon of the dark-skinned poor – not a crime of the light-skinned elite.
“They are always blaming us for kidnapping, but I’ve always known they were involved all along,” said Junior Pierre, 28, a moto taxi driver, sitting on a sidewalk in the Cite Soleil slum. “But in Haiti there is no justice and money is what talks.”
Investigators said Brandt, who ran his family’s Mazda dealership, had been under surveillance for months before Nicolas and Coralie Moscoso were pulled over on Oct. 16 by six armed men impersonating police officers. It wasn’t until the two were being blindfolded did they realize they were being kidnapped.