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Haiti kidnapping: Shrouded in secrecy

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.

The abductors called banker Robert Moscoso asking for $2.5 million for the return of his children. Seven days later, with Brandt accompanying them, police rescued the Moscosco siblings, who were found blindfolded and handcuffed lying on a filthy mattress in the bathroom of a vacant, two-story mansion. Police said the kidnappers had been renting the home in Pernier, a Petionville suburb.

One of Brandt’s lawyers said his arrest was a mistake and his confession had to do with trying to settle a business score with Robert Moscoso, who also owns a car dealership .

Police and Haitian officials disagree.

“This is a national network that we have dismantled here, and we have a lot of people who we are searching for,” said Godson Orélus, the newly appointed head of the Haiti National Police. “We have cells in other provinces of the country that we are moving to dismantle.”

So far, 15 people have been arrested, including five police officers. One ex-cop remains at large. Earlier this month, a high ranking officer under investigation in connection to the case was gunned down after dropping his kids off to school. At the request of the Haitian government, the FBI has become involved in the kidnapping ring.

In a 30-page police report obtained by The Miami Herald, Brandt confessed to being the head of a gang, which also dealt in money laundering and illegal arms trafficking.

A search of his residence turned up arms, ammunitions and $15,000 in Money Gram receipts sent to someone in the United States.

“Asked about the reasons for the money transfer, the suspect …. declared that the group also was involved in illegal trafficking of arms and guns, and they financed the buying of these materials,” the report said.

The search turned up what police say was a fake National Palace identification card, listing Brandt as an “Adviser to the President.” It also turned up police clothing including ballistic helmets, black combat boots and Haitian National Police uniforms of pants, jerseys and T-shirts reading “DEA.”

The report revealed the involvement of several current and former Haitian police officers, one of whom had already been fired after being implicated in a kidnapping and other criminal activities.

According to the report, police found evidence that Brandt also was working on a list of future victims. At one point, there was a discussion about “gunning down” Delva, the secretary of public security, because he had announced the installation of security cameras around Port-au-Prince to thwart kidnappings.

Haitian officials have said Brandt’s arrest shows they are serious about ridding Haiti of kidnapping, which has destroyed families, deterred investors and made Haitians abroad scared to visit their own country.

But Pierre Esperance, head of the National Human Rights Defense Network, still worries about Haiti’s broken justice system.

He’s concerned about local political interference.

Haiti’s police “have done a very good job in this investigation,” Esperance said. “But officials have to let justice take its course, and not put pressure on the justice system.’’

Last week, his human rights group blasted Haitian government officials for not acting on the Moscoso siblings’ kidnapping until they were forced to by the U. S. Government.

Haitian officials dismiss his criticism, saying strong police work lead them to Brandt.

Authorities said they also re-interviewing other victims about their abductions in an effort to tie them to Brandt’s ring.

For many victims, the case has reopened old wounds that make it difficult for them to speak publicly about their ordeal.

“You always assumed that kidnapping didn’t have a face,’’ said a businessman who negotiated his kidnapped son’s release after eight day in the summer of 2008. “Now it has a face.’’