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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Edward Helmore

Florida couple kidnapped and being held for ransom in Haiti, family says

 A woman walks past a barricade amid gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
A woman walks past a barricade amid gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photograph: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

A Florida couple visiting the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince are being held for ransom after being kidnapped, according to their family.

Jean Dickens Toussaint and Abigail Toussaint were reportedly abducted on a bus on 18 March while visiting the stricken nation to see ailing relatives and attend a community festival.

The US state department advises Americans not to travel to Haiti “due to kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest”. It has not confirmed the kidnapping but said it is “aware of reports of two US citizens missing in Haiti”.

“The US department of state and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas,” the federal agency said.

The Toussaints’ kidnappers demanded $6,000 for the couple’s release, a relative told ABC Miami, but then they upped the ransom to $200,000 each after the money was paid. “We don’t have that type of money,” Jean Dickens Toussaint’s sister, Nikese Toussaint, said.

“We were very worried when they said they were going, we told them not to go but they wanted to go,” she added.

A family friend who met the couple at the airport to escort them was also kidnapped, a niece of the couple told ABC Miami.

“They stopped the bus at a stop and they asked for the Americans on the bus and their escorts to come off the bus and then they took them,” she said.

Kidnappings for ransom have skyrocketed in Haiti, with more than 1,200 reported in 2022, double that of those reported the previous year.

The Toussaints’ kidnapping comes after aid agencies warned this week of a “hunger emergency” as armed gangs paralyze the poor Caribbean nation. A World Food Programme (WFP) report said nearly half the population is regularly going hungry.

“These are the worst conditions on record,” said WFP’s Haiti director, Jean-Martin Bauer. “Food insecurity in Haiti has been going downhill and Haiti is sliding into a hunger emergency.”

Since the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in July 2021, warring gangs have seized control of much of Haiti, the economy has collapsed, outbreaks of cholera have been reported and inflation has risen to 49.3%.

Haitian rights group RNDDH estimates gangs – not state security forces – now control the capital and have expanded their reach to central parts of the country.

The conditions have led the UN to issue calls for an international “specialised support force” to restore order.

Joe Biden was expected to push Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau for Canada to lead restoration efforts in Haiti during at trip to Ottawa last week.

In remarks released by the White House on Friday, the president said the US and Canada are “coordinating closely to take on the human security challenges throughout the region”.

”We’re working in partnership with … the people of Haiti to try to find ways to provide security, humanitarian assistance, and to help strengthen Haiti’s stability,” Biden added.

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