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Horror in Haiti: Kidnappings are big business

Jarmin and Viola at Ronald's funeral in Fort Lauderdale.
Courtesy of Viola Semxant-Zucker

It was a clear, cool evening in the hills above Port-au-Prince when Gregoire-Ronald Chery got the last phone call of his life.

Ronald, as his family called him, was on vacation in Haiti, sitting at the dinner table with his mother and cousins. They kept the side door open while they sat and talked. Through the iron security gate, they could see the house of their only neighbor and, beyond it, the lights of other houses flickering on a hill.

It was around 8:30 on August 27, 2010. Ronald's 16-year-old niece, Nadege, had excused herself and was upstairs watching TV in her mother's bedroom. His brother Jarmil was in the living room trying to fix a spotty internet connection.

The family had just returned from a yearly pilgrimage to their hometown of Jeremie to celebrate the holiday of St. Louis. Ronald had decided to join them this year only at the last minute. His job in Florida with the Department of Homeland Security frequently kept him on call.

The phone call was from a friend in Miami. Ronald stood up from the table with a toothpick in his mouth and flipped the phone open. "Hello?" He disappeared through the gate into the dark night.

His friend on the phone — and his family inside the house — heard him talking to another person. The conversation was quiet, and it sounded like someone had come up the street to chat with him. "Hi, how can I help you?"

Suddenly, his family heard a loud bang. It sounded as if it came from far away: Evenings in the hills are often peppered with distant gunfire. But as the family sat at the table wondering about the noise, they realized that someone was shooting at them. A bullet had gone right by the head of Ronald's mother, Viola, who was sitting with her back to the doorway. It flew a few feet above the scraps of meat and vegetables on abandoned plates and shattered a window on the far side of the room.

When Nadege heard the shot, she got up from her mother's bed and went onto the balcony to look down at the side entrance. She saw her uncle Ronald talking to three men in T-shirts and dirty jeans. They were pointing guns at him.

"Get on the ground," they told him in Creole. Ronald, ever the methodical diplomat, tried to stall.

"How can I help you?" he asked them. "What do you need? Money? Jewelry? Just let me know and we'll give it to you."

The guns didn't drop, so he tried a different tack. "Listen," he told them, "I'm a United States federal agent."

"Shut the fuck up," they said.

Nadege walked into her bedroom, praying, and dialed the police.

Thirty seconds, maybe a minute passed. When Jarmil heard a second shot, he stood up from the computer and peered out the window. He saw a man frantically pulling things from the ground, as if uprooting vegetables, and looking around with paranoid glances. There was no sign of Ronald.

Then the man froze. He saw Jarmil at the window and was staring straight at him. "You come out here!" the man with a gun shouted. "I'm going to shoot you too!"

Ronald and Jarmil were rarely far apart. They left Haiti for New York together as teenagers in 1965. Jarmil was the oldest, the guardian, and he was also something of a combative loudmouth. Ronald, by contrast, was calm and quiet — sometimes too quiet. Jarmil often had to ask him to speak up when he talked. But the brothers were inseparable, through high school and college in New York, and their respective moves to South Florida in the late 1970s. They spoke on the phone every day, often just to share what they were watching on TV. Now they were gearing up for retirement together: Jarmil in two years, Ronald in three.

Jarmil drew back from the window, his heart pounding. He decided to channel the cool confidence of his brother. He left the computer and walked up a single stair into the dining room, heading for the door. He wanted to reason with the visitor, talk him down, offer him money if necessary. But he didn't get a chance. The men had come inside. One of them was tying up Nadege's father, using his own shoelaces to bind his hands. The men were twitching with anger, maybe stimulants. Their eyes were blood red.

Upstairs, Nadege knelt by the front of her bed, staring at the glowing numbers on her phone. The number for the police wasn't working. She tried again and again. Nadege prayed that her father would stay calm and wouldn't do anything to anger the intruders. They were probably looking for jewelry or money, she thought, and it would be best not to stand in their way.

 

A movement caught her eye. In the reflection of the bedroom mirror, she could see the hallway through the partially open door. Somebody had quietly come up the stairs.

Jarmil sprawled on his stomach on the tile floor. He stared at the gunman's filthy white sneakers while an accomplice tied his hands with a telephone cord yanked from the wall. One of the white sneakers lifted, disappeared from view, and came down hard on the back of Jarmil's buzz-cut head. Then it came down on his shoulder and torso.

"You saw my face," the white-shoed man was shouting. "You looked at me for too long. Now I have to shoot you! Turn your head away!" But Jarmil kept staring at the man. He wanted to resist. Then he saw his mother, Viola Semxant-Zucker, matriarch of the family and leader of the annual trips to Haiti. She looked her son in the eyes.

Viola came to America when she was 25 years old, leaving behind four children and a philandering husband. She found work in a factory on 34th Street in Manhattan and as a waitress in a restaurant. Eventually, she earned enough money to bring her kids — Ronald, Jarmil, and their sister, Julia — to America. When she came home from work on Thanksgiving day in 1965, Ronald and Jarmil were there waiting for her. It was one day before Ronald's birthday, and she cooked a big celebratory dinner. The philandering husband would remain in Haiti.

"Turn your head," the old woman told her son. He obeyed.

The assailant pressed his gun to the back of Jarmil's head. Jarmil felt the cold steel and closed his eyes. He felt the gun click, reload, then click again. "Are there any kids in the house?"

"No, there are no children here."

"There are kids in the house! Where are they?"

Now Nadege could hear the man who had come upstairs. He was threatening the maid. "If you don't turn over the children," he said, "I will kill everybody downstairs."

When Nadege heard this, she stood and walked, barefoot, into the hallway. "I have to stop him," she thought. She met the man at the top of the stairs.

"How old are you?" he asked.

"I'm — "

"I'm taking you with me."

"Can I at least get my sandals?" Nadege asked. He said yes.

It wasn't jewels or money the men had been after — it was her. Kidnappings are big business in Haiti. Every month in the dilapidated country, 160 people are kidnapped. The criminals often prefer children.

When she followed the men through the dining room, the girl saw her family facedown on the floor. The kidnapper made eye contact with Nadege's father, Dominique. "One hundred thousand dollars American," he shouted as he hit her theatrically with the butt of his gun.

Outside, the girl saw Ronald face up on the ground. He was lying in a pool of blood. A bullet had entered his head under the left cheekbone and exited at the top of his clavicle. The toothpick was still hanging from his mouth.


Nadege ran through an open field. Her feet clutched her sandals as the men pulled her along. They had run up the hill from her parents' house, plunging through the darkness between the trees and houses. They ran until they reached the main street in another neighborhood.

As they moved, the man who had taken her held a cell phone to his ear. "Listen, I can't get ahold of the others," he told his partners. "I think we're going to have to take her to the Cité."

Nadege trembled. She knew about Cité Soleil, a sprawling shantytown at the mouth of a dried-up riverbed near Port-au-Prince. It's the center of operations for Haiti's thriving kidnapping business. In October 2006, at the end of a record year of 540 reported kidnappings in Haiti, police were able to enter the Cité for the first time in three years, thanks to protection from heavily armed United Nations troops. They left after an hour.

After a months-long U.N. offensive, most of the area was reclaimed from the gangs, but home-invasion kidnappings increased. The kidnappers were now disorganized amateurs rather than professional gangs. These new criminals, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security, "were more likely to become panicked and respond violently than they would have as part of a more organized gang structure."

The men put a black baseball cap over Nadege's head and shuttled her into a red pickup truck that had appeared in front of them. She sat on the bench seat, squeezed between the driver and her captor.

"Don't look around," they told her.

Frightened, she stared down at her legs and the glowing dashboard as the truck bounced over bumpy roads. It came to rest outside a one-story cinder-block building on a crowded street. People sat around on the stoops outside, apparently unmoved by the presence of a teenaged girl — pretty, well-fed, with hair in neat braids — who looked like she was trying to wake up from a dream. Nadege was ushered inside the building and deposited in a bare room, smaller than your average American kitchen, with a single window cut from the cement block walls. She saw a bed, a television, and a man sitting in a chair by the door. Then they blindfolded her, and she saw nothing.

 

Among all the forgettable minutie of life, there is no mistaking the sound of a plastic bucket scraping across a cement floor. "Sit on the bucket," they told her now, and they left her alone with the guard. It was late, around 1 a.m., and soon somebody told her to get on the bed. She blindly followed the simple instructions, feeling her way onto the mattress. When she laid back, the springs poked her body. It was pointless to keep her eyes open. Nadege's exhaustion was more immediate than her fear. She fell asleep.

In the morning, a man came into the room. The others called him the Commandant. He gave Nadege a toothbrush, toothpaste, and four pairs of clean underwear. She brushed her teeth with the blindfold on and spat into a bucket. They let her take the blindfold off for a moment to wash her face with water from another bucket. She could see the Commandant now: a tall, slim man, a little cleaner than the others.

He got down to business. He asked for her father's phone number. The phone rang and rang, but there was no answer. He sent a text message. They waited. No reply.

"I don't understand," he said to Nadege. "How come he hasn't called back yet?"

"I don't know," she said.

Nadege had questions of her own. She wanted to ask the man: What are you going to do to me? Are you going to rape me? Beat me? Am I going to end up like Uncle Ronald when you're done with me? And what will it take to get me out of here? She knew there was a ransom and hoped someone would pay it in time.

The Commandant asked Nadege about the people who were at her parents' house. "That man who was killed," he said, as if discussing a story in the morning news, "what was your relation to him?"

"My uncle," said Nadege, and suddenly she felt the reality of his death. Someone else had uttered the word killed. It wasn't just in her head anymore. The last time she saw him alive, on that evening in the house, Ronald had asked her to take his laundry to be dried. So she took Ronald's laundry and put it out to dry and went back to watching TV. Now she had been wearing the same baggy pants and T-shirt for days. She felt the underwear that had been handed to her by a stranger. Killed.

In fact, Nadege's father was desperate to speak with her. Her mother was physically sick with worry. But hard as it was, her parents refused to answer the phone. They were acting on the directions of Haitian police.

"Under no circumstances," an officer told them, "should you speak with your daughter." Instead, they were to pick one person to negotiate with the kidnappers. They chose Nadege's Haitian uncle, Lucien. He had not been at the house during the kidnapping.

On Sunday night, the Commandant reached Lucien by phone. The negotiations began, and then he let Nadege speak to her uncle. His voice coming through the phone was the lone familiar thing in her cold and darkened world. He asked if she was OK.

"They burned my feet," said Nadege. She felt terrible: It was a lie, something the Commandant had told her to say to provoke her family. Nadege heard that her mother was in the hospital and couldn't bear to think of the lie making its way back to her.

"I'm OK," Nadege reassured her uncle. "But please find the money. I don't want to be here much longer."

"We're working on it," he said.


Jarmil was at the public morgue in Port-au-Prince, staring at his brother's lifeless, naked body. A morgue worker explained that he would have to pay to have the corpse kept accessible near the top of a pile.

That wouldn't do. He paid $900 for an autopsy to reclaim the bullet for a police investigation. Then he paid $4,000 more to have Ronald's corpse transferred to a private funeral home, where it could be prepared for shipment back to the United States.

 

An FBI agent arrived from the Dominican Republic and told Jarmil the agency would start an investigation. (Homeland Security spokeswoman Ana Santiago declined to comment on the shooting, citing an ongoing investigation.)

The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince took the lead on the case, and Jarmil struck up a relationship with one of the local police commissaires. He was determined to find out who killed his brother and why.

Ronald had been a federal employee for 17 years, and as far as his family knew, he had not made any enemies. His work was classified, and it remained between him, his supervisors, and the Haitians he helped through the bureaucracy of immigration. Sometimes, Ronald would call Jarmil after work just to say how much he loved his job. Still, he was looking forward to retiring, and he and Jarmil talked often about opening an immigration-assistance office together.

Did Ronald's identifying himself as a federal agent incite the murderer to shoot? Was it his calm, rational demeanor in the face of such anger? Or was he merely collateral damage, a human obstacle on the way to purses, jewelry, and a child? That last possibility might be the hardest of all: the lack of reason, his existence simply deemed inconvenient by men with guns.

Back at the house above Port-au-Prince, his suitcase was still packed. Among the neatly folded shirts and suit jackets lay two old photographs from the 1970s. They showed Ronald and his first wife, Nancy, as a beautiful, smiling young couple in close embrace.

Ronald and Nancy met in 1971 at his sister Julia's wedding in New York, when he was in high school. Their families were close, although the two kids had not seen each other in years. At the wedding, they posed for separate photographs: he with a nascent Afro, looking cocky among the groomsmen, and she light-skinned with shoulder-length hair, smiling beatifically in the second row of bridesmaids. A romance followed soon after. They married in 1976 and a year later moved to Florida, where they had a son, Greg Jr., whom they called Ronnie.

The young couple divorced after five years: They believed they had gotten married too young. But they remained close friends. As they walked away from the signed divorce papers, Ronald held Nancy's hand. Later, he called her, crying. "I didn't think you'd go through with it," he said.

Four months before his death, Ronald pulled Nancy into the room where he was staying at his mother's house in Miami Gardens. He was older now, tall and balding, with a healthy paunch and small, round eyeglasses. He had just gotten divorced from his second wife. "If something ever happens to me," he told Nancy, "here are some things for Ronnie." He handed her a stack of papers.

Nancy felt a lump in her throat. "You're scaring me," she said.

Ronald was calm and gentle as always: "You never know."

On those last few days in Haiti, Ronald didn't seem like himself. During the pilgrimage to Jeremie, he was more withdrawn than usual. When Jarmil asked why he wasn't spending time with the rest of the family, Ronald told him, "I'm just resting."

On the long Jeep trip back to Port-au-Prince, Viola told Ronald about a dream she had, about spending time on the beach at La Pleine with her mother and father. Then she passed on some motherly advice: "Always do the right thing. If anybody harms you, don't retaliate."

Ronald smiled at his mother. As the Jeep rattled and shook over earthquake-ravaged roads, he told her: "I'll always follow your advice."

At the funeral home, Jarmil made arrangements to ship Ronald's body home in a box. He booked tickets for both of them on American Airlines. They would leave on Wednesday, five days after the murder.


Here," said the Commandant, "I got you something to eat." He dropped a fast-food hamburger and fries in front of Nadege.

Two nights had passed since Nadege had been taken, and her value to the kidnappers was falling rapidly. The $100,000 figure was a highball price. One conversation at a time, her uncle Lucien was lowering the figure, stalling, saying the family didn't have enough. The conversations combined the cold amorality of haggling and the pressing need to get Nadege — a daughter, cousin, girl two months away from turning 17 — out of her concrete prison.

The Commandant reached Lucien on the phone. "Do you or do you not need this child?" he said. "You need to bring the money. Because otherwise, I'll kill her."

Nadege had grown used to threats from the men. They told her that if she made any noise, they would shoot her or kill her or sever her head with a machete. But as time wore on, it seemed to Nadege as though her worst fears might not be realized. Nobody had handled her roughly, tried to rape her, or made so much as a leering comment. When she needed to change her underwear or urinate in a bucket, the men held up blankets around the bed.

 

Monday passed especially slowly, as nobody called that day. Nadege imagined her family negotiating, pulling together the money. Surely something would happen soon.

They brought her food once a day: apples and grapes, juice and cookies. To pass the time, she lay awake blindfolded on the bed, listening to a guard's TV. She wondered if she would hear anything about herself on the news, but she didn't.

Nadege spoke a little with the guard, who said he was from the Dominican Republic. Her sense of time was hazy. She was blindfolded and slept often. The guard confided in her that they dissolved sleeping pills in the juice.

On Wednesday morning, the Commandant was unusually agitated. Nadege had been held captive for six days, and the money wasn't coming. He paced across the room, seeming to fill most of it. "My source told me your father was an engineer," he said. "They said he had a bunch of expensive cars. So why doesn't he have any money? What's going on?"

The source was mistaken: Nadege's father is a mechanic, and he doesn't collect cars. She kept silent, wondering what was going to happen next.

The Commandant was silent for a minute. "Well, today's your last day here," he said. "We thought your family had money, but it looks like they don't. So we need to find someone else to replace you. Something's got to give."

Soon the negotiations were complete. Nadege's price: about $3,500 U.S. At 6:30 p.m., as arranged, Nadege's father, Dominique, waited in his green Mitsubishi pickup in Petionville, halfway between his house and the downtown slums.

He called the kidnappers, and they told him to drive to a hardware store in front of the Brasserie Nationale brewery, east of Cité Soleil. Then they let Nadege speak to her father for the first time in five days. "I'm coming to get you," said Dominique. Nadege felt a surge of hope. The green pickup truck raced down the hill.

The kidnappers stayed on the phone and gave him directions as he neared the drop-off point. "OK, make a left. Follow those cars. Go up the hill. OK, stop." Dominique could see his interlocutor down the street, talking into a speakerphone. He heard the thrum of his own diesel engine echoing on the line. "I see you," said the silhouetted figure. "Turn off your engine." The evening moved in around him.

The figure strolled toward the truck, chatting with two women at his side. Another man appeared in the rear-view mirror. Next to Dominique in the passenger seat was his wife's cousin, who had provided the money. She got out of the truck and handed over the envelope full of large bills in Haitian and American currency.

The men took the stack of cash and disappeared. They brought it back to the Commandant, in the house where Nadege waited. Dominique sat in the truck: half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half passed slowly by.

When the Commandant came to get Nadege, he was holding the stack of money. She had taken off the blindfold. He called her father again. "Are you ready to see her?" he said.

"All right. Let's go." He gestured for Nadege to come with him.

She wanted to celebrate, to believe that it was true, to know that she was leaving. She wanted it all to be over. But as long as she was under the control of her captors, she worried they would never return her. She waited for their commands, knowing that their will was the only way to freedom.

They walked with her for half an hour through the streets in waning light and came to a stop on a flat commercial strip filled with evening shoppers, vendors, destitute bystanders. Cars were parked along the road. The Commandant was on the phone again. "Flash your headlights," he said. Nadege could see lights flash down the street, and her heart thrummed with excitement. "Again," said the Commandant. "Three times." One, two, three.

"Go," he said.

And she ran, free and alone, to her father's truck. She was scared, not thinking: Her legs ran; her mind tried to forget the men with guns who stood behind her. Six days' worth of stillness and anxiety exploded, closing the gap between her and home.

She climbed onto the bench seat and embraced her father and said hello to her mother's cousin. Then Dominique was driving, wrestling the wheel, his whole arm throwing the stick shift, and they left. Nadege stared out the back window at her captors receding in the dust.


 

I'll tell you one thing," said Jarmil one evening in November, slouched at his computer in Sunrise with pictures of his dead brother arranged behind him. "Everybody is kind of suspicious that nothing happened to Nadege. She's a good-looking girl, and they didn't touch her."

On this particular evening, he was waiting for a phone call from his wife. She was supposed to be home an hour ago. He had called her and left a message. This wasn't like her: She usually called right back.

"Temperatures in Haiti reach a boiling point!" blared the TV in the other room. Jarmil sipped from a glass of cognac, an imperfect remedy now that he couldn't sleep or relax. His hours at home were tense and filled with worry, spent waiting for clues and checking his email for updates about the investigation. The feeling was worse when he didn't know where Michelle was. She was what kept him alive.

They had just moved into Phase 4 of Sunrise Lakes, a gated retirement community. Furniture and suitcases still sat in piles on the floor. Across Nob Hill Road was Phase 3, where Ronald's condominium, purchased a few months before the trip to Haiti, sat dark and empty. Outside Jarmil's apartment was a canal with a small bridge where the brothers had planned to drink Presidente beers and go fishing together, well into their comfortable American retirement.

Two days after she was released, Nadege flew to America with her parents. She attended Ronald's funeral with 2,000 other people and a cadre of honor guards who carried the casket through St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale. Now, two months later, she was living at her grandmother's house in Miami Gardens. She had started going to school there and found the adjustment easier than expected. Still, her father worried about her mental state. Sometimes, it was as if she were somewhere else.

Dominique spent the long days driving aimlessly around South Florida, getting to know the flat and manicured terrain. He couldn't stand to stay in one place now that he was stranded 600 miles from his business and home that lay in a shambles from the intrusion. He and his wife were making arrangements to go back, but if all the immigration papers went through correctly, Nadege would stay in America for good.

Jarmil said he knew things about the investigation he wasn't allowed to talk about. He had seen pictures. He stayed in touch with Haitian police, not just because he was desperate for answers but because he knew that if he didn't, the case would disappear like so many others. "I will not rest until I know what happened to my brother," he said.

He clicked through emails from the police. He looked at pictures of apprehended suspects — zenglendo, or organized thugs — and waited for clues. "They knew there were children in the house," he said.

The phone rang. It was Michelle, who was running a little late with her errands. She was on her way home.


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