Update: The two Dominicans and their Haitian translator were finally released late Friday after six days in captivity. Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader confirmed the release in a Tweet.
The gambit was almost as impossible as any in the film “Ocean’s Eleven”: The white Toyota Hilux pickup with dark tinted windows, an official government license plate and four heavily armed bandits inside accelerated quickly, weaving in and out of traffic as it rammed vehicles and tried to run them off the road.
When the driver finally succeeded in breaking up the 17-car Port-au-Prince-bound convoy, he stopped in front of a flatbed with two Dominican filmmakers, their Haitian translator and a generator in tow.
The armed men jumped out, pointed their oversized guns and demanded that translator Junior Albert Augusma get into the pickup. Dominican brothers Maicol Enrique and Antonio Campusano were kept in the cabin of the flatbed as their captors pressed on the gas and disappeared up a mountain under the cover of darkness.
“It was really fast,” said Gilbert Mirambeau Jr., the co-founder of Muska Films, who was two cars behind and watched the brazen kidnapping as it unfolded before him and eight Haiti National Police officers. “Where they cut us was literally at the mouth of their territory, at the corner of a street. It was as if they were waiting for us; you couldn’t go there. And the guns we saw? I think I’ve only seen those in movies.”
Haiti’s latest kidnapping, which took place shortly before 9:30 p.m. Saturday in the gang-ridden neighborhood of Martissant at the southern entrance of Port-au-Prince, was shocking on many levels. The film crew returning from a shoot in Jacmel, a port city in the southeast, was moving in large numbers, and had embedded policemen in their motorcade. The cops, dressed in plain clothes, were planted at the front, back and center.
None of it, however, was enough to stop the latest for-ransom abduction that has taken Haiti’s kidnapping epidemic from being a Haitian affair, to an international one.
On Wednesday as tense negotiations over the kidnappers’ $2 million ransom request continued, diplomatic pressure on the Haitian government intensified. Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader has told reporters his government is trying to secure the Campusano brothers’ release, but did not offer details. Defense Minister Carlos Luciano Díaz Morfa added that Haiti had requested their help.
The United States, which provides financing to the Haiti National Police, announced through its embassy in Port-au-Prince that officers with the Colombian National Police were in country to help strengthen the capacity of Haiti police’s anti-kidnapping unit. The unit has long been plagued by a lack of financing and manpower.
On Monday, a number of foreign diplomats participating in a virtual United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation in Haiti mentioned the film crew’s attack and abduction. The country’s worsening crime amid its deepening political turmoil was a concern for everyone. More than one ambassador expressed frustration over the government’s inability to dismantle the armed gangs and criminal organizations behind the growing wave of kidnappings, homicides and rampant criminality.
“The authorities must do more,” France’s Deputy Permanent Representative Nathalie Broadhurst said, before asking a pointed question about one of Haiti’s most notorious and wanted gang leaders, implicated with two other former officials in President Jovenel Moïse’s government in a massacre. “I ask the question bluntly: How is it possible today that Jimmy Cherizier is still free?”
Cherizier, known as “Barbecue,” is an ex-cop wanted for his alleged involvement in the 2018 La Saline massacre that left scores dead, homes torched and families in the low-income Port-au-Prince neighborhood displaced. He is also suspected of being involved in other massacres in working class neighborhoods and currently heads a gang federation whose members have been linked to the kidnapping surge.
Gédéon Jean, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research, said his organization has documented 102 kidnappings between January and February 23. Last year, he said, they documented 51 kidnappings between January and March.
Today, even the most menial of tasks, like going to the supermarket, heading out to eat, or taking a two- to three-hour drive to a city like Jacmel require planning and thought.
“It’s not my responsibility as a citizen to make sure that the country is running well. It’s their responsibility,” said Mirambeau, 37, a filmmaker who in 2018 inadvertently helped launched an anti-corruption campaign on social media after he posted a photo of himself holding a cardboard sign asking in Creole what happened to $2 billion in PetroCaribe money Haiti received from Venezuela.
“We are putting pressure on the government to make sure that we can function as normal citizens, we can go in the streets, we can go to the supermarkets,” he said. “These are normal stuff that people do and I cannot do that in the country.”
In a country with no functioning movie theaters, Mirambeau and his fellow filmmakers have been trying to grow an industry. Saturday’s kidnapping is not making it easy. On Monday, they shut down production of their latest film and he spent most of the morning trying to reassure the crew, while also trying to secure the three men’s release.
“The government is saying, “No, there’s no problem in Haiti, there is no kidnapping,’” Mirambeau said, referring to a recent statement by the country’s president to the U.N. Security Council that kidnappings had dropped considerably. “Everyday they are kidnapping us and killing Haitian citizens. It doesn’t make any sense anymore.
“There is a serious problem in Haiti,” he added. “You have the media talking about [this case]. But what about the people who are kidnapped everyday? They have no names, they are the little merchants selling peanuts on the street. They are kidnapping them and sometimes, they are killing them.”
The two Dominicans worked as lighting technicians, and Augusma, their interpreter, is a linguist and poet. On Monday, students from the Faculty of Applied Linguistics of the State University of Haiti took to the streets to demand his release. Outraged, some burned tires, and were later tear-gassed by police.
Other than having to cease filming last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of funding, Mirambeau said they had never had any issue with their location shoots even amid the recent anti-government protests and mounting insecurity.
It was on the advice of their security team, he said, that they chose to leave Jacmel after dark and make the trek back to the capital after having wrapped up five days of filming for their second film, a political thriller titled “Malatchong,” a Creole word used to describe when something is fraudulent. Though Haitians often travel late at night or early in the morning to avoid traffic jams and abductions, Mirambeau is convinced the time of travel would not have made a difference.
“Whether it was at 2 p.m. or 2 o’clock in the morning, it would have been the same thing,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that as a citizen, I have to ask for police [escorts] because I am going to Jacmel.”
After taking off from Jacmel and traveling down its steep mountain, everything appeared to be going well until reaching Léogâne, a rural city about 19 miles south of Port-au-Prince.
“We started having cars around the convoy, doubling up as if they were following us,” said Mirambeau. “They were doing this the whole time but I didn’t realize it when I was driving. They were trying to break the convoy the whole time.”
Everything unfolded within seconds, he said.
“They broke the convoy in the right spot and they took the guys,” he said. “I think even if we had 40 police officers, it would have turned dramatic.”
Police have said that the victims are being held in Grand Ravine, a teeming gang-controlled slum of mosquito-infested gullies, narrow corridors and ramshackle homes and one of several kidnapping lairs in the capital. Police have been reluctant to go in, and residents often help gang members harbor their captors, sharing in the spoils of any ransom.
When kidnappings first became an issue back in 2004, ransom requests were in the few hundred or thousands; nowadays gangs are asking for millions of dollars, another worrying sign for those following the country’s kidnapping trend.
“Today there is a federation of gangs, we are going to become like Yemen, Somalia, El Salvador,” Mirambeau said, listing countries struggling with kidnappings and a proliferation of armed groups. “This needs to be resolved.”
Struggling filmmakers in a high-risk country
Mirambeau and his partners made a name for themselves in 2018 with the Haitian dark comedy “Kafou.” Directed by Bruno Mourral, the short film was a riotous ride through the dark streets of Haiti with two delivery guys who were hired by a police commissioner to deliver a body. The film, done on a shoestring budget with donations, debuted in Miami to rave reviews and showed the cinematic potential of both Muska Films and Haiti.
“This is a huge slap for the industry right now,” said Mirambeau, who fears that the kidnapping will discourage other filmmakers from coming to Haiti or gambling on its potential
Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haiti-born Hollywood actor who has shot several films in Haiti and tried to embrace the country’s movie-making potential, says the kidnapping is indeed a setback for his homeland. He noted that the high insurance costs of filming in Haiti already makes it less attractive, whereas next door in the Dominican Republic, the country is raking in millions with the filming of movies like “Fast and Furious.”
“It sends a message to not just the film business about the insecurity going on in the country where everyone is a target,” Jean-Louis said. “When it’s a crew from a production that is trying to do something despite the hectic situation in the country and you have this kind of result, it’s like, “What do we do now?’
Jean-Louis said Haiti has a lot that it can offer the world of film, but it will need to get out of the red zone first. The insurance risks are way too high, he said, which means filmmakers like himself have to self-finance or raise funds on their own.
“We are losing in so many ways,” he said. “Before it was a Haitian thing, and now it’s becoming an international thing. When you have foreigners being kidnapped it’s a different story.”