A witness to the March 18 kidnapping of a Haitian American couple on a bus in Haiti has described the abduction to VOA in dramatic detail, explaining that the armed gang responsible first sought to extort money from all the passengers on the bus.
The couple, Abigail and Jean-Dickens Toussaint, are still missing, and family members in Florida say the kidnappers are demanding a ransom of $400,000 for their release.
The witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the gang, said he was riding on the same bus with the couple when members of the Grand Ravine/Ti Lapli gang boarded it outside the capital, Port-au-Prince.
He said the gang members demanded the driver hand over $1,000 for the bus to be allowed to continue its journey.
“When the driver reached Martissant [about 11 kilometers south of Port-au-Prince], he gave them $500 instead.” the witness said. “The men told him, ‘Hey, you know the price is $1,000 and you’re giving us just $500? Go park the bus.'"
He said two gang members then inspected the bus and saw suitcases, indicating travelers from abroad.
“They told the driver, ‘Now, you’re going to give us $1,000,’” the man recalled.
The eyewitness said the frightened passengers scrambled to come up with the sum the gang asked for. They collected $700 and handed it over to the gang members.
“They told us, ‘We asked you to give us $1,000, and you’re coming to us with just $700 now?’” the witness said.
The passengers returned to the bus and managed to collect an additional $300 among themselves.
“When the driver went back to give them [the gang members] the $1,000, they told him to keep the money and go back to the bus,” the witness said.
At that point, a black BMW sedan without a license plate drove up to the bus, and one of the men inside ordered the bus driver to follow them.
“If the driver had done what he was supposed to do [pay the $1,000 up front], this may not have happened,” the eyewitness told VOA.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel confirmed the kidnapping Thursday. Patel told reporters the State Department is in constant contact with Haitian authorities and will continue working with them to secure the couple’s release.
Nikesse Toussaint, a relative of the couple, told The Associated Press earlier this week that the gang is seeking $400,000. She said the FBI has been in contact with the family and told them they are working to secure the couple’s release.
President Joe Biden commented on Haiti’s gang situation during a recent visit to Canada.
The U.S. and Canada are working with the Haitian government and the international community to boost the Haitian National Police’s capacity to combat the gangs, Biden said during a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on March 24. He said a military force is “not off the table, but that is not in play at the moment."
Haiti’s government has appealed multiple times for an international force to help combat the gangs. Although the idea has been discussed by the United Nations Security Council, the Organization of American States, and the Caribbean Community — CARICOM — no decision has been made.
News of the couple’s kidnapping spread quickly among the Haitian diaspora and has stoked fears inside the community about the uncontrolled gang violence that has terrorized Haitians inside and outside the country.
In New York’s Queens neighborhood, Haitians expressed trepidation about expressing their opinions about the kidnapped couple and gang violence for fear that it could have repercussions on their families in Haiti.
“I want to go to Haiti, but … it’s not safe, man,” Francisco Jean Pierre told VOA.
He said he has lived in the United States for 21 years and loves to travel to Haiti, but the rampant kidnappings and unrelenting violence scares him.
Carl, who declined to give his last name, criticized the gangs.
“No control, no compassion, not even for their own blood,” he said.
Marie Elvire Telfort Dorcil, who said she worries about family in Haiti, said what’s happening there also troubles Haitians living in the U.S.
“The situation affects me. When we hear what’s happening back home, it frustrates us a lot,” she said. “Not only does it make you cry, but it is also scary.”
She cited news about children being traumatized and women being raped.
A recent United Nations report estimates that gangs control 60% of Port-au-Prince. Haitians say the actual percentage is much higher. Between Feb. 27 and March 9, 187 people were killed and more than 150 others were injured as rival gangs battled for control of more territory. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes.
Haitian officials say 260 kidnappings have been reported since January 2023.
In Queens, Haitian American Yves Pierre was solemn.
“The country is upside down. It’s painful for the Haitian diaspora because we left our country, but we haven’t abandoned it,” he told VOA.