U.S. authorities upped the ante Tuesday against a gang leader who is considered one of the most dangerous criminals in Haiti, charging him anew with the kidnapping of a Haitian American couple and murder.
Vitel’homme Innocent, who heads the Kraze Barye gang and was indicted on similar federal charges last year, is accused of ordering the kidnapping of Haitian Americans Jean Franklin and Marie Odette Franklin from their home in Haiti on Oct. 7, 2022. The wife was shot and killed and the husband held in captivity until his family paid a ransom for his release 21 days later.
Innocent, 37, who was charged alone with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder, faces up to life in prison or the death penalty. He is at large in Haiti.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., said that Innocent’s gang and others in Haiti are increasingly targeting Haitian Americans as they terrorize the island nation amid political turmoil in the wake of the assassination of Haiti’s president more than two years ago. Innocent and the Krazye Barye gang operate in the Ouest department of Haiti that includes Delmas, Torcelle, and Tabarre, committing kidnappings for ransom, extortion and car thefts, Graves said, citing an indictment.
“The gangs and gang leaders in Haiti must be held accountable for their atrocities committed against innocent civilians,” Graves said.
This summer, the U.S. government ordered non-emergency staff at its embassy in Port-au-Prince to leave Haiti, after an escalation in gang violence led dozens of Haitian families to seek refuge outside of the embassy compound in the Tabarre neighborhood of the capital.
The U.S. embassy area is surrounded by at least three powerful gangs, two of which are controlled by leaders implicated in the kidnapping of 16 American missionaries in October 2021. The gangs, 400 Mawozo and Kraze Barye, have been escalating their violence, raiding businesses and homes.
The Kraze Barye gang, which is behind the latest upsurge in violence, is led by the politically connected Innocent. Despite having a $1 million FBI reward for his capture for the missionaries’ kidnapping, he has been carrying out a wave of brutal attacks. The developing U.S. crackdown and reward reflect the increasing attention the Biden administration has been paying lately to addressing Haiti’s lawlessness.
In his recent report to the U.N. Security Council this week, Secretary General António Guterres said violence was worsening in Haiti. Major crimes, including homicides and kidnappings, are surging at unprecedented rates, mostly in the West and Artibonite departments of Haiti. Between July 1 and Sept. 30, the national police reported 1,239 homicides compared to 577 reported in the same period last year. There were 701 victims of abductions, including 221 women, 8 girls and 18 boys, between July 1 and Sept. 30, showing a 244 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.
In and out of Port-au-Prince, where the indicted gang leaders operate, Haitians are being kidnapped, killed and raped by armed groups that, according to the United Nations, are systematically using rape as a weapon of control and terror.
Despite the widespread violence, a Kenya-led multinational security mission to help Haiti’s police put down dangerous armed gangs remains up in the air after a court in Kenya on Tuesday extended its order barring the deployment for two more weeks.
On Monday, members of the U.N. Security Council, which authorized the Kenya-led Multinational Security Support mission for Haiti a week before the court challenge, made clear that Haiti couldn’t afford to wait for help and that deployment needs to happen sooner rather than later. Children were increasingly being killed or injured in the crossfire, and one in four schools has been closed since last year, the Security Council was told.
Nearly a year ago, Innocent was charged with six other gang members in a federal crackdown on gang leaders in Haiti, charging them with armed kidnapping, including three suspects wanted in the abductions of the 16 U.S. citizens who were members of the Christian missionary group taken as hostages in the fall of 2021.
The indictments charged Wilson Joseph, known as Lanmò Sanjou, 29, Jermaine Stephenson, who is known as Gaspiyay, also in his late 20s, and Innocent. The indictments say they had leading roles in the kidnappings of the missionaries serving near Port-au-Prince, and the U.S. is offering a $3 million reward for information leading to their arrests.
The three suspects collaborated with other gang members and demanded $1 million in ransom per victim and threatened to kill the missionaries, who worked for the Ohio-based Christian Aid Missionaries, if the ransom was not paid, U.S. authorities said. An undisclosed ransom was eventually paid. Most of the missionaries, including five children and a Canadian citizen, were held hostage for 61 days before escaping.
The indictments against the Haitian gang leaders came a year after the missionaries’ kidnappings made global headlines, and as gangs continued to spread chaos and despair in Haiti.
Those charges by the Justice Department followed the high-profile indictment of another Mawozo gang leader, Germine Joly, 29. He was transferred to the United States in May 2022.
Joly, aka “Yonyon,” was in a Haitian prison at the time of the missionaries’ kidnappings but was accused of directing the gang from behind bars, including ransom negotiations for the hostages’ release. Also charged with Joly was fellow Mawozo gang member Jean Pelice, 27. Both have pleaded not guilty.
In addition, federal authorities said four other Haitians who lead three other gangs were charged with the kidnappings of two other U.S. citizens in Haiti in 2021.
The four defendants, all believed to be in Haiti, are: Renel Destina, 40, known as Ti Lapli, who controls the Gran Ravine area; Emanuel Solomon, known as Manno, one of two leaders of the Village de Dieu gang; and John Peter Fleronvil and Jean Renald Dolcin, leaders of the Kokorat san Ras.
The kidnapping investigations have been led by the FBI field office in Miami with assistance from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and the Haiti National Police.
“The indictment unsealed today demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads and to work our way up to the leaders of criminal plots wherever they are,” Jeffrey Veltri, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office, said in a statement.