WASHINGTON (AP) — A powerful Haitian gang leader has been charged by U.S. prosecutors with ordering the kidnapping of an American couple from their home in Haiti, which left the woman dead, authorities said Tuesday.
Vitel’Homme Innocent — who remains at large and is believed to be living in Tabarre, Haiti — was also charged last year in the 2021 kidnappings of Christian missionaries.
The charges are considered largely symbolic in Haiti, where gangs are more powerful than the government and have bigger and better weapons than the police. Gang leaders have previously brushed off U.N. sanctions and criminal charges filed by U.S. federal authorities as they keep operating with impunity.
In the October 2022 kidnapping of Jean Franklin and Marie Odette Franklin, armed gang members stormed their home, and Marie Franklin was shot and killed in the kidnapping. Her husband, Jean, was held for 21 days and released following ransom payments made to the gang on behalf of his family, authorities said.
No U.S. attorney has been listed for Innocent in court documents, and he could not otherwise be reached for comment on the allegations.
U.S. authorities are offering a reward of $1 million for information leading to the arrest of Innocent, who runs the violent Kraze Barye gang that operates in Port-au-Prince.
“Vitel’Homme has wrecked particular havoc on US citizens abroad and the people of Haiti by consistently targeting innocent civilians for kidnappings and collaborating with other gangs within Haiti,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Matthew Graves. He did not detail how Innocent might be brought to the U.S., where he could face the death penalty if convicted.
“Neither time nor distance will weaken our resolve,” said Jeffrey Veltri, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office, which investigated the case.
Innocent was previously charged by federal prosecutors in Washington last year in connection with the 2021 kidnappings of 16 U.S. Christian missionaries, including five children. Most of them were held for more than two months before escaping from captivity, Graves said.
The latest indictment charges Innocent with conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death, aiding and abetting hostage taking and attempted hostage taking resulting in death by the U.S. Justice Department.
Kraze Barye, which translates roughly to “Breaking Barriers,” controls the Tabarre community in central Port-au-Prince, as well as parts of Petionville and Croix-des-Bouquets within the capital.
It has some 600 members and is known for crimes including killings, rapes, robberies, kidnappings and drug and weapons trafficking, according to a recent report submitted to the U.N. Security Council.
“Kraze Barye has become one of the most powerful gangs in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, with an increasing number of fighters and semi-automatic weapons,” the report stated.
It also noted that Kraze Barye is among a handful of gangs that recruit the most children, and its leader is known for kidnapping prominent people.
Kraze Barye is allied with G-Pep, another larger and more powerful gang.
Kidnappings and killings continue to surge as gangs estimated to control up to 80% of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince keep growing more powerful.
From July 1 to Sept. 30, more than 700 people in Haiti were reported kidnapped, a 244% increase compared with the same period last year, according to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, more than 1,230 people were reported killed during those months, more than double compared with the same timeframe last year.
Among those recently kidnapped is the secretary general of Haiti’s High Transitional Council, which is charged with organizing long-awaited general elections. Authorities said gang members dressed as police officers abducted Anthony Virginie Saint-Pierre last week.
Haiti is awaiting the deployment of a multinational armed force led by Kenya to help quell gang violence that has overwhelmed police, with only some 4,000 officers on shift at a time for a country of more than 11 million people.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.