Hostage negotiation experts say time is the greatest issue facing the FBI and government officials in rescuing 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group, including one Canadian, who were kidnapped over the weekend by a violent gang in Haiti.
Tom Hart, president of Canadian Critical Incident Inc., which provides first responders with training in major incident command and crisis negotiations, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday that receiving a ransom demand from hostage takers isn’t necessarily a “bad thing.”
“Actually that’s a good thing, so you can start working with that. You want to start developing a rapport with the leader, and time is a big issue,” Hart said.
He said that officials likely began negotiating with the 400 Mawozo gang as soon as they were informed that the hostages were taken. Hart says the longer negotiations last with the negotiation team, the more time the command team has to plan a rescue strategy.
“The longer they talked to them, the greater the rapport they’re making with the leader. It also gives a great opportunity if they choose to do a tactical option — which is most likely — they have time to rehearse, time to prepare,” Hart said.
A Haitian official told The Associated Press that someone from the gang made a ransom demand for US$17 million, $1 million per person kidnapped, on Saturday in a call to a leader of the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries shortly after the abduction.
The organization says the group of missionaries, which includes six women, six men and five children whose ages range from 8 months to 15 years, was returning from visiting an orphanage when it was abducted.
Sixteen of the abductees are American, and one is Canadian. A Haitian driver was also abducted with the missionaries, bringing the total number of people taken to 18.
While it is government policy in the U.S. and Canada to not pay ransom demands for fear this will encourage future kidnappings, Vancouver-based negotiation consultant Calvin Chrustie told CTV’s Your Morning that this situation in Haiti is different.
“The policy is specifically actually around the areas of ransoms and terrorist organizations, and this is a criminal organization so it’s different and unique, and there’s no set clear policy on paying ransom [or] not paying ransom as it relates,” Chrustie said in an interview on Wednesday.
However, from a strategic perspective, Chrustie said G20 governments typically try to dissuade parties from paying ransom, including individual family members.
He added that a $17-million ransom is “unprecedented,” and it is unlikely that the gang will receive such a sum.
Gilles Rivard, former ambassador of Canada to Haiti, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday that ransom in Haiti is normally around $20,000 per person.
“Honestly, I don’t believe that they’re going to get that money. This is why the negotiation can last for days if it’s not weeks,” Rivard said.
The abduction is one of at least 119 kidnappings recorded in Haiti for the first half of October, according to the Center of Analysis and Research of Human Rights. Rivard said there have been more than 600 kidnappings in Haiti in the past year.
“When I was ambassador, we had kidnappings, but we were talking about five, 10 in a year,” he said. “It’s just an indication of how the situation is bad in this very poor country.”
Rivard said a hostage situation of this size can be “complicated” in terms of rescue, and that Canada’s ambassadors must be working hard to resolve the matter.
“We have a Canadian there so we have a role to play, and I’m sure that the department is sparing no effort to try to free the hostages,” he said.
Experts say Haitian gangs have grown more brazen as the country works to recover from the July assassination of president Jovenel Moise and an earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people in August.
While Hart noted that he cannot speak to the outcome of the hostage situation, he highlighted 2014’s Lindt Cafe siege in New South Wales, where a gunman held 18 people hostage in a 16-hour standoff after the Australian government refused to pay a ransom.
Only two hostages died in the siege, which Hart says is “remarkable.”
“The New South Wales negotiating team did a remarkable job, and that gave the technical team enough time to rehearse and prepare for a dynamic rescue,” he said.
While the missionaries in Haiti are at “high risk” given their ages and the volatility of the gang, Hart said these hostages are a “valuable asset to the hostage taker.”
“If harm would come to the hostages, then that loses out in any potential payment,” he explained.
Hart added that he is hopeful the current situation in Haiti will be resolved quickly and without injury.
“I think there’s a high success rate, depending on the tactical team and the incident command team,” he said.
With files from The Associated Press