US fugitive, suspected gang member tied to kidnappings in custody after arrests in Haiti

A convicted drug trafficker who skipped out on his probation and a suspected gang member believed to be part of a criminal enterprise behind an alarming spike in kidnappings, are both in U.S. custody after being flown out of Haiti Friday by federal agents.

Lissner Mathieu and Peterson Benjamin were arrested earlier this week by Haiti National Police. Mathieu, 55, pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to import at least 5 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. He is accused of violating the terms of his 10-year probation when he fled to Haiti in 2008. Benjamin is facing kidnapping charges.

Mathieu, a U.S. citizen, is known by the nickname, “Ti-Nwa,” or Little Black, and has also used the last name Joseph on his various Haitian ID cards. Among the documents confiscated by police during his arrest: an official National Palace badge providing access to the presidential grounds and offices; another identifying him as the owner of an agriculture firm; and two official national identification cards with different numbers. The national IDs double as voting cards.

Benjamin, who also goes by the name “Ti Peter Vilaj,” is a Haitian national, and the third highest gang leader in the Village de Dieu, or Village of God, gang, Haiti National Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers said.

Desrosiers, who confirmed the transfer of the two individuals over to the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Benjamin is implicated in about a dozen kidnapping cases, two of which involved U.S. citizens. The gang is one of several major criminal groups behind the rise in for-ransom kidnappings in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area.

The arrests are considered a significant bust for U.S. law enforcement officials, who have been overwhelmed responding to the uptick in kidnappings, several of which have involved U.S. citizens. Victims have been forced to pay large sums of money to secure their release. The arrests could also potentially help identify links between the government officials and private individuals associated with the gangs.

Last year, the U.S. State Department raised its Haiti travel advisory to its highest risk category, warning Americans not to travel to the troubled Caribbean nation, following the dramatic rise in kidnappings, as well as violent crimes like carjackings and robberies, carried out mostly by armed gangs. The decision came after the abductions of several U.S. citizens, including two Haitian-American former active duty U.S. military veterans. The two men were both taken to Village de Dieu, where they were held captive at gunpoint.

Village de Dieu, which is now controlled by a gang leader known as “Izo,” was previously commanded by Arnel Joseph, a notorious gang leader who was killed last week by Haiti police after he and more than 400 other prisoners escaped from the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison on the outskirts of the capital.

They were filming a movie in Haiti. Then they got kidnapped.

Haitian officials this week announced a series of new measures they say are aimed at reducing kidnappings, which have increased by 200% over the past year, according to the United Nations. They include a new emergency telephone number to contact the police in the event of kidnapping, reinforced police presence around the capital, and a ban on all tinted windows on vehicles. President Jovenel Moïse also announced the creation of an anti-kidnapping unit to strengthen another, similar force that already exists within the judicial police.

According to U.S. court files, Mathieu started arranging shipments of cocaine between Haiti and Port Richmond, New York, in 2001 for a fee of $3,000 per kilogram for the drug organization he was working for. Soon, he decided to branch out on his own. He later admitted in court to importing over 500 kilograms of cocaine between 2001 and 2003, laundering the proceeds to Haiti, where his businesses include an ice-making company.

In 2008, Mathieu was granted permission by his supervising probation officer to travel to Haiti to tend to personal matters. But instead of returning back to the U.S., he stayed in Haiti, where he has been living ever since. A U.S. probation officer later requested that a warrant be issued for Mathieu’s arrest, and that his supervised release be revoked.