A Haiti judge has issued more than a dozen arrest warrants for individuals accused of looting and torching a million dollar beach resort in northern Haiti owned by a Haitian-American engineer and his wife.
“It was a hired mob of at least 30 to 40 people,” said Jude Jean-Gilles, the owner of the Joupana Beach Resort, which was set ablaze Saturday in Port Francais, a hillside village near Haiti’s northern coast between the town of Labadie and Baie de l’Acul. “I wasn’t there, but they tell me it was a large, large crowd.”
Dariot Jean, a justice of the peace, said he issued arrest warrants Tuesday for 15 individuals involved in the incident, which unfolded within eyesight of him and seven police officers. They had been called to the property, he said, to investigate a corpse, which Jean-Gilles believes was planted, and had already boarded a boat to head back to nearby Plaine-du-Nord when the crowd began stealing the furnishings before setting the property ablaze.
“It was a large crowd,” Jean said in a telephone interview. “Because we can’t pursue everybody, we took … those who were most active.”
There was no way that he and the police officers could have stopped the incident, the judge said. They were already too far at sea on the boat when the attack unfolded. By the time they would have turned around to head back to Joupana, the crowd would have already dispersed into the hills, Jean said.
Jean wouldn’t say if the corpse was planted, but he noted that three days earlier when he was first called out to the property, this time to investigate a false kidnapping, “there was no dead body.” He also noted that the male corpse was already decaying when he and the officers arrived to investigate. The police commissioner for the region said an investigation is ongoing.
“This is something that was well orchestrated in my opinion,” Jean-Gilles, 55, said.
A resident of Virginia, Jean-Gilles said he and his wife, Beatrice, a registered nurse, have spent the last 12 years building the resort and have poured their life savings, including their 401(k) retirement funds, into its four buildings and beach cabanas and umbrellas.
“They burned down everything and they looted about 100 beach chairs and tables, refrigerators, freezers. I had two generators … and two boat engines; they carried those away,” said Jean-Gilles, who was born in nearby Cap-Haitien. “We have spent over $2 million of our own money with no bank investments on the project.”
And no insurance. He was planning to do that this summer.
“My objective was to make a difference in the lives of the people of the community because in Port Fran?ais there is not one business, not one industry right now. There is nothing,” Jean-Gilles said. “And the goal was to create jobs, opportunities for the people over there; long-term sustainable investments.”
Although the resort wasn’t making a lot of money, Jean-Gilles said it did attract guests who rented out its 20 rooms, and it employed 15 locals, who are now out of a job because of the fire.
His dream was to turn the 32 acres the resort sits on into a hiking trail that could be an attraction for passengers at Royal Caribbean’s Labadee private cruise destination.
U.S. officials and others have long argued that Haiti, which received $3.3 billion from its diaspora in 2018, needs more than remittances. It needs investments. But getting Haitian Americans and even Haitians to invest is not easy. They are routinely met with obstacles, many of which have to do with land ownership.
Jean-Gilles said ever since he began construction on the resort, he’s been the target of expropriation by individuals trying to illegally take the land.
“Every time, we take them to court, and move on with the project,” he said.
He believes the fire is connected to his court battles, and that individuals, knowing he was out of the country due to the coronavirus pandemic and cancellation of all commercial passenger flights into Haiti, decided to take advantage.
“Investing in Haiti is very difficult,” he said. “But I’ve always thought there are ways we can help Haiti, not just by sending handouts or doing money transfers but by going over there and creating real businesses that can give them a lifetime of opportunities,” Jean-Gilles said. “This was my dream. This was my life.”
Maryse Penette Kedar, an education advocate and respected businesswoman who has long been a promoter of tourism investments in Haiti’s northern corridor, said she is saddened by what’s happened to Jean-Gilles, whom she met several years ago.
“This is what we want to see in Haiti, solid investments from the diaspora,” she said, noting that the country is like “a broken enterprise.” “I still think Haiti is a land of opportunities. Haiti is a country with character and so many talents, but if we don’t fix our problems, we will lose opportunities.
“We have unresolved issues and it’s time we resolve them; good governance, law and order are what’s missing in Haiti,” Penette Kedar added.
For now, Jean-Gilles said he’s not ready to give up. He plans to take some time to assess the losses and then rebuild.
“If everyone in Haiti gives up to the bad guy, we might as well shut down the country,” he said.
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