PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A new rash of kidnappings has raised fears that well-armed, politically aligned street gangs are seeking to destabilize Haiti's new government, threatening UN-led efforts to restore security 2 1/2 years after a crippling revolt.
Others say the gangs are simply after cash and see kidnappings as a lucrative source of revenue to buy more arms and to fuel other criminal enterprises in this impoverished country.
But most agree on one thing: The problem is getting worse.
It reached boiling point this week when scores of people -- including three Americans -- were snatched by gunmen in an unprecedented series of bold, daylight attacks in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Almost no one has been spared: Missionaries, employees of foreign embassies, and Haitians rich and poor have fallen victim to the trend that has given Haiti the highest kidnapping rate in the Americas.
``We are beyond afraid," said Patrick Gadere, owner of a ceramic tile factory that has been forced to close its warehouse because of violence and whose brother was abducted. ``We've been shot at, robbed, kidnapped. We have no other way to make a living."
The kidnapping surge has destroyed a tense calm that prevailed since President Rene Preval took power in May, and prompted new criticism against the UN peacekeeping force sent to restore order after the 2004 revolt that toppled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
At least 30 people have been kidnapped so far in July, about the same number for all of June, said Leslie Dallemand, chief of the UN's anti-kidnapping unit in Haiti.
The number is probably much higher, because many families prefer to negotiate with kidnappers rather than notify police.
Among the victims were three Americans, including two missionaries grabbed by gangsters on their way to church.
All three were released unharmed after negotiations involving the FBI.