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 U.N.-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 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 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 U.N. peacekeeping force sent to restore order after the 2004 revolt that toppled ex-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 U.N.'s anti-kidnapping unit in Haiti. The number is likely 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 Thursday after negotiations involving the FBI.
The abductions come amid sharply rising violence in the capital, including this month's slum massacre of 22 people. Police blamed the killings on warring gangs but have made no arrests.
U.N. and Haitian officials disagree on whether the recent violence is politically motivated.
The U.N. mission says the coordinated nature of the recent attacks suggest an attempt to stir chaos by the gangs, many of which are loyal to Aristide and are demanding his return from exile in South Africa.
But Preval insists the troubles are criminal - not political - acts by wanted fugitives, corrupt police and drug traffickers.