PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Thousands of protesters, bearing photographs of victims and with fists thrust in the air, marched through the capital to demand Haitian officials crack down on a kidnapping scourge that has terrorized the Caribbean country.
Well-dressed Haitians from the hills above Port-au-Prince and lawmakers were among more than 2,000 demonstrators who walked to the Justice Ministry and Supreme Court in a peaceful protest. Thousands more lined the streets to watch.
U.N. police said more than 157 people have been kidnapped this year in Haiti, up 10 percent from last year to date and a rate of about one per day.
Kidnappings for ransom have plagued the impoverished country since 2005, leaving restaurants empty, scaring away foreign investment and destabilizing the government. Almost every sector of society has been targeted, including schoolchildren and foreigners.
One protester carried a photo of Kareem Xavier Gaspard, a 16-year-old banker's son who was killed and dumped in an open-air market last month even though his parents paid abductors a ransom.
"Haiti has a grave sickness," said Stephen William Phelps, a friend of the slain teenager's father. "We all have a responsibility to stand up and say no."
Other recent kidnapping victims include a 32-year-old Canadian woman who had been in the country for less than a month and an 11-year-old boy who was snatched in recent days. Both were released unharmed, U.N. police spokesman Fred Blaise said.
Many of the protesters blamed the justice system for failing to round up kidnappers and punish them with life sentences in prison, the maximum penalty under Haitian law. They shouted "We are tired!" to onlookers on the balcony of the high court and waved signs reading "Kidnapping is a return to slavery."
Pierre Esperance, director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, said suspects in kidnappings are finding ways to bribe their way out of trouble.
"Many people here are arrested for kidnapping and the judicial system lets them go because someone has paid money," he said. "It is getting worse every day."
Justice ministry officials could not be reached for comment. A 2007 report by the U.S. Agency for International Development said judges are not well vetted and that police are suspected of sometimes not executing warrants because of corruption and intimidation.
Haiti is ranked among the most corrupt nations on an index by corruption watchdog Transparency International.
The president of the capital's chamber of commerce, Jean Robert Argant, said protesters also are demanding a complete inquiry to determine if politicians or other prominent Haitians sponsor kidnappings for political or economic gain.
Police both provided security for the marchers and blocked them from gathering in front of the presidential palace, on guard against violent confrontations two months after street riots over the high price of food rocked the capital.
Some marchers linked the ongoing food crisis to the kidnapping wave, chanting that their bodies were being filled with both "Clorox" the local slang for burning hunger and the pain caused by kidnapping.