LEVEQUE, Haiti — The three friends had spent the day stocking up on food in the Haitian capital when they left for their village, setting off on the 20-mile trip home by foot because the minibuses known as tap-taps weren’t running after a bridge collapse.
Their bodies were found the next morning in a ditch along the way. They had been beaten, stabbed and burned, and relatives who identified them in a morgue said their tongues were cut out in an apparent act of ritualistic savagery.
The women’s family and friends suspect they were targeted because they were deaf in a country where experts say a pervasive stigma isolates people with disabilities such as deafness and can spark superstitions leading to horrific cruelty. Disabled women and girls are particularly vulnerable.
Due to cultural prejudices and the weakness of the justice system, past crimes against disabled citizens have been largely ignored. But the slayings of Jesula Gelin, Vanessa Previl and Monique Vincent have galvanized Haitians with disabilities and prompted rare public protests by their advocacy groups.
Outrage is particularly acute in the village of Leveque, where the women lived in a community of 168 homes established by U.S. religious organizations for deaf people displaced by the 2010 earthquake. Gelin’s husband, Micheler Castor, now struggles there to raise their six kids alone.
“I can’t understand it,” Castor, also deaf, said in sign language of his 29-year-old wife’s killing. “She served the Lord and was a good wife and mother.”
Advocates for the disabled in Haiti say they hope what happened can chip away at the obstacles to justice and social inclusion faced by these most vulnerable citizens of the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Around the globe, treatment of the disabled varies widely from country to country, but discrimination and barriers to inclusion are commonplace. Those problems are most severe in the developing world, where the World Health Organization says 80 percent of disabled people live.
“This case is very important. The disabled have made advances in Haiti, but there’s still far, far too much stigma and impunity,” Michel Pean, a blind activist who was Haiti’s first secretary of state for the integration of disabled people.
With pressure from that government agency, police have arrested three members of a family suspected of murdering the deaf women. Investigators say two women and a man are in custody, while the two men who are the main suspects are still being sought.
“We won’t rest until we get them all,” said Jentullon Joel, police commander in Cabaret, where the women were butchered in a cinderblock house off the main road.
The three women often prayed together, sold rice and popcorn in their community and regularly went to Port-au-Prince to buy supplies. Gelin and her two unmarried neighbors, both in their 20s, might have stayed overnight in the capital if they had known the bridge was out. But as darkness fell, they tried walking home instead.
Neighbors around the Cabaret property where they were killed said they didn’t hear any commotion that night. Journalists found the house locked from the outside, a skinny dog growling in the yard.
Joel said one suspect told investigators that the deaf women were killed by her husband because the family feared that they were werewolf-type creatures called “lougawou,” their disabilities the product of a hex.
Nicole Phillips, a human rights lawyer representing the victims’ families, said the trio only felt safe approaching the house in Cabaret that night because one of the deaf women was apparently a distant relation of a person who lived there.
There’s another suspected superstitious motive that detectives are investigating. Some soothsayers claim they can mystically increase chances at winning bets at ubiquitous Haitian lotteries if they are brought body parts like tongues from fresh corpses.
“I believe they picked them to cut their tongues to play the lottery,” Castor signed in his tiny home, shaking his head beneath a poster of the Ten Commandments and holding a well-worn family photo showing his wife.
Whatever the motive, the killings have left many shocked and shamed in Haiti, where advocates estimate that roughly 10 percent of the population, or about one million people, have some disability.
Although life has never been easy for Haiti’s disabled, the 2010 earthquake that toppled buildings across Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas increased awareness and empathy for amputees as it greatly expanded the disabled ranks with those who lost limbs. There has been some progress making more public buildings accessible to disabled people and strengthening rehabilitation therapy.
But some Haitians believe other disabilities are contagious or caused by a hex. Those who are deaf, blind, or developmentally or mentally disabled are still marginalized and face neglect and abuse. They are routinely called “cocobe” — a Haitian Creole insult that implies they are worthless.
Haiti has legal protections for the disabled on paper, but the laws are poorly implemented. Disabled Haitians have few opportunities to work and too many youngsters with disabilities languish out of sight at home instead of going to school. Some impoverished parents abandon disabled kids outside state institutions or farm them out as domestic servants.
Kathryn Montoya, a U.S. woman who founded a ministry called the Haiti Deaf Academy, said locals initially protested the relocation of deaf families to Leveque in 2012. Since then, hearing villagers have learned some sign language and interactions have improved.
“The greatest challenge is to have Haitians understand that deafness is not a curse or a disease, that deaf people are just as intelligent as hearing people and often even smarter,” Montoya said from the U.S. state of Idaho.
Deaf residents of Leveque feel so vulnerable after the women’s slayings that a number are considering abandoning their homes. They now sleep with machetes by their beds.
“I’m afraid that what happened to them could happen to me,” hearing-impaired Fedeline Saint Previl said below a hilltop church where other deaf residents prayed in near silence.