PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ([ ]CNS) — In the slums that cover much of the Haitian capital, it’s not unusual to see an 8-year-old run interference for a gang operation. The task: cut the brake cables on U.N. tanks, providing enough of a diversion for the criminal gang members to flee. Too small to be stopped easily, the youngsters slip under the vehicles in a matter of seconds. They escape just as easily, ready to help whenever their gang needs them again. The exploitation of very young children by criminal gangs represents a growing trend in a country that faces increasing violence and drug dealing, according to the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. More often than not, the youngsters have been exploited in other ways and have been befriended by gang leaders. Some have been kidnapped and are being held until their families can pay a ransom. The criminal gangs have proliferated since the 2004 departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president. They are reported to be kidnapping an average of 30 Haitians and foreign workers per month. The “enfants vedettes,” or child stars, aid the gangs in their daily operations of kidnapping, armed robbery and dodging U.N. troops and Haitian police. The children act as unpaid lookouts, guards for hostages, errand runners or ransom collectors. At times they participate in armed combat with authorities or are used as shields in shootouts.