The abduction of 16 American missionaries and one Canadian in Haiti by a notorious armed gang known for extorting businesses and ransoming kidnapped victims catapulted the Caribbean nation’s insecurity crisis into the global spotlight Sunday as FBI agents arrived in Port-au-Prince to help with negotiations to liberate the hostages.
FBI agents arrived on an aircraft chartered by the U.S. government hours after reports confirmed that 17 Christian missionaries including five children had been taken hostage Saturday in the area of La Tremblay in Ganthier, just east of the capital.
A State Department official, confirming the kidnappings, said the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. “We have been in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and will continue to work with them and interagency partners,” the official added.
The brazen kidnappings pose a challenge not only for Haiti’s weak interim government that took control of the country after the shocking July assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, but also for the Biden administration. The administration has been increasingly under pressure to help Haiti address its dire security challenges after the U.S. supported the departure of the United Nations peacekeeping mission from the country after 13 years.
The kidnappings happened just days after U.S. officials, including the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya, visited Haiti to evaluate the country’s security challenges — and a day after the U.N. Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of its political office in Port-au-Prince by nine months.
That decision came as U.N. diplomats, in a separate meeting, heard from Haitians and others about the country’s deteriorating political landscape, kidnappings for ransom and other gang crimes.
“When the Security Council took the decision of reducing the U.N. presence in that country, primarily due to financial considerations, the Dominican Republic expressed its strong concern of an early departure and its probable negative consequences,” Dominican Foreign Minister Roberto Alvarez told members of the U.N. Security Council Friday during the informal hearing. “Today unfortunately, we are witnessing the dramatic consequences of this hasty decision.”
The gang believed to be behind the kidnapping is known as 400 Mawozo, which operates in the area of Croix-des-Bouquets along the route to the border Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
It has gradually graduated from the stealing of cows to cars, to now kidnappings and extorting of businesses in the area. It was behind the April abduction of several Roman Catholic clergy, and since has developed a reputation for attacking vehicles and kidnapping people from cars and buses, then ransoming them as a group rather than individually to avoid scrutiny.
The gang is led by a Wilson Joseph who goes by the nickname “Lanmò Sanjou,” which means “death doesn’t know which day its coming.” Another one of its leaders is Joly “Yonyon” Germine, who is currently jailed but considered influential even from behind bars.
“This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any entire bus or car,” said Gédéon Jean, who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which monitors kidnapping in the country. Jean said the gang is responsible for about 80% of the kidnappings taking place in Haiti.
In rare instances are people released because of the police. In the majority of cases, they are held for days, sometimes even weeks and only released after a ransom has been paid. In some instances, females have been raped and victims have even been killed, while others tortured in captivity with burns.
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Members of the kidnapped group are part of Christian Aid Ministries. The charity said in a statement Sunday that it was requesting “urgent prayers.”
The charity confirmed Saturday’s abduction happened while the missionaries were on a trip to visit an orphanage.
“We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help,” the statement said.
The group of 17 includes five men, seven women and five children, the charity said,
“Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers, and the families, friends, and churches of those affected. Pray for those who are seeking God’s direction and making decisions regarding this matter,” the statement said.
A source who knows many of the victims said they are part of the Mennonite community and live in Haiti.
While U.S. officials, including the FBI, had been alerted early about the kidnapping, Haiti National Police spokeswoman Marie-Michelle Verrier told the Miami Herald they they still had not confirmed the abductions.
“We have no information and no one has filed a report,” she said.
The kidnapping of the missionaries is the latest in a wave of abductions and insecurity in Haiti, which is facing a myriad of challenges. There is no president or parliament, warring political and civil society factions, a dismal economy, a migration crisis and a worsening humanitarian situation after a deadly August 14 earthquake struck its southern peninsula and left over 2,200 dead.
On Sunday, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, commemorating the 215th anniversary of the death of founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was prevented from laying the traditional wreath at Pont Rouge, just north of the capital, where Dessalines was assassinated.
Local media reported that heavily armed gang members blocked Henry from laying the wreath and his delegation was forced to leave under a chorus of automatic gunfire. Henry made no mention of the incident on his Twitter feed when he noted that he had deposited an arrangement in memory of the emperor at the altar where his remains lie. The altar is at the national pantheon museum, known as the MUPANAH, across from the presidential palace.
Observers have noted that the only way to tackle Haiti’s rampant insecurity is with the help of external forces, something the Dominican Republic asked for during its president’s recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. However, Haitians have been divided about the return of U.N. peacekeeping troops or even the presence of the U.S. military in the country while acknowledging that their beleaguered, demoralized, underpaid and corrupt police force is no match for the country’s well-armed gangs. Though Haiti’s interim leadership that took control after the death of Moïse had requested that the Biden administration send U.S. troops, the White House did not support the idea.
Earlier this month, Helen La Lime, the special representative for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in Haiti, told the Security Council that the reestablishment of security, especially in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, must be prioritized by Haitian authorities.
“The control that gangs exercise around strategic entry and exit points of the capital has had a detrimental impact on Haiti’s economy and the movement of people and goods,” she said.
Kidnappings in Haiti have increased 300% between July and September, when at least 221 abductions were recorded, according to the crime observation unit of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince. The rise has coincided with the deepening political turmoil after the president’s murder and rampant insecurity in Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs have extended their control over large swaths of the capital.
In recent weeks, people have been abducted while attending church and others from the hillside of Petionville, a tony suburb of the capital. While locals remain the bulk of those who have kidnapped, more than 40 foreigners from three countries — France, Canada and the United States — have fallen victim so far this year, according to information compiled by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights.
“The gangs today have saturated Port-au-Prince and they are kidnapping people everywhere,” said Jean, adding that it’s difficult to put a number to the kidnappings in Haiti.
Since June, an increase in violence by warring gangs has caused the displacement of at least 19,000 people from Cité-Soleil, Croix-des-Bouquets, Delmas and Martissant, where gangs have also attacked a police station, destroying it with a bulldozer.
Crossing Martissant has increasingly become more difficult, with gang members blocking the road with a 40-foot container and attacking passing vehicles in order to abduct passengers and hold them for ransom.
As a result of the latest kidnapping wave, the president of the National Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti, Mehu Changeux, announced a nationwide strike Monday on behalf of the public transport unions. He has since received support from other sectors who also plan to close their businesses in protest.
“400 Mawozo is kidnapping people every which way; in the Central Plateau, the North, it’s the same thing. We are asking all 10 [regional] departments to bring everything in the country to a standstill so that the leaders will take their responsibility,” Changeux said. “What’s happening here concerns the whole society.”
In April, the gang 400 Mawozo kidnapped nine Catholic clergy, including five priests, two nuns and three relatives of the priest in Port-au-Prince. All were eventually released but not before the shocking abduction provoked a three-day shutdown by Roman Catholic institutions including schools and universities to protest the abductions and demand the release of the group, which included French citizens.
McClatchy Washington Bureau Senior National Security Council and White House Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.