17 American and Canadian missionaries, including children, kidnapped in Haiti

·4 min read
In this file photo taken on December 20, 2019, eople walk on the deserted road ahead of gang shootings in downtown in Port-au-Prince. - Long confined to the slums, the gangs have gradually extended their control in Haiti and the nearly three million inhabitants of Port-au-Prince are forced to adapt their daily lives to this reality, for fear of being the next victim. "The gangs today reign supreme and lords over the country," laments Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, based in the Haitian capital. - Chandan Khanna /Getty Images
In this file photo taken on December 20, 2019, eople walk on the deserted road ahead of gang shootings in downtown in Port-au-Prince. - Long confined to the slums, the gangs have gradually extended their control in Haiti and the nearly three million inhabitants of Port-au-Prince are forced to adapt their daily lives to this reality, for fear of being the next victim. "The gangs today reign supreme and lords over the country," laments Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, based in the Haitian capital. - Chandan Khanna /Getty Images

A group of 17 Christian Aid Ministries workers and their families - 16 Americans and one Canadian - were kidnapped at gunpoint by a notorious criminal gang in Haiti over the weekend, in a sign of the fast deteriorating security situation in the country.

Five men, seven women and five children were abducted as they made their way home from a project building an orphanage between 8am and 10am on Saturday morning.

One of the abducted Americans sent a message on WhatsApp calling for help while the kidnapping was taking place, according to the Washington Post.

“Please pray for us!! We are being held hostage, they kidnapped our driver. Pray pray pray. We don’t know where they are taking us,” the message said.

The missionaries were working for Christian Aid Ministries, an Ohio-based group funded in 1981 carrying out charitable projects on behalf of Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups.

“The mission field director and the American embassy are working to see what can be done,” the organisation said in a message sent to various religious missions.

"This is a special prayer alert," it added. “Pray that the gang members will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”

The organisation did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

 Police stand near a mural featuring Haitian President Jovenel Moise, near the leader’s residence where he was killed by gunmen in the early morning hours in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn) - Joseph Odelyn /AP
Police stand near a mural featuring Haitian President Jovenel Moise, near the leader’s residence where he was killed by gunmen in the early morning hours in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn) - Joseph Odelyn /AP

All of those seized are believed to be American apart from one Canadian, according to Gédéon Jean, the director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince.

'400 Mawozo'

The kidnapping is understood to have been carried out by the “400 Mawozo” gang, which controls the area between Port-au-Prince and the border with the Dominican Republic and regularly conducts kidnappings, carjackings and extortion of business owners, according to authorities.

In April, the same gang - whose name roughly translates to 400 "inexperienced men" - seized around a dozen hostages from another religious group, including a French priest and nun. They were released following a ransom payment.

On Saturday, the gang reportedly mounted a roadblock at Ganthier, a town 21 miles east of Port-au-Prince before pulling the hostages from their convoy of vehicles, according to police sources quoted in Le Nouvelliste, a Haitian media outlet.

A US government spokesperson said they were aware of the reports about the kidnapping. “The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the spokesperson said, declining to comment further.

Within hours of the missionaries being snatched, a police officer was killed and another wounded in a firefight with another gang in the Haitian capital during an attempted kidnapping.

Hostage-taking has become increasingly endemic in Haiti.

At least 328 kidnapping victims were reported to Haiti's National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020, according to a report issued last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, known as BINUH.

The logo for Christian Aid Ministries in Berlin, Ohio, on a truck - Tom E Puskar/AP
The logo for Christian Aid Ministries in Berlin, Ohio, on a truck - Tom E Puskar/AP

Ransom demands range from thousands of dollars to more than a million, according to the authorities.

The problem reflects the breakdown of law and order in an already violent country following the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise in July and an earthquake the following month.

Last week Uzra Zeya, US under-secretary of state, tweeted that dismantling the violent gangs was “vital to Haitian stability and citizen security.

The Mawozo gang is just one of around 90 criminal mobs which control a vast swathe of Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Some of the criminal cartels have even formed alliances and enjoy political influence as well as costing the country an estimated $4 billion a year.

Their power has grown in the decades in the slums following the collapse of the kleptocracy run by the Duvalier family in 1986.

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