Mass kidnapping of American missionaries startles even weary Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Children on their way to school, street vendors selling their wares, priests in the middle of a sermon – few Hai...


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Children on their way to school, street vendors selling their wares, priests in the middle of a sermon – few Haitians, rich or poor, are safe from the gangs of kidnappers who hunt them down. country with impunity. But the kidnapping this weekend of 17 people associated with a group of American missionaries while visiting an orphanage has shocked officials for its daring.

On Sunday, the hostages, including five children, remained in captivity, their whereabouts and identities unknown to the public. Adding to the mystery was a wall of silence from officials in Haiti and the United States about what, if anything, was being done to secure their release.

“We are looking for the direction of God for a resolution, and the authorities are looking for ways to help,” missionary group, Christian Aid Ministries, an Ohio-based group founded by Amish and Mennonites with a long history of working in the Caribbean, said in a press release.

Authorities identified the gang behind the kidnappings as the 400 Mawozo, a group infamous for taking kidnappings to the next level in a country reduced to close to anarchy through natural disaster, Corruption and political assassination. Not content with catching individual victims and demanding ransom from their family members, the gang made a habit of snatching people up en masse as they took buses or walked the streets in groups including the many could have protected them in the past.

With much of the government in ruins, gangs are an undisputed power in Haiti, controlling many neighborhoods.

“It’s maddening – you try to work for the country, build something, provide jobs, and they do it to you,” said a 42-year-old businessman who was kidnapped in February by the gang Ti Lapli on his way home. work in an armored car. “Where is it going?” Where is this country going? It’s a total mess.

The businessman, who asked to be identified only as Norman because he fears retaliation, said he was not fed for the first four days of his captivity, and the children, some of whom appeared to be no more than 10 years old, beat him regularly with the handle of his machete or the butt of his rifle.

He was released after 12 days, when the gang accepted $ 70,000 in ransom, instead of the $ 5 million they had demanded.

Kidnappings have become so common, he said, that he knows at least 10 people who have been kidnapped, including his mother.

This time the victims – 16 Americans and one Canadian – were seized while visiting an orphanage outside the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince on Saturday.

The US government said it was aware of the kidnappings, but made no comment.

But a prominent lawmaker, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN on Sunday that the US government would do everything possible to get the Americans back. “We need to locate where they are and see if negotiations without paying a ransom are possible or do whatever we need on the military or police front,” he said.

Security in Haiti has collapsed as the country’s politics disintegrated, worsening since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Violence is increasing in the capital, where, by some estimates, gangs now control around half of the city. On just one day last week, gangs shot at a school bus in Port-au-Prince, injuring at least five people, including students, while another group hijacked a public bus.

According to the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights, based in Port-au-Prince, this year alone, from January to September, 628 people were reported kidnapped, including 29 foreigners.

“The motive behind the upsurge in kidnappings for us is financial,” said Gèdèon Jean, executive director of the center. “Gangs need money to buy ammunition, to get weapons, to be able to function.”

This means missionaries are likely to come out alive, he said.

“They are going to be released, for sure,” Jean said. “We don’t know how many days, but they will negotiate.”

Experts said the kidnapping of Americans in Haiti, once a rarity, has become increasingly common over the past two years. When this happens, the FBI is the primary federal agency to respond.

Americans of Haitian descent have grown accustomed to hearing about kidnappings from people they know, said Jean Monestime, the first Haitian-born member of the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners in Florida.

“There are a lot of stories,” he says. “Too much to talk about. “

A senior US official said that while kidnappings for ransom in Haiti are generally not as brutal as those committed by terrorist groups in the Middle East, the US government approaches both with a sense of urgency. Separately, a senior State Department official said the Biden administration was in contact with senior Haitian government officials about the kidnapping, but declined to comment further.

In a country as impoverished as Haiti, it doesn’t take much to make someone attractive to kidnappers – and it doesn’t take much to secure their freedom.

In Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb now controlled by 400 Mawozo – the Creole word roughly translates to “a mountain peasant” – the vendors who lined the streets were kidnapped for what little they had in their homes. pockets. Sometimes they were ordered to sell what little possessions they had in their homes, such as radios or refrigerators, to pay the ransom.

Today, Croix-des-Bouquets is a nearby ghost town.

Gangs have plagued Port-au-Prince for the past two decades. But in recent years, their place in society has changed.

Older and more established gangs engaged not only in kidnappings but also in political activity, carrying out the will of their powerful bosses. Sometimes they helped suppress voters.

Now, as independent gangs multiply, they have become a seemingly uncontrollable force, thriving amid Haiti’s economic malaise.

Newer gang members like 400 Mawozo rape women and recruit local children, forcing neighborhood youth to beat people up as they train a new generation of more violent members.

Once untouchable churches are now a frequent target, with priests kidnapped even as they address their flock. In April, gunmen kidnapped a pastor while he was leading a ceremony broadcast live on Facebook.

In April, the gang of 400 Mawozo kidnapped 10 people in Croix-des-Bouquets, including seven members of the Catholic clergy, including five Haitians and two French. The group was finally released at the end of April. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of one million dollars, but it is not known if it was paid.

Haitians are desperate for the violence, which prevents them from earning a living and preventing their children from going to school. In recent days, some have started a petition to protest gang violence, targeting the 400 Mawozo gang and calling on the police to take action. But the police, underfunded and lacking political support, could not do much.

Transport workers called for a strike Monday and Tuesday in Port-au-Prince to protest insecurity – action that could turn into a more general strike, word spreading across sectors for workers to stay at home to denounce the violence which has reached “a new level of horror.”

“Heavily armed bandits are no longer happy with the current abuses, racketeering, threats and kidnappings for ransom,” the petition says. “Now criminals are breaking into village homes at night, attacking families and raping women. “

Christian Aid Ministries, whose members were kidnapped on Saturday, is a major aid provider to Haiti.

The group did not respond to requests for comment, but a former field director in Haiti, Dan Hooley, said at least some of the kidnapped missionaries had not been in the country for a long time. A family, he said, had been living there for “a few months,” while a man arrived on Friday to work on a relief project linked to the earthquake that devastated the country in August.

There were approximately 1,700 Christian missionaries in Haiti as of mid-2020, according to the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Mr Hooley estimated that Christian Aid Ministries had more than 20 employees in the country.

The ministries complex in Haiti overlooks the bay of Port-au-Prince, in a suburb called Titanyen.

During a visit there on Sunday, three large delivery trucks could be seen on the vast grounds surrounded by two fences reinforced with accordion barbed wire. Chickens, goats, and turkeys could be seen near tiny American-style homes with white porches and mailboxes, and laundry hanging out to dry.

There was also a guard dog and a sign in Creole prohibiting entry without authorization.

Because the area is so poor, at night, the resort is the only building lit by electric lights, neighbors said. Everything else around her is dark.

The Mennonites, neighbors said, were gracious and tried to spread out the work they had – building a new stone wall around the compound, for example – so that everyone could earn a little. and feed his family. They gave the workers food and water and joked with them. And Haitians often came for Bible lessons.

Usually the children could be seen playing. There are swings, a slide, a basketball court and a volleyball court. It was very unusual, the neighbors said, to see him so calm. Sunday, especially, is lively.

But not this Sunday.

Andre Paultre, Oscar Lopez, Ruth Graham, Patricia Mazzei and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Mass kidnapping of American missionaries startles even weary Haiti
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