A gang blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year in Haiti is now accused of abducting 17 missionaries from a US-based organisation, including a 2-year-old, police said Sunday.
The 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped the group - which also included some elderly people - in Ganthier, a commune that lies east of the capital of Port-au-Prince, Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne said.
The gang, whose name roughly translates to 400 “inexperienced men,” controls the Croix-des-Bouquets area that includes Ganthier, where they carry out kidnappings and carjackings and extort business owners, according to authorities.
The missionaries were on their way home from building an orphanage, according to Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries.
“This is a special prayer alert,” a one-minute message from the organisation said. “Pray that the gang members would come to repentance.”
The message says the mission’s field director is working with the US Embassy, and that the field director’s family and one other unidentified man stayed at the ministry’s base while everyone else visited the orphanage.
No other details were immediately available.
A US government spokesperson said they were aware of the reports on the kidnapping.
“The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the spokesperson said.
Haiti is again struggling with a spike in gang-related kidnappings that had diminished after President Jovenel Moise was shot dead at his private residence on July 7, and following a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck south-west Haiti in August and killed more than 2,200 people.
Gangs have demanded ransoms ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to more than a million, according to authorities.
Last month, a deacon was killed in front of a church in the capital of Port-au-Prince and his wife kidnapped, one of dozens of people who have been abducted in recent months.
At least 328 kidnapping victims were reported to Haiti’s National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with 234 for all of 2020, according to a report last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, known as BINUH.
Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, busloads of passengers and others as they grow more powerful.
In April, one gang kidnapped five priests and two nuns, prompting a protest similar to the one organised for Monday to condemn the lack of security in the impoverished country.
“Political turmoil, the surge in gang violence, deteriorating socio-economic conditions – including food insecurity and malnutrition – all contribute to the worsening of the humanitarian situation,” BINUH said in its report.
“An overstretched and under-resourced police force alone cannot address the security ills of Haiti.”
On Friday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the UN political mission in Haiti.
The kidnapping of the missionaries came days after high-level US officials visited Haiti and promised more resources for the National Police, including another 15 million dollars to help reduce gang violence, which this year has displaced thousands of Haitians who now live in temporary shelters in increasingly unhygienic conditions.
Among those who met Haiti’s police chief was Uzra Zeya, US under-secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.
“Dismantling violent gangs is vital to Haitian stability and citizen security,” she recently tweeted.