A dangerous Haitian gang with a history of targeting Christians kidnapped at least 17 missionaries from a U.S.-based religious organization over the weekend, authorities said, and a 2-year-old child is among those being held as American authorities race to secure their release.
The missionaries — 16 Americans and one Canadian — were forcibly taken Saturday from Ganthier, a commune north of Haiti‘s capital, Port-au-Prince. They had reportedly been helping build orphanages in the area.
Haitian authorities blamed the group 400 Mawozo for the kidnappings. That gang, Haitian officials said Sunday, also was responsible for the shocking abduction of five Catholic priests and two nuns earlier this year.
The gang’s name translates roughly to 400 “inexperienced men.” It has built its reputation on kidnappings, carjackings, extortion of business owners, and other crimes.
The U.S. and Canadian missionaries are affiliated with the Ohio-based organization Christian Aid Ministries. That group released an urgent audio message Sunday morning seeking prayer for those taken.
“This is a special prayer alert,” says an audio message released by the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, as reported by The Associated Press. “Pray that the gang members would come to repentance.”
It’s unclear if the kidnappers have made any demands or have communicated with the U.S. government or other U.S.-based organizations.
State Department officials said they are aware of the reports, but offered little detail.
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The Associated Press quoted other anonymous Biden administration officials saying that the U.S. is communicating with Haitian authorities and that the two governments are working to resolve the situation. So far, there have been no reports of any of the missionaries being harmed.
Regional analysts say the mass kidnapping is clearly the work of 400 Mawozo and that the group has perfected such operations.
“This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any entire bus or car,” Gedeon Jean, head of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, told the Miami Herald, adding that the group is believed to be behind at least 80% of all kidnappings in the country.
The number of kidnappings across Haiti has shot up dramatically this year. More than 320 kidnapping victims have been officially reported to the country’s National Police this year, greatly exceeding the total for all of last year.
Outside organizations, however, put the real number at over 600.
Just days ago, top U.S. officials met with top Haitian law enforcement officials, with gang-related violence at the top of the agenda.
“Dismantling violent gangs is vital to Haitian stability and citizen security,” Uzra Zeya, U.S. undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, said in an Oct. 12 Twitter message after meeting with Haitian officials.
The Biden administration also promised $15 million in new funding for Haitian police forces.
Meanwhile, the major surge in kidnappings has coincided with other destabilizing events across Haiti in recent months. In July, Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated at his home.
Just weeks later on Aug. 14, a massive earthquake struck the impoverished country and killed at least 2,200 people and injured thousands of others.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.