PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A notorious Haitian gang known for brazen kidnappings and killings was accused by police Sunday of abducting 17 missionaries from a U.S.-based organization. Five children are believed to have been among the kidnappers.
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 told The Associated Press. Five priests and two nuns were kidnapped by the gang earlier in Haiti this year.
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.
Christian Aid Ministries, Ohio, said that the kidnapped team consisted of sixteen U.S citizens and one Canadian citizen. This makes a total number of five children: seven women, five men, and seven children. According to the organization, they were visiting an orphanage.
“Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers and the families, friends and churches of those affected,” Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement. “As an organization, we commit this situation to God and trust Him to see us through.”
Haiti is once again struggling with a spike in gang-related kidnappings that had diminished in recent months, after President Jovenel Moïse was fatally shot at his private residence on July 7 and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,200 people in August.
Nearly a year ago, Haitian police issued a wanted poster for the gang’s alleged leader, Wilson Joseph, on charges including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, auto theft and the hijacking of trucks carrying goods. He goes by the nickname “Lanmò Sanjou,” which means “death doesn’t know which day it’s coming.”
Joseph could not immediately be reached for comment but has uploaded videos showing the crimes that the gang is accused of in the recent past.
Wilson claimed it wasn’t their fault that the driver who refused to slow down and opened fire upon a bus with several people, killing an infant. A more recent video shows him holding an alcohol bottle in his hand, while surrounded by heavily-armed men. Another June video captures people running from a church after gunfire broke out on Saturday morning. They were accused of setting fire to cars and raiding nearby areas.
Unidentified senior U.S. officials spoke on condition that they remain anonymous and said that the United States has been in touch with Haitian authorities for the purpose of trying to solve the problem.
Christian Aid Ministries came under public scrutiny in 2019, when one of the group’s former workers based in Haiti was convicted of felony sexual abuse against minors in Ohio. Jeriah MAST, 40, was sentenced to a nine year term in an Ohio jail. According to The Daily Record, Mast also molested 30 Haitian boys over the course of the past 15 years.
According to authorities, ransom demands by gangs ranged from several hundred dollars to $1 million in response to the rise in kidnappings.
A deacon and his wife were kidnapped in Port-au-Prince last month. This was one of many abducted people in the past few months.
At least 328 kidnappings 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.
As they become more powerful, gangs are accused of abducting schoolchildren, doctors and police officers as well as busloads upon buses of passengers. One man claimed to have been the gang leader for the 400 Mawozo in April. He told radio stations that they kidnapped three priests, two nuns, five priests, and the relatives of one priest that month. Later, they were released.
Haitians have been forced to make detours to avoid gang-related violence and kidnappings. Others simply stay at home. This means that Charles Pierre (a Port-au-Prince moto-taxi driver) has less income as he has many children.
“People are not going out in the streets,” he said. “We cannot find people to transport.”
A protest is scheduled for Monday to decry the nation’s lack of security.
“Political turmoil, the surge in gang violence, deteriorating socioeconomic 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.”
The U.N. Security Council approved on Friday the extension of U.N.’s political mission in Haiti.
The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after high-level U.S. officials visited Haiti and promised more resources for Haiti’s National Police, including another $15 million 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 with Haiti’s police chief was Uzra Zeya, U.S. 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.
Coto was based in San Juan (Puerto Rico). Pierre-Richard Luxama (Associated Press videographer in Port-au-Prince), Haiti, and Matthew Lee (AP writer) contributed to this report.