American missionaries and family members kidnapped in Haiti by 400 Mawozo gang, groups say
Haiti on Sunday became the center of an international crisis as officials in the beleaguered Caribbean nation sought to liberate 17 missionaries and family members, most of them Americans, taken captive a day earlier by a street gang known for mass kidnappings and ransoming religious groups.
The kidnappings Saturday escalated the convergence of challenges in a country that analysts increasingly describe as a failed state sitting less than 700 miles off the Florida coast. A succession of U.S. administrations has failed to stop its slide into chaos, and the abductions - part of a surge in kidnappings this year by armed gangs that rule large swaths of the country - ramped up pressure on the fragile and bitterly divided interim government that stepped in after the still-unsolved assassination in July of President Jovenel Moïse.
Haitians from all walks of life have been swept up in the lucrative ransom racket, in which victims are held for days or longer as captors, families and authorities negotiate their release. Abductions of fuel trucks and their drivers have caused power and fuel shortages nationwide, and shipping contractors have refused to send drivers through key national arteries due to the inability of the police to secure key roads that are controlled by or infested with gangs.
"This shows us that no matter who you are, or where you are in Haiti, you are never safe," said Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network.
Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries requested "urgent prayer" for the seven women, five men and children who were abducted. The group included 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian citizen, the organization said in a statement on its website Sunday.
"We are seeking God's direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help," the organization said. "Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers, and the families, friends, and churches of those affected."
A voice on an audio recording described as a "prayer alert" from Christian Aid Ministries and obtained by The Washington Post said the missionaries were seized while returning from a visit to an orphanage and were being held by an armed gang. They included organization staff and family members, according to the recording and a person familiar with the abduction.
The voice said the field director's family and one other man stayed at the organization's Haitian base in Titanyen, around 12 miles north of Port-au-Prince. All other staff who were on the visit to the orphanage were abducted.
"The mission field director and the American embassy are working to see what can be done," the voice said. It later added: "Pray that the gang members will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ." Messages left for Christian Aid Ministries were not returned.
Organizations that monitor kidnappings in Haiti said the missionaries were abducted by a much-feared gang known as 400 Mawozo, which is known for targeting religious groups and controls parts of Ganthier, the town east of Port-au-Prince where the group was seized. In recent months, its members have increasingly engaged in mass kidnappings from buses and cars.
Haitian officials declined to discuss negotiations to free the kidnapped missionaries. Groups that follow kidnappings in Haiti believe they are being held in Croix-des-Bouquets just east of the capital.
Authorities sought to negotiate with Joly "Yonyon" Germine, a jailed gang member considered to be the second-in-command of 400 Mawozo.
The gang in April kidnapped five priests and two nuns, some of them French nationals. All eventually were released. Catholic universities and schools closed in protest. The prime minister at the time, Joseph Jouthe, resigned shortly afterward, following a surge of other gang crimes - including an attack on an orphanage in which children were sexually assaulted.
The Catholic clerics, held for three weeks along with other victims, suffered harsh conditions during their captivity, including a lack of food or poor quality meals. They were not tortured or beaten, Espérance said, but two suffered medical complications from lack of access to their prescription medications.
It is common in Haiti for kidnappers to wait 24 to 72 hours before issuing ransom demands, which typically start high before being negotiated down. Though kidnapped victims have been killed, they are far more frequently set free, traumatized but without permanent physical damage, after ransoms are paid.
"Sometimes they start by asking for a million, but then accept $10,000 or $20,000," Espérance said. "There is no fixed amount."
Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, said he had received information from authorities that Saturday's captives included 16 Americans and one Canadian. A person familiar with the abduction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the ongoing crisis, said the abducted might also have included two Haitian nationals.
"The modus operandi is they take entire cars and buses," Jean said. "Then they ask for a price to release everybody."
Christian Aid Ministries' American staff members returned to their Haiti base in 2020 after being gone for nine months because of political unrest, the group says on its website.
The person familiar with the matter said that one of the abducted Americans posted a call for help in a WhatsApp group as the kidnapping was occurring.
"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 read.
Several Haitian government officials acknowledged that reports were "circulating" but could not immediately confirm the kidnappings. The U.S. State Department declined to detail its involvement.
"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the department said in a statement. "We are aware of these reports and have nothing additional to offer at this time."
Haiti has the highest per capita kidnapping rate in the world. Recorded abductions this year have spiked sixfold over the same period last year.
Criminals have nabbed doctors on their way to work, preachers delivering sermons, busloads of people in transit - even police on patrol. Port-au-Prince is now suffering more kidnappings than vastly larger Bogotá, Mexico City and São Paulo combined, according to the consulting firm Control Risks.
Haiti, saddled with endemic poverty and violence, has experienced waves of kidnappings before. But as armed gangs allegedly linked to politicians and private business interests have taken control of roads and communities, analysts say, the current wave is by far the worst in Haiti's history.
During the first six months of 2021, there were at least 395 kidnappings, compared with 88 during the same period last year, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince. After the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moïse - who was accused of being in league with the very gang members who use kidnappings as a source of revenue and control - abductions dropped briefly. But they surged to 73 in August and 117 in September, according to the center.
The nation is reeling from a power vacuum following the assassination of Moïse and the August earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people and left tens of thousands of Haitians homeless across the southern part of the country.
Christian Aid Ministries, based in Millersburg, Ohio, was founded in 1981 as a "channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world," according to its website.
The group has more than 100 field staff and several centers in Haiti, Romania, Ukraine, Kenya, Liberia, Nicaragua, Israel, Moldova, Greece and the United States, according to its 2020 annual report. It said it was active in 126 countries and seven territories offering "aid, literature, or teaching" that year.
The group says its work includes anti-poverty projects such as providing food, housing and school assistance, helping victims in crisis, setting up health clinics, and spreading Christian teachings by supporting local churches and evangelizing on billboards.
One program in Haiti provided textbooks, school supplies, meals and Bible training for some 9,340 students at 52 schools in Haiti, according to the website.
"The Haiti School Program helps Haitian children like Elmeus attend school and learn to read and write, better equipping them for the future," the group wrote in a call for donations on the website on Oct. 12, four days before the abductions.
In 2019, an employee of Christian Aid Ministries was accused of sexually abusing minors while in Haiti. The organization said two of its managers knew the employee had previously confessed to a history of sexually assaulting minors in the United States, but still allowed him to work in Haiti.
Christian Aid Ministries reached a settlement with victims in May 2020. The group said it provided over $420,000 in assistance and restitution to victims who came forward in previous months.
There is no known connection between the abuse allegations and the abductions.
Widlore Mérancourt in Port-au-Prince, Jennifer Hassan in London and Miriam Berger, Claire Parker and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.