A gang behind the kidnapping of 17 US and Canadian missionaries in Haiti will demand a ransom of up to $1 million per head, experts have warned.
The captives, who include five children, the youngest just two years old, were forced out of a bus at gunpoint after visiting an orphanage on Saturday in the suburbs of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Authorities suspect they were snatched by the notorious 400 Mawozo gang, whose thugs have abducted dozens of people already this year, including foreign nationals.
The missionaries belong to the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, an extremely well funded global organisation founded by Amish and Mennonites in 1981.
In a statement on its website, the organisation said: ‘Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers and the families, friends and churches of those affected.’
Dan Hooley, a former director for the group, said that some of the missionaries had not been in Haiti for long.
One family had lived there for ‘a couple of months,’ he told The New York Times, and another man arrived on Friday to work on a relief project related to an earthquake that struck in August.
He described Christian Aid Ministries as ‘the big dog in the mission world,’ capable of importing containers full of medicines into Haiti whereas others ‘just can’t get it done.’
It reported a revenue of more than $130 million in 2019, largely through donations, and operates in 126 countries.
Gèdèon Jean, the executive director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, an advocacy group in Port-au-Prince, told the NYT that kidnappers could ask as much as $1 million per hostage in ransom for each of the 17.
‘They’re going to negotiate,’ he said. The hostages ‘are going to be freed – that’s for sure. We don’t know in how many days, but they’re going to negotiate.’
Christian Aid Missionaries balance sheet shows the group has $87 million in assets
A child is seen on Sunday standing outside the Maison La Providence de Dieu orphanage in Ganthier, Haiti. A group of 17 missionaries working in the area was abducted on Saturday
The 17 missionaries worked for the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, an Amish group. Members of the group are pictured in September working in Louisiana
The missionaries were traveling from the Croix des Bouquets area, where they had been building an orphanage, to the Port-au-Prince airport. They were adducted near Carrefour Boen and La Tremblay 17 on the road to Ganthier
He added: ‘The 400 Mawozo gang don’t want to kill the hostages.
‘Nowadays the gangs, especially in a situation that is a little financially vulnerable, they increase kidnappings to have enough money.
‘So the motive behind the surge in kidnappings for us is a financial one, if the gangs need money to buy ammunition, to get weapons, to be able to function.’
The State Department on Sunday evening confirmed the kidnap of 16 U.S. missionaries and one Canadian in Haiti, as hostage negotiators were summoned and one expert said the criminal gang could be hoping for as much as $1 million per person.
The group – which includes five men, seven women and five children – was abducted from a bus headed to the airport to drop off some members of their party.
A person familiar with the situation claims one of the abducted Americans posted a cry 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 abductee said.
The kidnappers are believed to be members of the 400 Mawozo gang, the Miami Herald reported.
Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement: ‘We request urgent prayer for the group of Christian Aid Ministries workers who were abducted while on a trip to visit an orphanage on Saturday, October 16.
‘We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help.’
The group was founded in 1981 ‘to be a trustworthy and efficient channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world.’
It is unclear if the kidnapping victims were chosen because of the mission’s net worth, although Haiti has one of the highest rates of kidnapping in the world, with middle class members of the public often targeted by gangs in the hope of a small ransom.
The headquarters of Christian Aid Ministries are pictured in Berlin, Ohio. The group works worldwide to deliver aid, hand out Bibles, erect billboards and provide vital infrastructure
Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, whose staff members returned to the organization’s Haitian base in 2020 after bring gone for nearly nine months amid political unrest, sent a voice message ‘prayer alert’ to various religious missions following the abduction (Pictured: Haitian orphans that Christian Aid Ministries works with)
How Haiti became the kidnapping capital of the world
Haiti has the highest per-capita kidnapping rate worldwide.
Kidnappings in the country have increased 300 percent between July and September, when at least 221 abductions recorded.
The rise in abductions has coincided with the nation’s deepening political turmoil following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Port-au-Prince is now posting more kidnappings in absolute terms than Bogotá, Mexico City and São Paulo combined.
At least 328 kidnapping victims were reported to Haiti’s National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020.
Abductions dropped briefly after Moïse’s assassination, but surged again to 73 in August and to 117 in September.
Gangs are responsible for most of the nation’s kidnappings and have been accused of abducting schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, busloads of passengers and others.
In recent weeks, people have been taken while attending church and commuting to work. Preachers have been abducted while delivering sermons.
Gang members have even kidnapped poor street vendors who have little to no money. These individuals are then forced to sell items from their homes, such as radios or refrigerators, to afford their freedom.
In another instance, a group of schoolchildren came together to raise money to pay their classmate’s ransom.
The 400 Mawozo gang, which abducted 17 missionaries and their families on Oct. 16, is responsible for approximately 80 percent of the kidnappings in Haiti.
400 Mawozo is known for its ‘collective kidnappings’ in which they abduct entire cars or buses of people.
The gang’s leader, Lanmò San Jou (Death Without Days), has been wanted by the Haitian government for several months.
The Police Nationale d’Haiti publicly announced they were searching for Lanmò San Jou in December 2020. They claimed he was on the run following the first phase of an operation to dismantle the gang.
Haiti has the highest per-capita kidnapping rate in the world, with Port-au-Prince is now suffering more kidnappings than vastly larger Bogota, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo combined, according to the consulting firm Control Risks.
From January to September there were 628 people kidnapped, including 29 foreigners, according to a New York Times analysis.
Haiti last experienced a major surge in kidnappings and gang violence after a rebellion toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, prompting the United Nations to send in a peacekeeping force.
The departure of that force in October 2019 was followed by a resurgence in gang crime, according to human-rights activists, who say kidnapping has proven lucrative at a time when Haiti’s economy is teetering.
Half of Port-au-Prince is now believed to be controlled by criminal gangs, and on Sunday the prime minister, Ariel Henry, attempted to lead a ceremony commemorating the death of one of the country’s founding fathers only to have his delegation met with a volley of gunfire that forced officials to withdraw.
The missionaries were traveling along the road from Ganthier to Croix-des-Bouquets when they were seized.
Croix-des-Bouquets is known to be under the control of a gang called 400 Mawozo.
Groups that follow kidnappings in Haiti told The Washington Post they believe they are being held in the town.
Authorities on Sunday night were reportedly trying to negotiate with Joly ‘Yonyon’ Germine, a jailed gang member considered to be the second-in-command of 400 Mawozo.
In April the gang abducted 10 people including five priests and two nuns, – among them two French citizens.
The 10 were released after three weeks, and said they had not been tortured or harmed, but suffered from a lack of food and medications.
Sister Agnès Bordeau, 80, and Father Briand, 67, both French citizens, were among the 10.
‘We found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ said Father Briand, who has lived in Haiti for 36 years.
Fluent in Creole, he believes that the members of the gang had not planned their kidnapping.
U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, told CNN the United States must find the missionaries and seek to negotiate their release without paying a ransom, or should use the military or police to secure their freedom.
‘We need to track down where they are and see if negotiations – without paying ransom – are possible. Or do whatever we need to do, on a military front or a police front,’ said Kinzinger who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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.
Criminals have targeted some poor people for modest sums.
A French priest, Father Michel Briand, who has lived in Haiti for 36 years, was among those kidnapped by 400 Mawozo in April and held for three weeks
Prime Minister Ariel Henry (pictured) on Sunday tried to attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of the birth of one of Haiti’s founding fathers, but his convoy came under gunfire from gangs
400 Mawozo is led by Wilson Joseph aka Lanmò San Jou (Death Without Days), pictured front.
Lanmò San Jou’s (pictured) rise to power has left Haitian residents and leaders ‘concerned for the whole of society,’ especially since 400 Mawozo is responsible for nearly 80 per cent of the country’s kidnappings
Many more victims come from the ranks of the Haitian middle class – teachers, priests, civil servants, small business owners.
Such targets aren’t rich enough to afford bodyguards but have enough assets or connections to scrape together a ransom.
The rise in kidnappings has petrified many Haitians. The heads of seven private business associations in April issued a joint statement saying they had reached ‘a saturation point’ with soaring crime.
On Monday, the transportation sector is planning to strike in protest at insecurity in the country, which has only worsened since the July assassination of President Jouvenal Moise.
‘Everyone is concerned. They’re kidnapping from all social classes,’ Mehu Changeux, president of Haiti’s Association of Owners and Drivers, told Magik9 radio station.
‘400 Mawozo is kidnapping people every which way; in the Central Plateau, the North, it’s the same thing.
‘We are asking all 10 [regional] departments to bring everything in the country to a standstill so that the leaders will take their responsibility.
‘What’s happening here concerns the whole society.’
Jean said that the kidnapping of the missionaries was typical of 400 Mawozo.
‘This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any entire bus or car,’ said Jean.
Jean said the notorious gang is responsible for approximately 80 percent of the kidnappings in Haiti.
400 Mawozo is led by Wilson Joseph aka Lanmò San Jou (Death Without Day).
The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after high-level US 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, 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.
Meanwhile, a record-shattering number of Haitian migrants have come to the US in the last month, and the trend doesn’t appear to be stopping as more people continue to pour into the Colombian town of Necocli, a popular spot for smugglers to shepherd people through the perilous Darien Gap.
Migrants, most from Haiti, depart a base camp towards the jungle in the infamous Darien Gap while on their journey towards the United States on October 7. The number of Haitian migrants heading to the US has skyrocketed in recent weeks
Many of the Haitians now embarking on the dangerous journey to the United States fled their country for South America in 2010, and are now are leaving for the US through towns like Acandi in Colombia and trekking across the Darien Gap. The COVID-19 pandemic has been blamed for upending much of South and Central America’s economy, forcing people already in a precarious position into desperation
The Darien Gap is a 66-mile stretch of rainforest between North and South America. Its dangerous terrain is part of the reason it’s been left undeveloped and why it poses such a great risk to the people crossing it now.
More than 70,000 migrants have traveled through the Darien Gap this year, Panamanian authorities have said.
Most of the migrants in recent months have been Haitians, many of whom had been living in Chile and Brazil since the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
Nearly 28,000 Haitian migrants were encountered by Border Patrol agents along the US-Mexico border in Fiscal Year 2021, which ended September 30.
In 2020, the number was 4,395.
Last month around 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants camped near a bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at the time, ‘It is unprecedented for us to see that number of people arrive in one discrete point along the border in such a compacted period of time.’
Images of the cramped, squalid tent city they were living in prompted a humanitarian outcry against the Biden administration.
Last week the Washington Examiner reported that border officials are bracing for an incoming surge of as many as 60,000 Haitian migrants.Haitians are fleeing their homeland as violence continues to spike and the nation faces political uncertainty.