The 16 American citizens and one Canadian were kidnapped by the powerful “400 Mawozo” gang on Saturday after visiting an orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets, a northeast suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince, over the weekend.
Their abduction is part of a wave of indiscriminate kidnappings that has become more brazen as the country suffers from political instability, civil unrest, lack of quality healthcare and severe poverty.
Haitian Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told CNN the kidnappers have demanded a total of $17 million for the group’s release and that they were being held in a location outside the suburb.
The missionaries are affiliated with the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, which says the abducted group is made up of five men, seven women and five children.
The five children abducted include an 8-month-old baby and children ages 3, 6, 13 and 15 years old, Christian Aid Ministries said in a Tuesday statement. The ages of the adults range from 18 to 48, they said.
Quitel said that both Haitian police negotiators and the FBI are advising the missionary group on how to proceed and that negotiations are ongoing. FBI agents are on the ground in Haiti assisting with the investigation but are not leading the negotiations, nor have they spoken directly with the kidnappers, he said.
“The FBI is part of a coordinated US government effort to get the Americans involved to safety. Due to operational considerations, no further information is available at this time,” an FBI spokesperson told CNN.
The hostages are being held somewhere outside of Croix-des-Bouquets, the Port-au-Prince suburb controlled by the gang, Quitel said.
“The gang has locations where they usually keep their hostages so that they can feel the hostages are safe. They feel comfortable keeping them there,” Quitel told CNN.
“The kidnappers have been warned about harming the hostages and what may be the consequences for them [if that were to happen]. But they are not swayed by those warnings,” said Quitel, adding that the kidnappers are sticking to their demands.
A source in Haiti’s security forces said that for the moment all hostages are safe. The source added the gang members in contact with authorities appear calm and not nervous.
The ransom demands for the missionaries were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The missionaries were traveling in a sprinter-type van when they left the orphanage on Saturday, according to a person familiar with the matter. The driver of the vehicle was an American who was a part of the group, the person said.
Dan Hooley, a former field director for Christian Aid Ministries in Haiti, told CNN Sunday that all of the kidnapped people are believed to have been in one vehicle, and that some were able to contact the organization’s local director before they were taken.
“A couple of fellows right away messaged the director and told him what was going on. And one of them was able to drop a pin, and that’s the last thing (the organization) heard until the kidnappers contacted them later in the day,” Hooley said.
The group had in recent weeks been involved in a rebuilding project for those who lost their homes in August earthquake, according to the Christian Aid Ministries statement.
Before the kidnapping, their work across the country included supporting thousands of school children, distributing Bibles and Christian literature, as well as supplying medicine to clinics, teaching Haitian pastors and providing food for the elderly and vulnerable, the statement said.
“This group of workers has been committed to minister throughout poverty-stricken Haiti,” it said.
Among the kidnapped are members of a family from the congregation of Dunkard Brethren Church in Hart, Michigan, according to the church’s minister, Ron Marks.
The family had arrived in Haiti earlier this month and were expected to stay for a few more months, Marks told CNN. He declined to name the family.
Much of the rise in kidnappings in Haiti is due to the 400 Mawozo, according to the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights (CARDH), a Port-au-Prince-based nonprofit.
Gang members engage in near daily confrontations with Haitian police and tax local businesses.
The 400 Mawozo has been growing in strength for the past three years, numbering up to 150 members, and has essentially taken control of Croix des Bouquets, the source in Haiti’s security forces told CNN on Sunday.
Kidnapping for ransom is a hallmark activity of the gang. They have abducted dozens of people this year alone, including foreign nationals, the source said.
Once notorious for car theft, the 400 Mawozo has pioneered “collective” kidnappings of large groups of victims from buses and cars, according to CARDH.
The majority of the gang’s victims are Haitian citizens and kidnappings have surged in Haiti this year — with a nearly 300% increase since July, CARDH said.
At least 628 kidnappings have taken place since January, including of 29 foreigners, according to data released by the center. The 400 Mawozo has typically demanded ransoms of around $20,000, it said.
Hooley said the members of the missionary group would have been aware of the risks they were taking.
“These are very dedicated people, people that have risked their lives, they knew the dangers that they were in, or at least were aware of what could happen, I’m sure,” he said.
In a 2020 blog post, a Christian Aid Ministries missionary in Haiti described the risks they faced working there. The missionary wrote how the organization’s home base in Titanyen, a village north of Port-au-Prince, had been threatened by a local gang.
“With all the political uncertainty in Haiti, gangs have taken over. Gangs fighting each other breaks the calm nights with rapid gun fire,” they wrote.
The blog post does not state which gang was responsible, nor is it clear who authored the post. But the blog founders are a pair of missionaries who had been in Haiti for a number of years.
In the post, the author writes that the missionary eventually began “working with the gang trying to resolve the ugly situation.”
“After much dialogue, they agreed to lay down their gang mentality and try to find a way to help out the community, instead of terrorizing it. Soon they agreed to work on rebuilding a road that goes through town,” the author wrote.