A notorious gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping of a group of American missionaries and their families in Haiti, as similar abductions of individuals or busloads of people have spiralled out of control.
Haiti now has the highest kidnapping rate per capita on earth.
The group of 17 was taken as their bus travelled through the community of Ganthier on the outskirts of the capital Port-au-Prince as they returned from a visit to an orphanage.
Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries confirmed in a statement that the captives are 16 American citizens and one Canadian and the group consists of five men, seven women, and five children.
The gang thought to be responsible for taking them is known as 400 Mawozo. It operates in the area in which the group’s bus was hijacked, and has a record of conducting similarly audacious crimes.
For several months now 400 Mawozo has fought in armed combat with rival gangs and openly abducted people from all walks of life, from street vendors to commuters, to businessmen, and even police officers. There are also reports that the gang is raping women and recruiting children into its ranks.
The suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets, under the control of the gang, has been largely deserted as residents have fled the daily violence.
Even the clergy are not safe. In April, the gang took 10 members of the Catholic clergy hostage — five priests, two nuns, and three relatives of a priest.
The brazen kidnapping led to a three-day shutdown of Roman Catholic institutions across the country including schools and universities in a protest about the abductions. Then-Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned shortly after.
All of the hostages were released in late April, but it is not clear if a ransom, reported to be $1m, was paid. Abductions of pastors, sometimes during church services, continue.
Speaking to The Miami Herald about the latest incident, Gedeon Jean, who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, says: “This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any an entire bus or car.”
Mr Jean’s group monitors kidnappings in Haiti and believes the gang is responsible for approximately 80 per cent that take place in the country.
Such audacious kidnappings are part of the latest wave of unrest gripping Haiti since the 7 July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse the subsequent deterioration of the political climate, and the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck the west of the country on 14 August.
Well-armed gangs have taken advantage of the ongoing turmoil, and kidnappings rose 300 per cent from July through to September, with at least 221 abductions occurring in that period according to figures gathered by Mr Jean’s organisation, which admits that it is difficult to quantify a precise number.
Since January it is thought that at least 628 kidnappings have occurred, of which 29 are foreigners. Ransoms usually range from $100 to six figures.
“The gangs today have saturated Port-au-Prince and they are kidnapping people everywhere,” said Mr Jean.
The Washington Post reports Consulting firm Control Risks as saying that in absolute terms, Port-au-Prince now has more kidnappings than vastly larger cities in Latin America — more than those reported in Bogota, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City combined.
In protest at the surge in abductions, Mehu Changeux, president of the National Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti (APCH), announced a nationwide strike on Monday on behalf of the public transport unions.
“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,” Mr Changeux said. “What’s happening here concerns the whole society.”
Helen La Lime, special representative for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Haiti, told the United Nations Security Council earlier this month that gangs exercise control over strategic entry and exit points around the capital, which is having a detrimental effect on the economy and movement of people and goods.
Haitian Foreign Minister Claude Joseph has called on the council to take action and strengthen the mandate of the UN special political mission in his country to help ensure security and protection for civilians.
“These are the legitimate expectations of the people who have suffered enough from gang violence, kidnapping, and widespread crime,” Mr Joseph said.
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