A notorious Haitian gang known for brazen kidnappings and killings is now accused of kidnapping 17 missionaries, including a Canadian, from a U.S.-based organization, the organization and police said Sunday.
The 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped the group — which included a two-year-old and some elderly people — in Ganthier, a commune that lies east of the capital Port-au-Prince, Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press.
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.
In a statement on its website, Christian Aid Ministries said one of the hostages is a Canadian citizen and that the kidnapped group was on a trip to visit an orphanage.
“The group of sixteen U.S citizens and one Canadian citizen includes five men, seven women, and five children,” the Ohio-based organization wrote.
“Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers, and the families, friends, and churches of those affected. Pray for those who are seeking God’s direction and making decisions regarding this matter.”
Global Affairs Canada statement
In a statement to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said it “is aware of media reports that a Canadian citizen was kidnapped in Haiti.”
“Canadian government officials in Haiti are working with local authorities and implicated NGOs to gather more information,” spokesperson Lama Khodr said.
“The Government of Canada’s first priority is always the safety and security of its citizens. Due to the provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”
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.
Christian Aid Ministries offers Bible classes, runs a medical clinic, helps orphans and distributes seeds to farmers, among other efforts in Haiti, according to its annual report.
The report for last year said that American staff had returned to their base in Haiti after a nine-month absence “due to political unrest” and noted the “uncertainty and difficulties” that arise from such instability.
An AP team on Sunday visited the group’s orphanage in Ganthier, where a couple of children were seen walking through a yard. A security guard confirmed that it was the place the kidnapped missionaries visited before they were abducted. The guard called the orphanage’s pastor at the AP’s request, but he declined to comment, saying only, “Let’s leave things as they are.”
400 Mawozo gang
Nearly a year ago, Haitian police issued a wanted poster for the 400 Mawozo 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, who could not be immediately reached for comment, has posted videos detailing the alleged crimes the gang has committed in recent years.
Once, when the gang opened fire on a small bus carrying several passengers and killed an infant, Wilson said its members were not to blame because the bus driver refused to stop. In a more recent video, he appears holding a bottle of alcohol surrounded by heavily armed men. Another video from June shows people inside a church fleeing as gunfire erupted outside on a Saturday morning. The gang was accused of raiding the area and setting cars on fire.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is in touch with Haitian authorities to try to resolve the case.
Gangs have demanded ransoms ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $1 million US, according to authorities.
Hundreds of kidnapping victims
Last month, a deacon was killed in front of a church in Port-au-Prince and his wife kidnapped, one of dozens of people who have been abducted in recent months.
At least 328 kidnapping victims were reported to Haiti’s national police in the first eight months of this year, 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.
Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, busloads of passengers and others as they grow more powerful. In April, a man who claimed to be the gang leader of the 400 Mawozo told a radio station that it was responsible for kidnapping five priests, two nuns and three relatives of one of the priests that month. They were later released.
A protest is scheduled for Monday to decry the country’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.”
On Friday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the organization’s political mission in Haiti.
U.S. pledged aid against gang violence
The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after high-level U.S. officials visited Haiti and promised more resources for its National Police — including another $15 million US 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. undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.
“Dismantling violent gangs is vital to Haitian stability and citizen security,” she recently tweeted.
Dismantling violent gangs is vital to Haitian stability and citizen security. Today, I met with A/HNP <a href=”https://twitter.com/dgpnhofficiel?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@dgpnhofficiel</a> DG Charles to reaffirm <a href=”https://twitter.com/StateDept?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@StateDept</a>’s continued support for strengthening community policing, public trust, intelligence gathering, and law enforcement capacity. <a href=”https://t.co/Edx15iHwXE”>pic.twitter.com/Edx15iHwXE</a>
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, is serving a nine-year sentence in an Ohio prison. During the hearing, the judge said Mast told him that he also molested at least 30 boys in Haiti in the span of about 15 years, according to the Daily Record newspaper in Ohio.
The religious organization said in a May 2020 statement that it had reached an out-of-court settlement with victims regarding a sexual abuse case in the Haitian community of Petit Goave and had provided other victims with a total of $420,000 US in restitution and other assistance.