A group of 17 mostly American missionaries and their family members were kidnapped by gang members in Haiti on Saturday. The gang has demanded a $17 million ransom — $1 million per hostage — and the FBI is leading the U.S. effort to free the group. The crisis comes amid an unprecedented wave of kidnappings in the deeply troubled country, which remains in turmoil following the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in July, as well as a devastating earthquake in August. The U.S. continues to warn Americans not to travel to Haiti. Below is what we know about the kidnapping thus far.
Who was kidnapped
A group of 17 Christian missionaries, including five children, was taken on Saturday while traveling by bus outside Port-au-Prince. The victims include 16 Americans and one Canadian, according to the missionaries’ Amish Mennonite organization, Christian Aid Ministries. The Ohio-based organization said Tuesday that the kidnapped adults range in age from 18 to 48, and the children range in age from 8 months to 15 years old.
The kidnappers, a gang called 400 Mawozo, quickly demanded a ransom of $1 million per person for the missionaries, according to multiple reports.
Two Haitian nationals may have also been kidnapped, a “person familiar with the abduction” told the Washington Post on Sunday.
Christian Aid Ministries sent out a “prayer alert” audio recording to other religious missions on Saturday that said the missionaries, who were based in the town of Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, were being held by an armed gang, according to the Post. The minute-long message stated that “the mission field director and the American embassy are working to see what can be done.”
A former field director for the group, Dan Hooley, told the New York Times on Sunday that all of the adults were staff members of the aid organization, and that the group was taken after leaving an orphanage.
The Post also reports that “[a] person familiar with the matter said that one of the abducted Americans had 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.”
The efforts to free the hostages
The FBI is leading the U.S. effort to free the hostages and has a team on the ground in Haiti, where it, the U.S. Embassy, and local authorities are working together to resolve the crisis. They are reportedly in communication with the kidnappers. Canada said it was also collaborating with U.S. and Haitian authorities.
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the group has demanded $17 million in exchange for the hostages’ return — $1 million for each hostage. The outlet also reported that Haitian justice minister Liszt Quitel is attempting to secure the hostages’ release without paying ransom. “When we give them that money, that money is going to be used for more guns and more munitions,” he told the Journal.
Quitel told the Washington Post that the gang may not expect to receive the full $17 million ransom it demanded. “Usually, they request more, then people close to the kidnapped persons will negotiate,” he said. “Usually, even when they ask for a ransom, they know they don’t get all that they ask.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said the Biden administration will not offer details on the U.S. efforts. She has also reiterated that the U.S. has a policy against ransom payments.
Notorious “400 Mawozo” gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping
The missionaries were taken hostage by members of a gang called 400 Mawozo, which controls many communities in and around Port-au-Prince, including the part of Croix-des-Bouquets where the missionaries were kidnapped on Saturday. 400 Mawozo has repeatedly targeted religious groups and has been increasingly conducting mass kidnappings. Per the Miami Herald:
[The gang] operates in the area of Croix-des-Bouquets and is known for attacking vehicles and kidnapping people from cars and buses.
“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 Gedeon Jean, who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which monitors kidnapping in the country. Jean said the gang is responsible for about 80 percent of the kidnappings taking place in Haiti.
The New York Times reported Sunday that Croix-des-Bouquets has become “a near ghost town” under the control of 400 Mawozo:
While older, more established gangs trafficked in kidnapping or carrying out the will of their political patrons, newer gangs like 400 Mawozo are raping women and recruiting children, forcing the youth in their neighborhood to beat up those they captured, training a newer, more violent generation of members. Churches, once untouchable, are now a frequent target, with priests kidnapped even mid-sermon.
In April, 400 Mawozo kidnapped a group of ten people in Croix-des-Bouquets, including seven Catholic clergy members, resulting in a three-day shutdown of Roman Catholic institutions across the country to protest the kidnapping. 400 Mawozo demanded a $1 million ransom for the group, who were eventually released, but it’s not clear if the gang was paid or how much.
Haiti’s wave of kidnappings
At least 628 kidnappings have been reported in Haiti since January, according to data collected by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, including a 300 percent rise since July. (The number of kidnappings reported to Haiti’s National Police this year is lower: 328 through August, according to a recent U.N. report.)
The Washington Post notes that Haiti — which continues to suffer from a power vacuum in the aftermath of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July — has the world’s highest kidnapping rate per capita:
Recorded kidnappings so far this year have spiked sixfold over the same period last year, as criminals have nabbed doctors on their way to work, preachers delivering sermons, entire busloads of people in transit — even police on patrol. So great is the surge that this year, Port-au-Prince is posting more kidnappings in absolute terms than vastly larger Bogotá, Mexico City and São Paulo combined, according to the consulting firm Control Risks.
Saddled with endemic poverty and violence, Haiti is no stranger to kidnapping waves. But as armed gangs allegedly linked to politicians and private business interests have strengthened, now controlling swaths of the nation, analysts say the current wave is by far the worst in Haiti’s history.
This post has been updated.