PORT-AU PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – A notorious Haitian gang known for brutal kidnappings and killings was charged by police on Sunday with abducting 17 missionaries from a US organization. Five children are believed to be among the kidnapped.
The 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped the group in Ganthier, a community east of the capital, Port-au-Prince, Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told the Associated Press. The gang was blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year in Haiti.
The gang, whose name roughly translates to 400 “inexperienced men”, controls the Croix-des-Bouquets area, which includes Ganthier, where they carry out kidnappings and carjackings and blackmail business owners, according to authorities.
Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries said the kidnapped group consisted of 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian for a total of five children, seven women and five men. The organization said they were on a trip to visit an orphanage.
“Pray for those held hostage, the kidnappers and the affected families, friends and churches,” Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement. “As an organization, we hand this situation over to God and trust Him to see us through.”
Haiti is once again battling a rise in gang-related kidnappings that had fallen in recent months after President Jovenel Moïse was fatally shot in his private residence on July 7 and a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people in August .
The missionary group offers Bible lessons, runs a medical clinic, helps orphans, and distributes seeds to farmers, including in Haiti, according to the annual report.
Last year’s report said U.S. personnel had returned to their base in Haiti after a nine-month absence “due to political unrest” and noted the “insecurity and difficulties” arising from such instability.
An AP team visited the group’s orphanage in Ganthier on Sunday, where a couple of children were seen walking through a farm. A security guard confirmed that this was the place the kidnapped missionaries visited before they were abducted. The guard called the orphanage pastor at the AP’s request, but he declined to comment, saying only, “Let’s leave things as they are.”
Nearly a year ago, Haitian police released a wanted poster to the gang’s alleged leader, Wilson Joseph, accused of, among other things, murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, car theft and hijacking of trucks transporting goods. He goes by the nickname “Lanmò Sanjou”, which means “death does not know what day it will come.”
Joseph, who could not be immediately reached for comment, has posted videos outlining the alleged crimes the gang has committed in recent years.
Once, when the gang opened fire on a small bus with several passengers and killed an infant, Wilson said it was not their fault because the bus driver refused to stop. In a recent video, he appears to be holding a bottle of alcohol surrounded by heavily armed men. Another video from June shows people inside a church fleeing when shots erupted outside Saturday morning. The gang was accused of raiding the area and setting fire to cars.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is in contact with Haitian authorities to try to resolve the matter.
Christian Aid Ministries came under public scrutiny in 2019 when one of the group’s former workers based in Haiti was convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of 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 he had also wronged at least 30 boys in Haiti in about 15 years, according to The Daily Record in Ohio.
The religious organization said in a May 2020 statement that it had reached an out-of-court settlement with victims of a sexual abuse case in Haitian community Petit Goave and had given other victims a total of $ 420,000 in restitution and other assistance.
Amid the rise in kidnappings, gangs have demanded ransoms ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $ 1 million, according to authorities.
Last month, a deacon was killed in front of a church in the capital Port-au-Prince and his wife kidnapped, one out of dozens of people who have been abducted in recent months.
At least 328 kidnappings were reported to Haiti’s national police in the first eight months of 2021, compared to a total of 234 for the whole of 2020, according to a report released last month by the UN Integrated Office in Haiti known as BINUH.
Bands have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police, busloads of passengers and others as they become more powerful. In April, a man who claimed to be the gang leader of 400 Mawozo told a radio station that they were responsible for kidnapping five priests, two nuns and three relatives of one of the priests that month. They were later released.
The rise in kidnappings and gang-related violence has forced Haitians to take detours around certain gang-controlled areas, while others simply choose to stay home, which in turn means less money for people like Charles Pierre, a mototaxi driver in Port-au-Prince who has more children to feed.
“People don’t go out on the streets,” he said. “We can not find people to transport.”
A protest is scheduled for Monday to deter the country’s lack of security.
The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after U.S. high-ranking officials visited Haiti and promised more resources to Haiti’s national police, including an additional $ 15 million to reduce gang violence, which this year has displaced thousands of Haitians now living. in temporary shelters in increasingly unhygienic conditions.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press videographer Pierre-Richard Luxama in Port-au-Prince and AP writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Matt Sedensky in New York contributed to this report.
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