Powerful gang behind kidnapping 17 American and Canadian missionaries in Haiti, security source says

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By Matt Rivers, Etant Dupain, Natalie Gallón, Kylie Atwood and Elizabeth Joseph, CNN

One of Haiti’s most powerful gangs is believed to be behind the kidnapping of 17 American and Canadian missionaries, a source within the Caribbean country’s security forces told CNN on Sunday.

Authorities believe the “400 Mawozo” gang kidnapped the group, which included 16 Americans and 1 Canadian, after missionaries visited an orphanage on Saturday in Croix des Bouquets, a northeastern suburb of the Haitian capital, Port-. au-Prince.

On their way from the orphanage in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, gang members stopped the vehicle at gunpoint.

The 400 Mawozo gang has grown over the past three years, numbering up to 150 members, and has essentially taken control of Croix des Bouquets, the Haitian security force source told CNN.

Kidnapping for ransom is a characteristic activity of the gang. They have kidnapped dozens of people this year alone, including foreign nationals, the source said.

Once known for its auto thefts, the 400 Mawozo pioneered the “collective” kidnappings of large groups of victims from buses and cars, according to the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights (CARDH ), a non-profit organization based in Port-au-Prince.

Much of the increase in kidnappings in Haiti is due to the 400 Mawozo, according to CARDH. Gang members engage in almost daily confrontations with Haitian police and even tax local businesses.

In September, the gang kidnapped “several” truck drivers from the Dominican Republic and continue to hold them hostage amid negotiations for their release, the Haitian security force source said.

These ongoing negotiations are factored into authorities’ decisions on how to proceed with kidnapped American and Canadian missionaries, the source added.

According to CARDH, the majority of the gang’s victims are Haitian citizens and kidnappings have increased in Haiti this year – with an increase of nearly 300% since July.

At least 628 kidnappings have taken place since January, including 29 foreigners, according to data released by the center. The 400 Mawozo typically demanded ransoms of around $ 20,000, he said.

Investigation in progress

Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries released a statement on Sunday confirming the abduction of the missionaries and said the abducted group consisted of five men, seven women and five children.

“We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and the authorities are looking for ways to help,” the statement said.

Dan Hooley, former field director for Christian Aid Ministries in Haiti, told CNN on Sunday that all the kidnapped missionaries would have been in one vehicle and some were able to contact the organization’s local director before being taken away.

The kidnappers have also already contacted the organization, he said.

“A few guys messaged the director right away and told him what was going on. And one of them managed to drop a pin, and that’s the last thing (the organization) heard until the kidnappers contacted them later that day, ”Hooley said.

Haitian officials are in contact with the US State Department over the kidnapping, the country’s Foreign Minister Claude Joseph told CNN.

One of the kidnapped missionaries, a U.S. citizen, also posted a call for help in a WhatsApp group as the kidnapping occurred, The Washington Post reported, citing a person familiar with the kidnapping who spoke under on condition of anonymity.

“Please pray for us !! We are held hostage, they kidnapped our driver. Pray pray pray. We don’t know where they are taking us, ”the message read.

It is not clear whether the message was a video or a text sent to the WhatsApp group, and there is no information about the WhatsApp group itself in the Washington Post reports.

CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of this message or report.

A spokesperson for the US State Department said on Saturday evening that he was aware of the information and that “the well-being and safety of American citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. ‘State”.

According to a senior US official familiar with the situation, FBI and State Department officials do not know the current location of the kidnapped missionaries.

Canadian officials are also working with local authorities and “NGOs involved” to gather information, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CNN.

CNN has contacted the Haitian justice ministry and the national police, but they have not yet commented.

Indiscriminate kidnappings

Former Christian Aid Ministries field director Hooley said members of the group would have been aware of the risks they were taking.

“They are very dedicated people, people who risked their lives, they knew the dangers they were in, or at least were aware of what could happen, I’m sure,” he said. .

Hooley added that he knew several of the victims personally. “Two of them are single. One was there for a while, the other is a friend of ours who just arrived on Friday and was intending to help with the Haiti earthquake, the situation there in the South.

“And then there is a young couple there – a young couple with two children who were also abducted. We lived with her (the mother) in Oregon and knew her family very well, ”Hooley said.

Kidnappings in Haiti are often indiscriminate, targeting both the rich and the poor. Several kidnapping victims and their families have previously told CNN that they are still working to pay off their debts, having borrowed money from friends, employers and even banks to pay ransoms.

In a case that has become notorious across the country, a 5-year-old girl was reportedly found dead earlier this year with signs of strangulation. Her mother, a peanut seller, told Reuters that she had not been able to find the equivalent of $ 4,000 for a ransom.

Just before the kidnapping of the missionaries, a Haitian transport union called for an indefinite strike from Monday to protest, among other things, against the surge in kidnappings.

“We call on the government to end the kidnappings and ensure our safety or resign immediately. We are the most victims; the transport sector is an easy target for kidnappers across the country, ”Méhu Changeux, president of the Association of owners and drivers of Haiti, told CNN on Sunday.

“We have lost many members due to insecurity and dozens of members have been kidnapped. The latest tragedy in the kidnapping of American missionaries shows that no one is safe in this country, ”Changeux said.

The-CNN-Wire
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