• The San Juan Daily Star

Gang suspected in kidnapping of missionaries is among Haiti’s most dangerous

A street in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Aug. 16, 2021. Gangs have plagued the city over the past two decades, but they have grown into a force that is now seemingly uncontrollable.

By Constant Méheut and Maria Abi-Habib

The gang that police say kidnapped 17 missionaries and their family members in Haiti on Saturday is among the country’s most dangerous and one of the first to engage in mass kidnappings.

The gang, known as 400 Mawozo, controls the area where the missionaries were abducted in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The group has sown terror there for several months, engaging in armed combat with rival gangs and kidnapping businessmen and police officers.

The gang has taken kidnapping in Haiti to a new level, snatching people en masse as they ride buses or walk the streets in groups whose numbers might once have kept them safe.

The gang was blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year. It is also believed to have killed Anderson Belony, a famous sculptor, Tuesday, according to local news media reports. Belony had worked to improve his impoverished community.

Croix-des-Bouquets, one of the suburbs now under control by the gang, has become a near ghost town, with many residents fleeing the daily violence.

The once-bustling area now lacks the poor street vendors who used to line the sidewalks, some of whom were kidnapped by the gang for what little they had in their pockets or told to sell what few possessions they had at home, including radios or refrigerators, to pay off the ransom. By some estimates, gangs now control about half the capital.

Gangs have plagued Port-au-Prince over the past two decades but were often used for political purposes — such as voter suppression — by powerful politicians. They have grown into a force that is now seemingly uncontrollable, thriving in the economic malaise and desperation that deepens every year, with independent gangs mushrooming across the capital.

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.

Locals are fed up with the violence, which prevents them from making a living and keeps their children from attending school. Some started a petition in recent days to protest the region’s rising gang violence, pointing to the 400 Mawozo gang and calling on police to take action.

The transportation industry has also called a strike Monday and Tuesday in Port-au-Prince to protest the gangs and insecurity. The action may turn into a more general strike as word has spread across sectors for workers to stay home to call attention to the insecurity and the fuel shortages in the capital.

“The violence suffered by the families has reached a new level in the horror,” the text of the petition reads. “Heavily armed bandits are no longer satisfied with current abuses, racketeering, threats and kidnappings for ransom. At the present time, criminals break into village homes at night, attack families and rape women.”

In April, the 400 Mawozo gang abducted 10 people in Croix-des-Bouquets, including seven Catholic clergy members, five of them Haitian and two French. The entire group was eventually released by late April. The kidnappers had demanded a $1 million ransom, but it remains unclear if it had been paid.

Michel Briand, a French priest living in Haiti who was part of the group, said the gang had forced their cars to divert from their course before kidnapping them. “If we hadn’t obeyed them — that’s what they told us afterward — they would have shot us,” he said.

According to the latest report from the Port-au-Prince-based Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights, from January to September 2021 there were 628 people kidnapped, including 29 foreigners. Haitian gangs have stayed away from kidnapping American citizens in the past, fearing retribution from the U.S. government, making 400 Mawozo’s actions all the more brazen.

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