• The San Juan Daily Star

Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free missionary group

A barricade of stones block a road in Pétionville, Haiti on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, during a strike over growing violence in the country.

By Andre Paultre and Maria Abi-Habib

The gang that kidnapped seventeen people associated with a U.S.-based Christian aid group in Haiti on Saturday demanded a ransom of $1 million for each of those they were holding, the country’s justice minister, Liszt Quitel, said Tuesday.

Local authorities said that the kidnapped group was captured in a suburb of Port-au-Prince and included 16 Americans and one Canadian. Five children, including a 2-year-old, were among those taken.

“The demand was made to the country chief of the Christian Aid Ministries — they asked for $1 million per person,” Quitel said in a phone interview. “Often these gangs know these demands cannot be met and they will consider a counter offer from the families, and the negotiations can take a couple of days sometimes, or a couple of weeks.”

As far as he knew, he said, the gang did not issue a deadline for payment.

The Wall Street Journal earlier reported the ransom demand.

Haiti has been in a state of political upheaval for years, and kidnappings of the rich and poor alike are alarmingly common. But even in a country accustomed to widespread lawlessness, the abduction of such a large group of Americans shocked officials for its brazenness.

Violence is surging across the capital, Port-au-Prince, which is controlled by gangs. By some estimates, gangs now control roughly half of the city. On Monday, gangs shot at a school bus in Port-au-Prince, injuring at least five people, including students, while another public bus was hijacked by a gang as well.

Security has broken down as the country’s politics have disintegrated. Demonstrators furious at widespread corruption demanded the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse two years ago, effectively paralyzing the country. The standoff prevented the sick from getting treatment in hospitals, children from attending school, workers from going to the rare jobs available and even stopped electricity from flowing in parts of the country.

Since then, gangs have become only more assertive. They operate at will, kidnapping children on their way to school and pastors in the middle of delivering their services.

The gang that police say kidnapped the 17 missionaries and their family members 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, on Tuesday, according to local news 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.

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.

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