Three of a group of missionaries kidnapped in Haiti have been released
By Oscar López and Maria Abi-Habib
Three more hostages from a group of 17 missionaries and their children kidnapped in Haiti have been released, the U.S. Christian charity they were with said earlier this week. Their release brought the total number of people freed to five.
In a statement Monday, Christian Aid Ministries said the three people released “are safe and seem to be in good spirits.”
The organization did not provide their names, ages or the circumstances of their release, including whether a ransom had been paid. In the past, the group had asked for discretion to protect the hostages still being held.
“We would like to focus the next three days on praying and fasting for the hostages,” the statement read. The group continued: “We long for all the hostages to be reunited with their loved ones. Thank you for your prayer support.”
In an emailed response to questions, the State Department welcomed “reports that three individuals held hostage in Haiti have been released” but declined to comment further because of “operational and security considerations.”
The Ohio-based charity said Nov. 21 that two hostages had been released.
The kidnapped group, which included 16 Americans and one Canadian, was taken in October by a gang called 400 Mawozo, in a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. Swaths of the city have come under control of criminal groups amid the escalating political and economic crisis that followed the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July.
Among those kidnapped were five children, including an infant. Kidnapping has become an increasingly common practice for Haitian gangs, who have targeted even students going to school and pastors delivering sermons.
The 400 Mawozo gang, which is well-known for orchestrating mass kidnappings, had initially demanded a ransom of $1 million per person, although that was widely viewed as a starting sum for negotiations. It is not clear what, if any, money was paid for the five people released so far.
But the gang has been known to release captives with health problems. Haitian officials have said the two hostages released last month were freed over medical concerns.
The abductions set off alarm among American lawmakers, who condemned the poverty and violence that has wracked Haiti and made kidnapping-for-ransom a big businesses in and around Port-au-Prince, where nearly half the nation lives.
In the days after the missionaries and their children were seized, the FBI sent a team to Haiti to work with local authorities to secure their release. Under U.S. law, ransoms can be paid to gangs for the release of American citizens held captive. American citizens are barred, however, from paying ransoms to terrorist organizations.
But American officials worry that if ransoms are paid to 400 Mawozo, it will only encourage more kidnappings. There are tens of thousands of Haitian Americans in Haiti at any given moment, according to State Department officials.
Not long after the group was first kidnapped, the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang threatened to kill the hostages if the group’s ransom demands were not met.
“I will prefer to kill them, and I will unload a big weapon to each of their heads,” the leader, Wilson Joseph, said in a video recorded on the streets of the violent Croix-de-Bouquets neighborhood.
There is no evidence to suggest Joseph has made good on his threats.
In a message last month marking 45 days since the hostages were taken, Christian Aid Ministries asked its followers to “pray for the kidnappers, that God would touch their hearts” and also gave thanks “for our government authorities and pray that God would give them wisdom as they relate to this situation.”
In addition to mass kidnappings, gangs in Haiti have grown increasingly brazen, blocking ports and holding up transportation trucks to choke off the supply of fuel to a nation that relies on generators for much of its power.
Everything from local hospitals to cellphone towers have been left with scant access to electricity, leaving parts of the country without communication and health facilities near the verge of collapse.
The 400 Mawozo gang is believed to make about $70,000 a week from extortion, theft and kidnapping-for-ransom, according to Haitian security officials.
Last month, the U.S. government detained an American citizen and two Haitian citizens in Florida, accusing them of smuggling arms to 400 Mawozo and providing a steady pipeline of weapons to the gang. The arrests revealed the gang’s burgeoning network in South Florida.
When law enforcement agents searched the phone of the American citizen, Eliande Tunis, they found he had pledged loyalty to 400 Mawozo, according to Florida officials.
“We are snakes,” Tunis said in an audio message sent to a colleague, according to a detention order released by authorities in Florida. “We slither to get where we are going. They would be shocked to see Mawozo invade Miami.”