American Missionaries Kidnapped in Haiti
On October 16, 17 Americans from the American Christian Aid Ministries group were kidnapped by the “400 Mawozo” gang in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Christian Aid Ministries have stated that the missionaries were based in Titanyen, a village north of the capital, where, on their way back from visiting an orphanage in Fond Parisien, were taken. The kidnapping may be a symptom of recent power and leadership struggles in Haiti’s political climate.
Photo Courtesy: Matias Delacroix/Associated Press
Political disruption has plagued the country for years. In 2017, during President Jovenel Moïse’s first year in office, the Haitian Senate issued a report accusing him of embezzling about $700,000 from an infrastructure development fund for his prominent banana business. In response, in 2019 President Moïse revived the national army and created a domestic intelligence agency with surveillance powers. He further obstructed the Haitian legislature by refusing to hold the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2020. Gas shortages, blackouts, rapid inflation, deteriorating living conditions, and gang attacks ultimately led to protests calling for Moïse’s resignation, who claimed that he would step down from office at the end of his term in February 2022. Moïse was assassinated in his home in July, and the perpetrator is yet to be found.
Moïse’s assassination furthered political turmoil; remaining officials have broken into factions, fighting for control. As a result, gangs have since become more assertive. Kidnappings have especially been prevalent in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where it is estimated that gang control covers roughly half the city. Gangs have kidnapped residents, robbing them of their money, and even forcing them to sell off their valuables. This has led to the region being abandoned, as its inhabitants have fled the dangerous streets.
On October 21, the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang released a video on social media claiming that he would kill the missionary group hostages if his $17 million ransom demand was not met. That afternoon, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced that Léon Charles, head of the National Police, resigned and was replaced by Frantz Elbé.
The United States government has stated that it is aware of the kidnappings, but has offered no further comments regarding the situation. However, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)—a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee—has claimed that the U.S. government will do everything possible to rescue the hostages.
According to the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights, this year alone (from January to September) there were 628 people reported kidnapped in Haiti, including 29 foreigners. Gédéon Jean, executive director of the center, claims that the gang’s motive is financial because “the gangs need money to buy ammunition, to get weapons, to be able to function.”
Amy Wilentz, a Haiti expert at the University of California at Irvine, mentions that Americans who go to Haiti for charitable help are typically perceived as “luxury targets” by gangs due to the high ransoms they are believed to bear. Older gangs have not only been involved in kidnappings, but in politics as well. They often carry out the will of their powerful patrons, and aid in voter suppression.
Churches, once untouchable, have now also become common targets. In April, the 400 Mawozo gang abducted 10 people in Croix-des-Bouquets. This included seven Catholic clergy members, five of them Haitian, and two French.
Haitians consumed by despair have started to protest gang violence, and call on police to take action. However, the police lack political support from the country’s prior political corruption, and have not been able to act. With the degree of gang-related crime and violence becoming more extreme in Haiti, significant national, or possible international, intervention will be needed to undertake reformative action.