PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — An armed gang in Haiti holding members of a U.S. Christian missionary organization hostage is seeking a ransom of $1 million per person in exchange for their release, the Haitian justice minister told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
The 16 Americans and one Canadian national with the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries were kidnapped Saturday by 400 Mawozo, a street gang notorious for violent mass abductions and a history of targeting religious figures and churches. The missionary group was returning from a visit to an orphanage when it was ambushed. Five children are among the hostages.
Liszt Quitel, Haiti’s justice minister, said that it was not clear whether children were included in the ransom amount, and that the gang was probably expecting to negotiate. He said that while his team was assisting, he was not privy to more specific details and that “every case is different.”
“Usually, they request more, then people close to the kidnapped persons will negotiate,” Quitel said. “Usually, even when they ask for a ransom, they know they don’t get all that they ask.”
The adult hostages, which include six men and six women, range in age from 18 to 48, according to Christian Aid Ministries. The youngest child is 8 months old, and the oldest is 15 years old. The group said in a statement Tuesday that it was “working diligently” to bring them home safely.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the ransom demand.
Officials from the State Department and the FBI are on the ground in Haiti seeking the release of the hostages, U.S. officials said this week. They have provided few details about those efforts or the identities of the hostages, citing privacy considerations.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said that President Biden was receiving “regular updates” about the work of the State Department and the FBI to secure the release of the group. She told reporters on Tuesday that she could not discuss “operational details” about those efforts and said the United States advises against travel to Haiti because of the risk of kidnapping and civil unrest.
“We know these groups target U.S. citizens who they assume have the resources and finances to pay ransoms, even if that is not the case,” Psaki said.
Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that it was collaborating with U.S. and Haitian counterparts and that it “does not comment on ongoing investigations conducted by other countries.” Canada’s Foreign Ministry said it was providing consular assistance to the family of the Canadian national.
“Canada takes this situation very seriously and is collaborating with Haitian and American policing authorities, as well as implicated NGOs on this incident,” Jason Kung, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said in an email.
The abduction of the missionaries over the weekend is part of an alarming surge in kidnappings of people from all walks of life — preachers, doctors and bus drivers, among them — by powerful gangs that exert control over large swaths of the Caribbean nation and whose rise and influence, analysts say, threaten the very fabric of the state. The country has the world’s highest number of kidnappings per capita.
It is also one of several calamities facing the Western hemisphere’s poorest country — each of which on its own would pose an enormous challenge and could imperil regional stability. In July, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, opening up a political vacuum that has seen rival factions jockeying for power. Then, in August, a powerful earthquake struck the largely rural south, killing more than 2,200 people, damaging critical infrastructure and creating a massive humanitarian crisis that further destabilized the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that the U.S. government is “relentlessly focused” on securing the release of the hostages. The gangs, he added, “are in many ways dominating the state.”
“Unfortunately, this is also indicative of a much larger problem, and that is a security situation that is quite simply unsustainable,” he told reporters at a news conference in Quito, Ecuador.
Such was the desperation in Haiti that local unions and other groups had planned a widespread general strike even before the kidnapping of the missionaries to protest the deteriorating security situation and the inability of the country’s political leaders and police forces to ameliorate it. It continued Tuesday.
Christopher Sabatini, senior Latin America research fellow at the international affairs think tank Chatham House, said that the kidnapping of Haitian schoolchildren, clergy members and small-business owners was increasingly common, but that such a “massive and unusual” foreign kidnapping raised the profile of the country’s deteriorating security situation.
“There’s just a vacuum of state in the midst of an economic crisis … and a preexisting pandemic of criminality,” he said.
The U.S. government has a long-standing policy of not paying ransoms for American citizens abroad. The Canadian government, which has said little about the kidnapping, has previously said it has the same policy.
Sabatini said it was likely that America’s approach would “hold true” in Haiti or risk setting a “dangerous precedent.” The kidnapping would also probably deter diplomatic and humanitarian personnel from traveling to the country, further jeopardizing the rebuilding of Haiti — particularly outside the capital — he added.
400 Mawozo controls parts of Ganthier in the Croix-des-Bouquets area, east of Port-au-Prince, where the Christian Aid Ministries vehicle was hijacked. It was behind about 80 percent of abductions in the third quarter of 2021, according to Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince.
The gang is known for targeting religious groups and has engaged in mass kidnappings from buses and cars in the past. In April, 400 Mawozo kidnapped five priests and two nuns, some of whom were French nationals. All were eventually released.
Even several days after the kidnapping, little information had emerged about those taken. Congressman Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said that some of the missionaries appeared to have been from the western part of his state, and that his office was working with the Biden administration to secure their return.
Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio, was founded in 1981 as a “channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world,” according to its website.
It has worked for years in Haiti, providing emergency services, running anti-poverty programs and spreading Christian teachings. Its American staff members returned to Haiti last year after being pulled out for nine months because of the political unrest.
In a statement Tuesday, it said its members had been working throughout the country, distributing Bibles, teaching Haitian pastors, supplying medicines, feeding the elderly and coordinating a project to rebuild homes after August’s temblor.
Suliman reported from London and Coletta from Toronto. Miriam Berger in Washington and Missy Ryan in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.