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16 American missionaries kidnapped by notorious gang as they were returning from Haiti orphanage

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In this photo from July 20, 2021, designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry attends a ceremony in honor of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise at the National Pantheon Museum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)


Jacqueline Charles

Miami Herald

A group of American missionaries has been kidnapped on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, allegedly by a notorious gang that was behind the abduction of several Roman Catholic clergy earlier this year.

The missionaries, 16 Americans and a Canadian citizen, including several children, were kidnapped Saturday in the community of Ganthier, just east of the capital, according to a human rights center that monitors kidnapping. The group was reportedly taken in the area of La Tremblay after returning from visiting an orphanage,

The gang believed to be behind the kidnapping is known as 400 Mawozo, which operates in the area of Croix-des-Bouquets and is known for attacking vehicles and kidnapping people from cars and buses.

“This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any entire bus or car,” said Gédéon Jean, who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which monitors kidnapping in the country. Jean said the gang is responsible for about 80% of the kidnappings taking place in Haiti.

While U.S. officials, including the FBI, have been alerted about the kidnapping, Haiti National Police spokeswoman Marie-Michelle Verrier said they have not been able to confirm the abduction.

“We have no information and no one has filed a report,” she said.

The brazen kidnapping of the Christian missionaries is the latest in a wave of abductions in Haiti.

It happened just days after U.S. officials, including the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya, visited to evaluate the country’s security challenges and a day after the U.N. Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of its political office in Haiti by nine months. That decision came as U.N. diplomats, in a separate meeting, heard from Haitians and others about the country’s deteriorating political landscape and security since the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

On Sunday, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, commemorating the 215th anniversary of the death of founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was prevented from laying the traditional wreath at Pont Rouge, just north of the capital, where Dessalines was assassinated.

Local media reported that heavily armed gang members blocked Henry from laying the wreath and his delegation was forced to leave under a chorus of automatic gunfire. Henry made no mention of the incident on his Twitter feed when he noted that he had deposited an arrangement in memory of the emperor at the altar where his remains lie. The altar is at the national pantheon museum, known as the MUPANAH, across from the presidential palace.

Observers have noted that the only way to tackle Haiti’s rampant insecurity is with the help of external forces, something the neighboring Dominican Republic asked for during its president’s recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. However, Haitians have been divided about the return of U.N. peacekeeping troops or even the presence of the U.S. military in the country while acknowledging that their beleaguered, demoralized, underpaid and corrupt force is no match for the country’s well-armed gangs. Though Haiti’s interim leadership that took control after the death of Moïse had requested that the Biden administration send U.S. troops, the White House did not support the idea.

Earlier this month, Helen La Lime, the special representative for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in Haiti, told the Security Council that the reestablishment of security, especially in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, must be prioritized by Haitian authorities.

“The control that gangs exercise around strategic entry and exit points of the capital has had a detrimental impact on Haiti’s economy and the movement of people and goods,” she said.

Kidnappings in Haiti have increased 300% between July and September, when at least 221 abductions were recorded, according to the crime observation unit of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince. The rise has coincided with the deepening political turmoil after the president’s murder and rampant insecurity in Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs have extended their control over large swaths of the capital.

In recent weeks, people have been abducted while attending church and others from the hillside of Petionville, a tony suburb of the capital. While locals remain the bulk of those who have kidnapped, more than 40 foreigners from three countries — France, Canada and the United States — have fallen victim so far this year, according to information compiled by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights.

“The gangs today have saturated Port-au-Prince and they are kidnapping people everywhere,” said Jean, adding that it’s difficult to put a number to the kidnappings in Haiti.

Since June, an increase in violence by warring gangs has caused the displacement of at least 19,000 people from Cité-Soleil, Croix-des-Bouquets, Delmas and Martissant, where gangs have also attacked a police station, destroying it with a bulldozer.

Crossing Martissant has increasingly become more difficult, with gang members blocking the road with a 40-foot container and attacking passing vehicles in order to abduct passengers and hold them for ransom.

As a result of the latest kidnapping wave, the president of the National Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti, Mehu Changeux, announced a nationwide strike Monday on behalf of the public transport unions. He has since received support from other sectors who also plan to close their businesses in protest.

“400 Mawozo is kidnapping people every which way; in the Central Plateau, the North, it’s the same thing. We are asking all 10 [regional] departments to bring everything in the country to a standstill so that the leaders will take their responsibility,” Changeux said. “What’s happening here concerns the whole society.”

In April, the gang 400 Mawozo kidnapped nine Catholic clergy, including five priests, two nuns and three relatives of the priest in Port-au-Prince. All were eventually released but not before the shocking abduction provoked a three-day shutdown by Roman Catholic institutions including schools and universities to protest the abductions and demand the release of the group, which included French citizens.

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©2021 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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