Seventeen people, including three children, associated with an American Christian aid group were kidnapped on Saturday by a gang in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as they were leaving an orphanage, according to a former field director for the group, Christian Aid Ministries.
The former field director, Dan Hooley, said Sunday morning that all of the adults were staff members for the group, which has fewer than 30 people in the country. Local authorities said the group that was kidnapped included 16 Americans and one Canadian. Mr. Dooley said a 2-year-old and another young child were among them.
Christian Aid Ministries said in a “prayer alert” that the missionaries were based in Titanyen, about 11 miles north of Port-au-Prince, and that they were taken on their way home from visiting an orphanage in Fond Parisien. The alert went on to say that “the field director’s family and one other man had stayed at the base. All the other staff who were on the visit to the orphanage were abducted.”
It also asked for prayers and that, “the gang members would come to repentance and faith in Christ.”
The group, which is based in Millersburg, Ohio, says on its website that it “strives to be a trustworthy and efficient channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world.”
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, where 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.
When the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti included peacekeeping troops, it was able to quell the gangs in Port-au-Prince and its suburbs. Since the mission ended in 2017, gangs have returned in full force, leading many Haitians to call for the U.S. or the U.N. to send boots on the ground.
The nation’s political turmoil intensified further after Mr. Moïse was assassinated in his home in July, a killing that remains unsolved. The few remaining officials in the country soon began fighting for control of the government, and the factionalism has continued for months, with officials accusing one another of taking part in the conspiracy to kill the president.
On Sunday, Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, tried to pay tribute to one of the country’s founding fathers, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, on the anniversary of his assassination about 200 years ago. When Mr. Henry tried to lay a wreath at statue, the site of the assassination in downtown Port-au-Prince, gangs fired on him. Mr. Moïse was similarly unable to do this over the past few years because gangs opened fire on his entourage, too.
The kidnapping of the American missionaries happened only a day after the United Nations Security Council extended its mission in Haiti by nine months in a unanimous vote on Friday. Many Haitians have been calling for the United States to send troops to stabilize the situation, but the Biden administration has been reluctant to commit boots on the ground.
A State Department spokesperson said on Sunday that the U.S. government was aware of the reports but didn’t offer further details.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday on CNN that the U.S. government will do everything possible to get the Americans back.
“We need to track down where they are and see if negotiations without paying ransom are possible or do whatever we need to on the military front or police front,” he said.
The gang that the police say kidnapped 17 missionaries and their family members in Haiti on Saturday 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 that the missionaries were abducted from in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The group has sown terror for several months in the suburbs, engaging in armed combat with rival gangs and perpetrating the kidnapping of businessmen and police officers.
The gang has also introduced a new type of kidnapping in Haiti — kidnapping en masse. For the first time Haiti began to see entire groups kidnapped while transiting on buses or together on the streets. The gang is also believed to have killed Anderson Belony, a famous sculptor, on Tuesday, according to local news media reports. Mr. 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 day-to-day violence. The once bustling area now lacks the poor street vendors who once lined the sidewalks, some of whom had been kidnapped by the gang for what little they had in their pockets or told to sell what few possessions they have at home, including radios or refrigerators, to pay off the ransom. By some estimates, gangs now control about half the capital.
With every new generation of gangs that crop up in Haiti, new lows inch further toward normalization. Gangs have plagued Port-au-Prince over the past two decades, but were often used for political means — 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.
While older, more established gangs trafficked in kidnapping or carrying out the will of their political patrons, newer gangs like “400 Mawozo” are raping women and recruiting children, forcing the youth in their neighborhood to beat up those they captured, training up a newer, more violent generation of members. Churches, once untouchable, are now a frequent target, with priests kidnapped mid-sermon.
Locals are fed up with the violence, which prevents them from making a livelihood and prevents their children from attending school. Some started a petition in recent days to protest the region’s rising gang violence, pointing to the “400 Mawozo” gang and calling on the police to take action. The transportation industry has also announced a general strike for Monday and Tuesday in Port-au-Prince to protest the gangs and insecurity. The action may turn into a more general one as calls have gone out to stay home across sectors and storefronts because of insecurity and fuel shortages in the capital.
“The violence suffered by the families has reached a new level in the horror,” the text of the petition reads. “Heavily armed bandits are no longer satisfied with current abuses, racketeering, threats and kidnappings for ransom. At the present time, criminals break into village homes at night, attack families and rape women.”
In April, the “400 Mawozo” gang abducted 10 people in Croix-des-Bouquets, including seven Catholic clergy members, five of them Haitian and two French. The entire group was eventually released by late April. The kidnappers had demanded a $1 million ransom, but it remains unclear if it had been paid.
Michel Briand, a French priest living in Haiti who was part of the group, said the gang had forced their cars to divert from their course before kidnapping them. “If we hadn’t obeyed them — that’s what they told us afterward — they would have shot us,” he said.
According to the latest report from the Port-au-Prince based Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights, from January to September 2021 there were 628 kidnappings, including 29 foreigners. Haitians gangs have stayed away from kidnapping American citizens in the past, fearing retribution from the United States government, making 400 Mawozo’s actions all the more brazen.
Christian Aid Ministries, the charity whose workers were kidnapped in Haiti on Saturday, has a long history of working in the Caribbean nation.
Based in Ohio and founded in 1981, the group has worked in Haiti for at least 15 years, according to its website. The organization distributes food and clothing, funds schools, teaches farming methods and helps with emergency relief. In 2020, it had operations in more than 130 countries and territories.
The group was founded by Amish and Mennonites, Christian sects that are known for their conservative dress and avoidance of many modern technologies. In Pennsylvania, where the first Amish in America arrived in the 1800s, many live in isolated rural communities that focus on farming and agriculture.
CAM says it “strives to be a trustworthy and efficient channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world.” Amish and Mennonite communities throughout the United States regularly hold fund-raisers for Haiti, selling food, blankets and other goods they make.
In Haiti, CAM runs a “sponsor-a-child” program, which states that a donation of $65 a month can allow five students to go to school. Donations fund the purchase of textbooks and allow each child to get one hot meal a day. That program helps more than 9,000 students in 52 schools in Haiti, according to the group’s website.
Their work has not gone without controversy in Haiti, where the government depends on international aid and charity to provide services it can’t. In 2019, CAM said that one of its former employees confessed to molesting boys while working in Haiti. Last year it announced a settlement to a civil suit in Haiti and said that it had provided $420,000 in assistance to victims.
The organization pulled out its American staff in 2019 for about nine months. It sent back staff in 2020 after the political situation improved in 2020, according to the annual report.
Haiti has been rocked by one crisis after another this year.
First came mass protests that paralyzed much of the capital early this year. Haitians, angry that President Jovenel Moïse was refusing to step down, took to the streets demanding change amid daily power cuts, food shortages and corruption.
In July, mercenaries stormed his home in the middle of the night, killing him and injuring his wife. The assassination left a political void that deepened the turmoil and violence that had gripped Haiti for months, threatening to tip one of the world’s most troubled nations further into lawlessness.
Long accustomed to unrest, the Haitian population has found its resilience pushed to the limit. Barely a month after the assassination, a huge earthquake struck the nation. The 7.2-magnitude quake brought back memories of the tremor that devastated the nation in 2010 and killed more than 100,000 people. Haiti has yet to recover from that, or a subsequent outbreak of cholera brought by United Nations peacekeepers.
The chaotic and violent year has led to a surge in kidnappings, adding even more fear to daily life.
Armed gangs have taken greater control of the streets, terrorizing poor neighborhoods and sending thousands fleeing, kidnapping even schoolchildren and church pastors in the middle of their services. Poverty and hunger are rising, with many citizens accusing members of the government of enriching themselves while depriving the population of even the most basic services.
The crises have fueled immigration to South America and even the United States, where Haitians seeking asylum have come to the southern border.
Christian churches play a central role in Haitian life. For many Haitians, their only source of aid throughout their lives, in the absence of strong government institutions, has been the church, a part of Haiti’s landscape since the era of European colonialism and slavery.
Severe poverty, systematic gang violence, the pandemic and a history of dysfunctional government have only worsened the struggles of Haiti’s 11 million people.
Those struggles have reinforced the importance of the church as a source of aid, education and stability for much of the country, which has no other social safety net. French slave owners made Catholicism Haiti’s official religion, and it endured even after the slave revolt and Haitian independence, a faith many Haitians are deeply bound to.
But Haiti, as the world’s first Black independent nation, took Catholic rituals and melded them with local customs, creating a faith unique to the nation that many find pride in.
Churches became a major feature of communities across the country, places to gather, seek refuge and get food and education. These needs only intensified as the country — once the wealthiest in the Caribbean — slipped into poverty over the past 100 years. Foreign interference from the United States, which invaded and supported political coups and dictatorships, deepened the despair.
Religious charities played a prominent role in mobilizing help for victims of a devastating earthquake this year. Catholic Relief Services, for example, dispatched teams to Les Cayes, Haiti, and the surrounding area to provide clean water, sanitation, shelter and emergency supplies. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, a major community of the Haitian diaspora, accepted donations for quake relief.
Kidnapping has long been a scourge in Haiti, with gangs abducting anyone from vegetable sellers to foreign businesspeople for ransoms that range from the hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
The threat of kidnapping has grown as political turmoil continues and armed gangs have taken greater control of the streets, terrorizing poor neighborhoods and sending thousands fleeing.
Haitians — already facing poverty and hunger — have described the threat of kidnapping as a constant menace that complicates much of daily life, with simple acts like buying gas or going to the grocery store carrying the risk of being grabbed.
“They can kidnap you at any time; they don’t need to know who you are to kidnap you,” said Anette Telemarque, 72, a Haitian who is now living in New York. “They kidnap everybody, rich or poor.”
She added: “I was suffering in Haiti because I didn’t have a minimum of freedom. Every time I had to go out, I thought about the kidnapping, the gangs in the streets.”
Most victims are middle and working class people. Their families often end up negotiating with kidnappers on their own rather than turn to the police, who have a long history of corruption and who sometimes engage in kidnapping themselves.
In April gangs kidnapped five Roman Catholic priests and two nuns.
“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” Archbishop Max Leroy Mesidor of Port-au-Prince said in a statement at the time.
Haitians have been making the dangerous journey to the southern border of the United States in greater numbers this year after the country was buffeted by a string of crises, including an earthquake, a presidential assassination, floods and gang violence.
In September, thousands of Haitians gathered at a makeshift camp in a Texas border town, which led to scenes of Border Patrol agents on horses pushing some of them back across the Rio Grande. That prompted criticism from Democrats and questions about President Biden’s decision to deport Haitians who arrived at the border.
Haitian government officials have protested that they do not have the resources to help those who are being sent back on flights from the United States. Daniel Foote, the senior American envoy for Haiti policy, resigned over a deportation policy he called “inhumane” and “counterproductive.”
Over the past decade, many Haitians have sought refuge abroad, particularly after a devastating earthquake in 2010. Some who traveled to countries in South America, including Brazil and Chile, decided to continue on to the United States this year. Some said they believed that migration policies had eased after President Donald J. Trump left office, particularly after Mr. Biden extended protections for Haitians already in the country.
But for those who reached Del Rio, the Texas border town where thousands gathered, it became clear that their expectations of a warm welcome were mistaken.
Still, many continue to make a perilous journey, crossing the lawless Darién Gap, a roadless stretch of jungle that links South America to the North. Panamanian officials say an estimated 95,000 migrants, most of them from Haiti, tried to cross that dangerous stretch in the first nine months of this year.
“We take this risk because we have children,” Vladimy Damier, a Haitian migrant who was crossing the Darién Gap with his family, told The New York Times.
Over the past decade the international community has sent more than $13 billion in aid to Haiti.
In the absence of a strong government, religious groups and international aid organizations provide vital services in the country, which has been called the Republic of NGOs because of the many nongovernmental organizations that operate there.
The devastating 2010 earthquake was a catalyst for some charity groups, which have allowed Haiti to greatly improve its capacities to respond to health and natural disasters.
Over the past decade, emergency medical services have been established and training programs for emergency responses have been opened. Air ambulances are now available as are medical helicopters and trains.
“The things we had at our disposal in 2010 versus now are night and day,” Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician and co-founder of the relief agency Partners in Health, said in an interview in August. “We can move patients from south to north like today, whereas after the earthquake in 2010, we really had to wait eight days to transport people by air to an operating room,” he added.
But the charities have also fostered an unhealthy dependence, some expert say. And even the best intentions have sometimes taken a wrong turn.
After the earthquake in 2010 killed more than 200,000 in Haiti, the United States led a mass international adoption effort that saw many safeguards dropped to speed the evacuation of children. Some were sent to the United States without adequate paperwork or screening to make sure they weren’t improperly taken from relatives. An unknown number were left in the American foster care system because adoptive families had not been formally arranged or backed out.
The aid effort in response to the earthquake also brought other problems. A group of United Nations peacekeepers sent to Haiti in the aftermath brought cholera with them, and the outbreak that followed has killed as many as 10,000 people since then. The United Nations only acknowledged its role in the outbreak nearly six years later, and faced criticism for its unwillingness to hold itself accountable.
Oxfam, a British charity, fired at least four of its staff members over “sexual misconduct” in Haiti after a news report revealed that employees had hired prostitutes and organized orgies. Three others resigned, including the organization’s Haiti director.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting.