Kidnappers in Haiti Demand $17 Million to Free Missionary Group

Kidnappers in Haiti Demand $17 Million to Free Missionary Group 1

A gang abducted 17 people associated with a Christian aid group, including five children. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A million dollars a head.

That is the demand from kidnappers in Haiti who seized 17 people tied to Christian Aid Ministries, a U.S.-based missionary group, over the weekend, a Haitian official said Tuesday.

“The demand was made to the country chief of the Christian Aid Ministries,” Justice Minister Liszt Quitel said in a phone interview.

It might signal just the start of a long negotiation, Mr. Quitel said.

“Often these gangs know these demands cannot be met,” he said, “and they will consider a counteroffer from the families. And the negotiations can take a couple of days sometimes, or a couple of weeks.”

As far as he knows, Mr. Quitel said, the gang has not issued a deadline for payment. The demand was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

Haiti has been in a state of upheaval for years, but the kidnapping of missionaries was a sobering example of just how bad things have gotten since the assassination in July of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, and the natural disasters that followed.

Gangs that were long part of Haiti’s landscape surged into the political vacuum, taking control of about half the country’s territory, by some estimates.

For these criminal organizations, kidnappings are “the new business that brings in the most money,” said Joel Edouard Vorbe, a leader of the left-wing party Fanmi Lavalas.

The gangs, which target rich and poor alike, will typically settle on a lower ransom, said Gèdèon Jean, the executive director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, an advocacy group in Port-au-Prince. The amount is not usually disclosed, and often, the abductees are told not to discuss the terms of their release.

American laws generally do not prohibit the payment of ransom, said Rob Saale, the former head of the F.B.I.-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. But it is different when the kidnappers are terrorists. In that case, paying ransom is a considered to be providing material support to a terrorism organization, and is illegal.

Typically, groups that provide humanitarian assistance in dangerous places have kidnapping insurance, and it is insurance companies’ crisis teams that negotiate for the release of hostages, said Mr. Saale, who is a security consultant.

In Haiti, the power of gangs is such that kidnappers often don’t bother to hide, and operate nearly unafraid of repercussions, said Eric Jean-Jacques, 48, a Haitian businessman whose aunt and cousin were held hostage last month by a gang called 5 Segonn.

The kidnappers initially demanded $1 million for Mr. Jean-Jacques’ aunt and $2.5 million for his cousin, in the mistaken belief that she was the daughter of a former prime minister.

Gang members were so confident they were not in danger that they spent long minutes on the phone during negotiations, even though it might have allowed them to be located, he said.

“They don’t care,” Mr. Jean-Jacques said. “They know we cannot enter their territory.”

And when Mr. Jean-Jacques went to deliver payment — $30,000 raised among family members for the cousin’s release, and nothing for the aunt, who was let go — the meeting took place in plain sight, he said, near the presidential palace in the center of Port-au-Prince.

“He did not even have a mask on,” Mr. Jean-Jacques said of the gang member.

At the heart of this recent spate of kidnappings is the group that the police believe abducted the missionaries on Saturday.

Known as 400 Mawozo, the gang controls the area where the missionaries were abducted in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. The group has sown terror there for several months, engaging in armed combat with rival gangs and kidnapping businessmen and police officers.

Once a relatively small criminal operation that operated in the countryside and trafficked in stolen cars, the gang expand its criminal activities in the chaotic months following the president’s assassination, said Mr. Jean, the human rights group director. By forging alliances with other armed groups, it was able to control an area stretching from the east of Port-au-Prince to the border with the Dominican Republic — a territory so vast that the police are unable to pursue gang members.

“The police are in a situation of powerlessness,” Mr. Jean said.

The 400 Mawozo gang accounted for 60 percent of the kidnappings from July to September, Mr. Jean said. They are held responsible for kidnapping five priests and two nuns this year, and are also believed to have killed Anderson Belony, a well-known sculptor who had worked to improve his community, according to local news reports.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the State Department was working with the F.B.I., the Haitian national police, churches and other groups to get the hostages released. But he noted that the kidnappings were “also indicative of a larger problem, and that is a security situation that is, quite simply, unsustainable.”

Mr. Blinken said the United States would continue to support the Haitian police and community programs in their efforts to stem gang violence. “But it’s a very challenging, and long-term process,” he said.

Gangs have gained so much power that they have taken on a nearly institutional role in some communities, said Mr. Vorbe, the political party leader, substituting for the police or providing basic services like road cleaning.

“​​They have stepped in for the state,” he said.

The growing gang presence, and now the attack on a group of missionaries, have cast a pall over other aid organizations and projects in the country.

In Fond Parisien, about 20 minutes from where the kidnapping took place, is another mission project called Redeemed Vocational School, which teaches trades like auto mechanics, sewing, and computer skills. The group had been planning to build a larger school building, but the violence has made it harder to travel and get supplies, said Kenlyn Miller, 46, the chairman of the school’s board in Gambier, Ohio.

“Usually we have some Americans travel over to help with some of that,” he said, “and just because of the safety issues, that is probably not going to happen for quite a while. This definitely will put a damper on what can be done.”

“It puts fear in a lot of people, when they hear about this,” he said.

Adam Goldman, Elizabeth Dias and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.