A U.S.-based missionary group including 12 adults and five children was kidnapped in Haiti on Saturday and now U.S. and Haitian authorities are trying to secure their release.
Police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press on Sunday that the group of 16 Americans and one Canadian was kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo Haitian gang, which is prominent in the Croix-des-Bouquets area east of the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince.
The kidnapping took place on Saturday in the Ganthier community. The area is controlled by the 400 Mawozo gang. The gang has previously been blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year and is known for killings, kidnappings and extortions.
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the U.S. State Department said Sunday.
The State Department said it is in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and will work with them and other interagency partners.
Christian Aid Ministries, the Ohio-based mission organization, said the kidnapped group included seven adult women, five adult men and five children, the youngest of which is 2-years-old. The organization said the missionary group was abducted while on a trip to visit an orphanage.
Dan Hooley, a former field director for Christian Aid Ministries in Haiti, told CNN the kidnapped missionaries were all in one vehicle and some were able to contact the local director for the organization before they were kidnapped. Hooley said the gang has also made contact with the organization.
“Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers and the families, friends and churches of those affected,” Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement provided to the Associated Press. “As an organization, we commit this situation to God and trust him to see us through.”
The kidnapping comes amid ongoing turmoil in the country. In July, President Jovenel Moïse was fatally shot at his private residence. In August, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked the island, killing more than 2,200 people. Unions and other organizations in the area near where the missionary group was abducted were also organizing over the weekend for planned strikes, in protest of the country’s security conditions.
Haiti has also reportedly seen a rise in gang activity, such as kidnappings, following Moïse’s assassination.
“Everyone is concerned,” Méhu Changeux, president of Haiti’s Association of Owners and Drivers, told Magik9 radio station. “They’re kidnapping from all social classes.”
The 400 Mawozo gang is responsible for much of the spike in kidnapping incidents in Haiti, the Haiti-based Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights (CARDH) said, according to CNN. The gang has reportedly specialized in the “collective” kidnappings of large groups of victims, especially from buses and cars.
CARDH said there have been 628 kidnappings in Haiti since January, including of the kidnapping of 29 foreign nationals. the 400 Mawozo gang typically demands ransoms of around $20,000 per person.