Americas|Gang suspected in kidnapping of missionaries is among the country’s most dangerous.
- Oct. 17, 2021Updated 2:53 p.m. ET
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 taken kidnapping in Haiti to a new level, snatching people en masse as they ride buses or walk the streets in groups whose numbers might once have kept them safe.
The gang was blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year. It 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 used to line the sidewalks, some of whom were kidnapped by the gang for what little they had in their pockets or told to sell what few possessions they had 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.