PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - A gang blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year in Haiti is now accused of kidnapping 17 missionaries from a U.S.-based organization, including a 2-year-old, police said Sunday.
The 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped the group — which also included some elderly people — in Ganthier, a commune that lies east of the capital of Port-au-Prince, Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press.
The gang, whose name roughly translates to 400 "inexperienced men," controls the Croix-des-Bouquets area that includes Ganthier, where they carry out kidnappings and carjackings and extort business owners, according to authorities.
Haiti is once again struggling with a spike in gang-related kidnappings that had diminished in recent months, after President Jovenel Moïse was fatally shot at his private residence on July 7 and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,200 people in August.
Nearly a year ago, Haitian police issued a wanted poster for the gang's alleged leader, Wilson Joseph, on charges including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, auto theft and the hijacking of trucks carrying goods. He goes by the nickname "Lanmò Sanjou," which means "death doesn’t know which day it’s coming."
Joseph, who could not be immediately reached for comment, has posted videos detailing the alleged crimes the gang has committed in recent years.
Once, when the gang opened fire on a small bus carrying several passengers and killed an infant, Wilson said it was not their fault because the bus driver refused to stop. In a more recent video, he appears holding a bottle of alcohol surrounded by heavily armed men. Another video from June shows people inside a church fleeing as gunfire erupted outside on a Saturday morning. The gang was accused of raiding the area and setting cars on fire.
The missionaries were on their way home Saturday from building an orphanage, according to a message from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries sent to various religious missions.
"This is a special prayer alert," the one-minute message said. "Pray that the gang members would come to repentance."
The message says the mission's field director is working with the U.S. Embassy, and that the field director's family and one other unidentified man stayed at the ministry's base while everyone else visited the orphanage.
A U.S. government spokesperson said officials were aware of the reports on the kidnapping.
"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the spokesperson said, declining to comment further.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is in touch with Haitian authorities to try to resolve the case.
Gangs have demanded ransoms ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $1 million, according to authorities.
Last month, a deacon was killed in front of a church in the capital of Port-au-Prince and his wife kidnapped, one of dozens of people who have been abducted in recent months.
At least 328 kidnappings were reported to Haiti’s National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020, according to a report issued last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti known as BINUH.
Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, busloads of passengers and others as they grow more powerful. In April, a man who claimed to be the gang leader of the 400 Mawozo told a radio station that they were the ones responsible for kidnapping five priests, two nuns and three relatives of one of the priests that month. They were later released.
A protest is scheduled for Monday to decry the nation's lack of security.
"Political turmoil, the surge in gang violence, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions — including food insecurity and malnutrition — all contribute to the worsening of the humanitarian situation," BINUH said in its report. "An overstretched and under-resourced police force alone cannot address the security ills of Haiti."
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend the U.N. political mission in Haiti.
The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after high-level U.S. officials visited Haiti and promised more resources for Haiti's National Police, including another $15 million to help reduce gang violence, which this year has displaced thousands of Haitians who now live in temporary shelters in increasingly unhygienic conditions.
Among those who met with Haiti's police chief was Uzra Zeya, U.S. under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
"Dismantling violent gangs is vital to Haitian stability and citizen security," she recently tweeted.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.