The abduction of 17 American and Canadian citizens in Haiti will bring a new level of attention to the country’s out-of-control kidnapping crisis but is unlikely to lead to new solutions.
On October 16, a bus carrying the missionaries from Christian Aid Ministries and their families, including five children, was stopped by a gang as they left an orphanage in the town of Ganthier, just northeast of the capital, Port-au-Prince. FBI agents soon arrived in Haiti to help lead the search and rescue operation.
Haiti police inspector Frantz Champagne blamed the kidnappings on 400 Mawozo, a gang based in Ganthier notorious for its kidnapping tactics. Speaking to the Associated Press, Champagne stated 400 Mawozo was also responsible for an April kidnapping of seven clergy members, including two French citizens. The gang asked for a $1 million ransom for their liberation. They were all released a week later, but it is unknown whether the ransom demand was met.
Last December, the Haitian National Police issued an arrest warrant for the leader of 400 Mawozo, William Joseph, alias “Lanmò San Jou.” In a subsequent raid, police arrested several suspected gang members.
InSight Crime Analysis
The abduction of American and Canadian citizens reveals an escalation of the Haiti kidnapping crisis, with foreign citizens increasingly becoming targets. From January to August 2021, Haiti’s national police registered at least 328 kidnappings, up from 234 for all of 2020. The actual number is likely to be far higher.
While numerous gangs in Haiti participate in kidnappings, including the feared G9 alliance, 400 Mawozo appear to be the most dangerous. According to Eric Calpas, a gang researcher on the island who worked with InSight Crime, the gang could have as many as 1,000 members, making it, by far, the country's largest.
The group's modus operandi to kidnap is simple but effective. Calpas says it stations several lookouts and operatives along key roads, where it can surprise and corral victims' vehicles along the barren roads or snarled city traffic. From there, they usher the victims in groups ranging from four to twenty to waiting vehicles that take them to safe houses where ransom negotiations ensue.
Calpas and several other security experts said the gang was responsible for most of the kidnappings in the country between June and September 2021, a period in which kidnappings soared in Haiti, although on some occasions, the gang will sell its victims to other gangs.
While kidnapping appears to be 400 Mawozo's primary means of income, the gang's control of the road on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, such as the one going to Ganthier, a town on a main road to the Dominican Republic, allows it to hijack trucks, extort drivers and profit from smuggling operations as well.
Whereas kidnapping victims remain primarily from the middle-class, such as teachers and business owners who could pay some sort of ransom, the range of targets has expanded. Poor street vendors with little to no cash have been kidnapped, with gangs demanding they sell off personal items, such as refrigerators, to pay for their freedom, according to the New York Times.
Religious groups have also become regular victims of violence. Besides the seven priests and nuns kidnapped by 400 Mawozo in April, a Haitian priest was shot dead in September. Whether the missionaries are rescued due to paying a ransom or through a security operation, there is no sign the situation will improve any time soon. And foreigners will continue to be targeted.
The kidnappings come after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse followed by an earthquake the next month. The turmoil has caused Haiti's security to spiral further out of control and emboldened already powerful gangs.