PORT PRINCE: Civil groups in Haiti called on Sunday for the immediate release of American missionaries abducted a day earlier by one of the criminal gangs proliferating around the capital Port-au-Prince amid spreading insecurity.

“We call for the liberation of the persons kidnapped, whether American citizens or of other nationalities,” said Gedeon Jean, director of the Centre for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, based in the capital.

He said the current situation was “detrimental to human dignity.”

The group of 15 to 17 people, including children and by some accounts one Canadian, were kidnapped while on their way back from a visit to an orphanage some 30 kilometres east of the capital, a Haitian security source said.

Some members of the Ohio-based missionary group were on their first trip to Haiti, the source said.

They are being held by the so-called “400 Mawozo” gang, which for months has carried out kidnappings and robberies in the area between Port-au-Prince and the Dominican Republic border, said the source, who spoke on grounds of anonymity.

The gang has hijacked several vehicles — even entire busloads of victims — on roads it controls, kidnapping both Haitians and foreigners and holding them for ransoms often many times a Haitian’s yearly earnings.

“The police have proven incapable of confronting the gangs, which have become better organised and which control more and more territory” around the capital and in provincial cities, Jean said.

His group has tallied an alarming increase in kidnappings in Haiti: more than 600 occurred in the first three months of 2021, up sharply from 231 in the corresponding period of 2020.

The kidnapping of the missionary group occurred on Saturday morning on roads controlled by the Mawozo group. In addition to the Americans, an unknown number of Haitians were abducted.

The US State Department offered no details. A spokesperson said only: “The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State.

“We are aware of these reports and have nothing additional to offer at this time.”

Officials are typically close-mouthed about abductions, given the extraordinary sensitivity of such situations. In April, the Mawozo group held 10 people including two French Catholic clergy members for 20 days before releasing them.

Haiti has struggled for years with natural and man-made challenges that have paralysed economic growth. The July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise by an armed private commando plunged the country deeper into turmoil. Then an August 14 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people in the southwest.

Gedeon Jean says the absence of a strong state has left a void that criminal gangs have moved to fill, extending their hold from some of the capital’s poorest districts into surrounding areas.

Even before Saturday’s kidnappings, business and professional groups in Port-au-Prince had called for an indefinite strike beginning on Monday to protest the spreading climate of insecurity.

The gangs often demand the equivalent of decades of wages from the families of kidnap victims, most of whom are living below the poverty line.

And rights groups say the vast majority of women kidnapped by criminal gangs are sexually assaulted.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2021

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