By Kara Fox, David Shortell, Natalie Gallón, Matt Rivers, AnneClaire Stapleton and Melissa Bell, CNN
The danger was visible all around them, long before a group of Christian Aid Ministries missionaries and children were abducted from the road in Haiti.
In one 2019 blog post, an unnamed member of the Ohio-based group described a harrowing escape from a group of men near the Port-au-Prince airport.
A man dressed in black shouting for money stopped the truck, the author wrote. “In a matter of seconds, there were two, of them, then three, and more and more. Countless big arms were coming in both front windows. Someone pulled a knife but there were so many other arms in the way that he couldn’t do anything more than small scratch.
“We tried to keep going, but they were jumping on the back of the truck, piled on the hood, and hanging all over the truck,” they wrote, adding that there was a smell of alcohol in the air. The driver “veered the truck and tried again to speed up, but we hit a large rock that was unseen with all the bodies on the hood. The men tried to cut the truck tires, but failed.
“I don’t even know how we eventually got out of there, but we escaped without shots being fired after us. I guess some were content enough with the loot they managed to get, and backed off to fight among themselves over it,” they wrote.
More warning signs were to come. In 2020, the group’s home base in Titanyen, a village north of Port-au-Prince, received threats from a local gang, according to another post on the same blog.
“Gangs fighting each other breaks the calm nights with rapid gun fire. The CAM base in Haiti has been targeted by the local gang. Demanding money and food they vandalize CAM vehicles and threaten with severity,” it read.
That same year, the group’s annual report said that it had been forced to pull American staff out of Haiti for nine months because of political unrest, before returning them.
On Saturday, things took a turn for the worse. Seventeen Christian Aid Ministries members — a group ranging in age from 8 months to 48 years — were kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo gang after visiting an orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets, a northeast suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince.
Members of one family, who were with a young child when they were taken hostage, had just arrived in Haiti earlier this month.
They have been held captive for four days now.
The missionaries’ captors have demanded $1 million per hostage, totaling $17 million — and so far are sticking to their demands. “The kidnappers have been warned about harming the hostages and what may be the consequences for them [if that were to happen]. But they are not swayed by those warnings,” Haitian Justice Minister Liszt Quitel said.
The 400 Mawozo, which numbers up to 150 members according to a Haitian security source, is notorious for group kidnappings and largely controls Croix-des-Bouquets. In the same area in April, five priests and two nuns, including two French citizens, were previously abducted and later freed on ransom.
The 81-year-old nun, Sister Agnes Bordeau, told CNN that armed men took control of their bus and drove it to a forest. There the group spent the first five days of their captivity, sleeping on pieces of cardboard with only a sheet to protect them from the chill of the night air.
Their meals, she says, consisted of some rice and a little meat that the missionaries shared with the guards. “A certain trust developed between us,” said Bordeau.
“They told us about their lives. They were young men who had just come out of prison and who could find no work other than taking up arms and becoming guards for hostages. They didn’t even know the gang leaders for whom they were working. They were sort of hostages as well,” she said.
The group was later moved between small and squalid shelters. They were released after 20 days.
Bordeau wouldn’t comment on whether a ransom had been paid by the French state or not, just that a $1 million ransom had been demanded by her captors.
She now lives in a convent near La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic west coast, and says of the latest kidnapping that she feels “a of sadness for the Haitian people, who want nothing more than to be able to get out of all this and who can’t.”
Global attention to a Haitian epidemic
Hundreds of kidnappings have been reported in Haiti since the start of the year, but this latest incident involving US and Canadian missionaries has catapulted the country’s security crisis into the global spotlight.
Gangs control over 60% of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network said in July, effectively leaving more than 200,000 city residents cut off from basic services and transportation in areas run by gangs abandoned by police presence.
And in a city of nearly a million residents, nearly everyone seems to have their own grim story to tell, with stories of abduction and attacks as rife as the poverty and political instability that propels it.
Chrisner and Merline, a married couple from Port-au-Prince, were kidnapped in January — seized as they exited their local church. As they sat in their kidnappers’ car, with hoods on their head, they could only think about one thing: You either come back home or you don’t return at all.
For five sleepless days, the couple waited in a small room where they were given water and food just once a day.
“We were just in the room waiting for the time they will have to decide what they will do with us,” they said. They were freed after their church raised enough money to pay the ransom — 600,000 Haitian gourdes, or around $6,300 — an insurmountable amount for most Haitians.
Since January, at least 645 kidnappings have taken place, only rarely involving foreigners. Out of this year’s total, 42 kidnappings were of foreigners, and 4 were foreign residents, according to the Port-au-Prince nonprofit Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights (CARDH).
Data from the global risk consultancy Control Risks found that reported kidnapping cases increased by 550% in the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same period last year.
Port-au-Prince resident Jean Gardy Jean told CNN the coverage that the kidnappings of the American missionaries this week speaks volumes about the way in which the world values Haitian lives.
“Kidnappings here have been happening for so long, why did no one talk about it then? Why is the world making such a big deal about foreigners? It’s because they’re more important,” he said.
‘Gangs have become more influential actors’
Haiti’s deteriorating economic outlook, punctuated by the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse in July has turbocharged the country’s security crisis.
More than 15,000 people fled their homes in the capital this summer, due to gang violence and rampant arson. Life in Port-au-Prince is marred by skyrocketing inflation, frequent blackouts, and shortages of food and fuel, largely due to gang activity choking off key delivery routes.
“Gangs have become more influential actors, which puts pressure on the interim government,” Alan Zamayoa, Control Risks’ analyst for the Americas said, noting that in recent months, humanitarian aid was able to circulate through Martissant, a gang-ridden neighborhood in the capital, as a result of a gang truce.
On Sunday, the hold of gang activity was laid bare, as Prime Minister Ariel Henry was forced to backtrack on plans to lay a wreath for the Haitian Revolution leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines — a national holiday commemorating his death — during a memorial in Pont Rouge, an area controlled by a coalition of gangs known as the G9.
Zamayoa says that many factors are at play.
While “security forces are overwhelmed and understaffed,” he said that in recent years criminals have also “gained access to deadlier weapons, such as semi-automatic rifles, which are much more powerful than the police’s equipment.”
Zamayoa explained that in addition to those factors, “collusion with police agents and politicians, as well as impunity, are extremely high.”
This all contributes to the gangs’ ability to “wield territorial control” over areas of the capital, Nicola White, Control Risk’s Director, added.
“They can hold multiple victims at the same time because they are not under sustained, credible pressure to conclude cases quickly or discreetly,” White said, adding that these factors “have enabled the significant rise in kidnapping.”
But Haitians have had enough. Just before the missionaries’ abduction, a Haitian transportation union called for an indefinite strike, which began on Monday, in protest of the rise in kidnappings — among other issues.
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Reporting contributed by CNN’s Caitlin Hu.