Haiti: what is known about 400 Mawozo, the gang suspected of kidnapping 17 American missionaries

The security crisis that Haiti is experiencing has been revealed once again with the kidnapping of 17 people on Saturday in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The five men, seven women and five children were returning from a visit to an orphanage when their vehicles were stopped.

Among those kidnapped are 16 US citizens and a Canadian who are part of a group of missionaries from Ohio, USA, called Christian Aid Ministries.

“Please pray for us! They’re taking us hostage, they kidnapped our driver. Pray, pray, pray. We don’t know where they are taking us, ”said one of the hostages in a message sent by WhatsApp to which The Washington Post newspaper had access. Haitian authorities and several security experts believe the missionaries were held by a powerful gang called 400 Mawozo, which was also behind the kidnapping of members of the Catholic clergy in April. The kidnapped Christian group this time was leaving an orphanage in the town of Croix-des-Bouquets, an area controlled by the gang.

According to Gedeon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, based in Port-au-Prince, the vast majority of kidnappings that have occurred in the country in recent times were perpetrated by this gang. Jean told the Miami Herald that this one also fit the “type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do.”

Haitian police sources also told the AP agency and the CNN channel that they believed that this criminal group was behind the events on Saturday.

The 400 Mawozo gang normally demands a ransom for their victims and last April they asked for $ 1 million for the safe return of Catholic clergy.

Although it is unclear whether payment has been required for the missionaries’ release, a former field director for Christian Aid Ministries in Haiti told CNN that the kidnappers have already contacted the organization.

From Christian Aid Ministries, which supports Haitians mainly through donations and provides shelter, food and clothing to children and help for their education, they said in a statement Sunday that they were “praying for the kidnapped, the kidnappers and the families , friends and churches of those affected. ”A State Department spokesperson told the BBC that the US authorities have been in regular contact with the Haitian authorities about the case. But what else is known about this gang? How much power do these types of organizations have in Haiti?

Kidnappings in Haiti

Haiti is one of the countries with the highest kidnapping rates in the world and the situation has worsened this year.

Until last september It has beenbían registered more than 600 kidnappings, compared to the 231 that occurred in the same period of the previous year, according to data from CARDH.

According to this organization, a large part of this rise in kidnappings is the direct responsibility of 400 Mawozo.

Aerial view of a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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The group, whose name in Spanish means “the 400 inexperienced men,” operates in the district in eastern Port-au-Prince, where frequently carry out kidnappings, vehicle theft and extortion to businessmen, according to authorities.

This criminal group is one of around 150 that terrorize the Haitian capital every day.

They are bands that have gained more ground taking advantage of the delicate situation of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The fragility of the institutions and the political crisis aggravated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July has created an even greater breeding ground for the empowerment of these gangs.

Search for evidence outside the residence of the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse.

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The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July has led to an increase in crime in Haiti.

Each gang operates in different neighborhoods and districts, often fighting against each other to gain control of various criminal activities.

Only in Port-au-Prince, the presence of these gangs has forced the flight of almost 20,000 citizens from their homes and has created chaos in public services.

Some of these gangs have formed alliances and created more powerful organizations, notably the so-called “G9 and Family”, described as “a criminal federation” of nine of the strongest gangs in Port-au-Prince.

“The police have proven incapable of taking on gangs, which have become better organized and control more and more territory ”around the capital and the provincial cities, Gedeon Jean said in statements collected by the AFP agency.

How are kidnappings

The victims of kidnappings are usually both Haitians and foreigners, and for them ransoms are requested that often exceed the annual earnings of an average Haitian.

One of the modus operandi of 400 Mawozo is the collective kidnapping so much from private and public vehicles, explains the CARDH.

Photo of a gang member in Haiti.

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Human rights groups say that the vast majority of women kidnapped by these types of criminal gangs have been sexually assaulted.

Who leads the band

Almost a year ago, the Haitian police issued an arrest warrant for a man named Wilson Joseph, supposed leader of 400 Mawozo.

The warrant attributed to Joseph the charges of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, carjacking and hijacking of trucks with goods.

The supposed leader is also known by the nickname “Lanmò Sanjou”, which means “death without day”.

Alleged links to politics

Haitians protesting against the increase in kidnappings in Haiti, especially in 2021.

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Obtaining money in exchange for ransoms, extortion, drug sales and arms trafficking are considered the main motives behind the offensive of the Haitian gangs.

However, some analysts also they have linked this escalation of crime to the turbulent political class.

In July, a government report said there were “political and electoral issues” behind the violence.

“Certain political parties establish client networks with armed groups to gain or maintain power,” according to an excerpt from the report.

Local media have also reported testimonies that denounce that some of the perpetrators of the kidnappings have used vehicles registered as government.

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