A gang that kidnapped members of a Christian missionary group from the United States is demanding $1m in ransom per person, a top Haitian official told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The official, who was not authorised to speak to the press, said someone from the 400 Mawozo gang called in the ransom demand shortly after kidnapping the missionaries on October 16.
A person in contact with the Christian Aid Ministries, who also spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, confirmed the $1-million-per-person demand to the AP.
Haiti has descended into increasing lawlessness following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July and a magnitude-7.2 earthquake in August. Kidnappings by armed gangs have spiked, amid fuel and food shortages and a new wave of migrants leaving the impoverished Caribbean island nation.
Haitian workers went on a general strike on October 18 to protest worsening insecurity and gang violence after the abduction of the Christian missionaries.
“Many people, including CAM management and Haitian and US authorities, are working diligently to bring our loved ones home safely,” Christian Aid said in a statement on Tuesday without acknowledging the ransom request.
The adults being held captive range in age from 18 to 48, while the children are aged eight months, three years, six years, 13 years and 15 years, according to the statement. Sixteen of the abductees are Americans and one is Canadian.
The group was returning from visiting an orphanage when they were abducted on October 16, the Ohio-based organisation said.
“This group of workers has been committed to minister throughout poverty-stricken Haiti,” the ministry said, adding that the missionaries were most recently working on a rebuilding project to help people who lost homes in the earthquake.
The US has sent a team of FBI agents and Department of State diplomats to Port-au-Prince to work with Haitian authorities.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price said on Monday US officials had been in constant contact with Haiti’s National Police, the missionary group and the victims’ relatives.
“This is something that we have treated with the utmost priority since Saturday,” Price said, adding that officials are doing “all we can to seek a quick resolution to this”.
Haiti Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told the Wall Street Journal newspaper the FBI and Haitian police were in contact with the kidnappers and seeking the release of the missionaries and children.
The same 400 Mawazo gang had kidnapped a group of Catholic priests in April. Five priests, two nuns and three relatives were released after ransom was paid for two of the priests, Minister Quitel told the Journal.
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, said a report last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.
A White House spokesman on Tuesday declined to comment on the ransom demand.
Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, bus passengers and others as they grow more powerful and demand ransoms ranging from a couple hundred dollars to millions of dollars.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told the AP that the rise in gang violence has affected relief efforts in Haiti. He said a UN aid coordinator reported “violence, looting, road blockades and the persistent presence of armed gangs all pose obstacles to humanitarian access”.
“The situation is further complicated by very serious fuel shortages and the reduced supply of goods,” Dujarric said.