A gang captured a group of aid workers on Saturday and are holding 17 people hostage, including children. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.
The gang that kidnapped 17 people with a U.S.-based Christian aid group in Haiti on Saturday is demanding a ransom of $1 million for each person they are holding, the country’s justice minister, Liszt Quitel, said on Tuesday.
Local authorities said the people kidnapped — 16 Americans and one Canadian, including five children — were captured in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, the capital.
“The demand was made to the country chief of the Christian Aid Ministries — they asked for $1 million per person,” Mr. Quitel said in a phone interview, referring to the Christian aid group whose members were kidnapped. “Often these gangs know these demands cannot be met and they will consider a counter offer from the families, and the negotiations can take a couple of days sometimes, or a couple of weeks.”
As far as he knew, he said, the gang did not issue a deadline for payment.
The Wall Street Journal earlier reported the ransom demand.
Haiti has been in a state of political upheaval for years, and kidnappings of the rich and poor alike are alarmingly common. But even in a country accustomed to widespread lawlessness, the abduction of such a large group of Americans shocked officials for its brazenness.
Violence is surging across Port-au-Prince, which is controlled by gangs. On Monday, gangs shot at a school bus, injuring at least five people, including students, while another public bus was hijacked by a gang as well. By some estimates, gangs now command roughly half of the city.
Gangs have plagued Port-au-Prince over the past two decades, but were often used for political purposes — such as voter suppression — by powerful politicians. They have grown into a force that is now seemingly uncontrollable, thriving in the economic malaise and desperation that deepens every year, with independent gangs mushrooming across the capital.
As security has broken down, the country’s politics have disintegrated. Two years ago, demonstrators furious at widespread corruption demanded the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse, effectively paralyzing the country. The standoff prevented the sick from getting treatment in hospitals, children from attending school and workers from going to the rare jobs available. It even stopped electricity from flowing in parts of the country.
Since then, gangs have become only more assertive. They operate at will, kidnapping children on their way to school and pastors in the middle of delivering their services.
The gang that the police say kidnapped the 17 missionaries and their family members is among the country’s most dangerous and one of the first to engage in mass kidnappings.
Known as 400 Mawozo, the gang controls the area where the missionaries were abducted in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. The group has sown terror there for several months, engaging in armed combat with rival gangs and kidnapping businessmen and police officers.
The gang has taken kidnapping in Haiti to a new level, snatching people en masse as they ride buses or walk the streets in groups whose numbers might once have kept them safe.
The gang was blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year. It is also believed to have killed Anderson Belony, a famous sculptor, on Tuesday, according to local news reports. Mr. Belony had worked to improve his impoverished community.
Croix-des-Bouquets, one of the suburbs now under control by the gang, has become a near ghost town, with many residents fleeing the daily violence.
The once-bustling area now lacks the poor street vendors who used to line the sidewalks, some of whom were kidnapped by the gang for what little they had in their pockets or told to sell what few possessions they had at home, including radios or refrigerators, to pay off the ransom.
While older, more established gangs trafficked in kidnapping or carrying out the will of their political patrons, newer gangs like 400 Mawozo are raping women and recruiting children, forcing the youth in their neighborhood to beat up those they captured, training a newer, more violent generation of members. Churches, once untouchable, are now a frequent target, with priests kidnapped even mid-sermon.
Locals are fed up with the violence, which prevents them from making a living and keeps their children from attending school. Some started a petition in recent days to protest the region’s rising gang violence, pointing to the 400 Mawozo gang and calling on the police to take action.
The American government has a team on the ground in Haiti working with the American Embassy and the local authorities to recover the kidnapped missionaries and their children.
“The president has been briefed and is receiving regular updates on what the State Department and the F.B.I. are doing to bring these individuals home safely,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a news briefing on Monday. “We can confirm their engagement, and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is coordinating with local authorities and providing assistance to the families to resolve the situation.”