Two of 17 people from a US missionary group who were kidnapped in Haiti more than a month ago have been released, the organization said on Sunday.
The hostages, which included women and children, were captured by one of Haiti’s most formidable gangs on October 16 as the group of missionaries visited an orphanage outside the capital, Port-au- Prince.
Announcing that two of them had been released, the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries group said it would not release their names or say why they were released. But the group said those released are “safe, in good spirits and being treated.”
The ministry urged discretion to protect those still in the hands of gang members.
“We ask those with more specific information about the release and those involved to protect that information,” the statement said. A spokesperson for Christian Aid Ministries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The hostage group, which included 16 Americans and one Canadian, worked with Christian Aid Ministries before being kidnapped by a gang called 400 Mawozo, notorious for orchestrating mass kidnappings.
The gang initially demanded a ransom of $ 1 million per person, but this was widely seen as the start of negotiations that are common in kidnappings in Haiti. It was not immediately clear how much money, if any, had been paid.
The US government has responded cautiously to the news. “We welcome the information that two people held hostage in Haiti have been released,” said a spokesperson for the State Department. “We have no further comments at this time.”
Haitian National Police spokesman Gary Desrosiers confirmed that two hostages were released on Sunday, although in his statement Christian Aid Ministries did not specify when they were released.
It was still unclear why only two of the 17 hostages were released – whether their family or friends may have concocted the ransom, or whether the gang took pity on them for a health issue or some other reason. In some previous kidnappings, the 400 Mawozo gang freed several seriously ill or elderly hostages from a larger group.
The youngest hostage taken in the missionary group was an infant.
Since the kidnapping, Christian Aid Missionaries have been involved in protracted negotiations for the group’s release, with the gang demanding more money and the missionary group offering to bring services to their area instead, an official told current of the file.
The mass kidnapping of more than a dozen U.S. citizens, including five children, sparked furor, with U.S. lawmakers condemning the violence in Haiti, and the FBI and State Department working with local authorities to win freedom missionaries.
Mass kidnappings have become commonplace in Haiti, but the brazen kidnapping in broad daylight has shocked even local officials and residents accustomed to gang violence, a further sign of the country’s growing lawlessness.
U.S. officials estimate that tens of thousands of Americans of Haitian descent are in Haiti at any given time, either because they live there or because they regularly commute between countries. They are prime targets for kidnappings, and whenever a ransom is paid, gangs are encouraged to search for new victims.
Security in the country has deteriorated following numerous natural disasters and political crises, including the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moïse. This allowed the gangs to increase their grip on Port-au-Prince and its suburbs, where almost half of the nation lives. Violence has engulfed much of the capital and, by some estimates, gangs now control around half of the city.
Many gangs wield enough power to bring the country to its knees.
Last month, a leading criminal group blocked fuel delivery to much of the country, plunging Haiti into darkness and shutting down everything from hospital operations to cellphone connectivity.
Gangs, which often have political backing, have long been part of the country’s social fabric, but after Mr Moïse’s murder they became more assertive, taking control of vast swathes of land.
Three recent crises seize Haiti
Haitian officials estimate that 400 Mawozo earn about $ 70,000 per week from activities such as kidnapping and extortion, and say he has recently embarked on human trafficking and theft of organs from abduction victims who cannot get the ransom.
The gangs are equipped with a constant supply of contraband weapons from the United States, including assault weapons like the AR-15s. This gives them a lot more firepower than the average cop has. About a dozen gangs are so powerful that they are able to operate as a paramilitary force, a senior Haitian security official said in a recent interview. The manager requested anonymity in order to share sensitive information.
Morale within Haiti’s security forces is low, and it is not uncommon for police to form their own gangs or defect already established ones while continuing to work for the government.
Criminal groups also benefit from regular payments from powerful business tycoons who pay “protection fees” so that their operations are not attacked. Politicians have also paid gangs to expand their influence and suppress voting in national elections.
In the absence of a fully functioning government since the murder of Mr. Moïse, the power of the gangs has only grown.
A wave of natural disasters only made matters worse.
In August, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake added to the devastation of a country that has yet to recover from a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. This summer’s rescue efforts were initially hampered by security concerns, and aid did not flow freely until after gangs controlling a highway connecting the southern peninsula with the rest of Haiti declared a truce.
A severe storm followed a few days later.
In recent weeks, Haitian security forces have stepped up operations to counter criminal organizations, but security experts say the government lacks a coherent strategy. Haitian police need a complete overhaul, with thousands more police needed, a renewed focus on control over recruiting and money to buy new equipment, raise salaries and restore morals, officials say Americans.
Unless a reformed police force can step in to re-impose control once neighborhoods are cleared of gangs, observers say the government will be unable to restore stability.
The increase in gang violence has recently sparked peaceful protests, with groups in towns demanding a response from the government. Some roads have blocked roads and set tires on fire, a common symbol of protest in Haiti.
Harold Isaac has contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.