U.S. and senior Haitian officials on Monday worked to free 17 members of an Ohio-based Christian aid organization who were kidnapped over the weekend in Haiti, while local unions and other groups launched a general strike to protest the worsening security situation and gang violence racking the Caribbean nation.

Analysts believe that 400 Mowaza, a gang notorious for mass kidnappings and ransoming of religious groups, is behind Saturday’s brazen abduction. The 16 Americans and one Canadian from Christian Aid Ministries were seized while on a trip to visit an orphanage.

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “We have been in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and will continue to work with them and interagency partners.”

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that President Biden is receiving “regular updates” about the efforts of the State Department and the FBI to secure the release of the group. She said the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is also “coordinating with local authorities and providing assistance to the families to resolve the situation.”

Psaki did not provide details about the identities of those who were kidnapped, citing privacy concerns.

The kidnapping thrust Haiti once more into the center of an international crisis. For months, the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation has been battling a surge in gang violence and kidnappings. A power struggle after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse has further eroded any semblance of rule of law.

Even before this weekend’s abduction, local unions and other organizations had called for a general strike Monday to protest the deteriorating security situation. The demonstration closed businesses, including gas stations, and some schools, and it left the streets of the Haitian capital largely deserted.

“General strike, no commercial activities, no public transport, no fuel, no schools, no life,” Giuseppe Loprete, chief of the International Organization for Migration’s Haiti mission, wrote in a tweet, which included a photo of a mostly empty road. “The population is exhausted. Instability, violence and chaos are pushing [people] to leave more than poverty.”

The 400 Mowaza gang controls parts of Ganthier in Croix-des-Bouquets, the area outside Port-au-Prince where the Christian Aid Ministries car was hijacked as the group returned from visiting an orphanage.

Haiti holds the grim status of having the world’s highest number of kidnappings per capita, with 400 Mowaza behind some 80 percent of abductions in recent months, according to Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince. The group is notorious for its use of rape, mass kidnappings and assassinations to control Haitian streets, businesses and power players.

Haitian authorities said Sunday that they sought to negotiate with 400 Mowaza’s reported second-in-command, Joly “Yonyon” Germine, who is in jail. The gang’s alleged leader, Wilson Joseph, is wanted by police for a long list of charges, including murder and kidnapping.

No group has yet publicly claimed responsibility for kidnapping the Christian Aid Ministries’ team or set a ransom for release. The U.S. government has a long-standing policy of not paying ransoms for American citizens.

Christian Aid Ministries said Sunday that the group included five men, seven women and five children, among them a 2-year-old.

Haitians both rich and poor have fallen victim to the kidnapping surge rattling the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. Abductors typically set ransoms within 24 to 72 hours: Prices can vary from $100 to $1 million, depending on the hostage’s status.

Haitian politicians and police are too weak – or co-opted – to intervene. Many Haitians are consequently too afraid to leave their homes for work – if they have a job at all. A spike in hijackings of fuel trucks has led to a severe shortage of gas and electricity. Some victims of the gangs are specifically targeted; many more are chance bystanders.

The rise of gang violence and the demise of the rule of law has further traumatized – and desensitized – another generation of Haitians. Thousands have been displaced this year, forced to live in overcrowded and unhygienic temporary shelters. Others have undergone treacherous journeys to seek asylum in the United States, only to be returned to Haiti in a surge of deportations last month.

Christian Aid Ministries, based in Millersburg, Ohio, has worked in Haiti for years providing emergency services and running anti-poverty programs, as well as spreading its version of Christian teachings. Its American staff members returned last year after being pulled out for nine months because of the political unrest.

Haiti, formerly occupied by the United States and colonized by the French, is heavily dependent on international aid. Foreigners working in the humanitarian sector typically live in closed compounds and travel with security, among other safety precautions. Many countries and companies pulled out staff in recent months as the insecurity deepened.

In a statement issued Sunday, Christian Aid Ministries pleaded for its members’ release and said it was “praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers and the families, friends and churches of those affected.”

 

Coletta reported from Toronto. The Washington Post’s Widlore Mérancourt in Port-au-Prince and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.

 


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