At least 17 Christian missionaries—16 Americans and one Canadian—and their family members who are primarily from the U.S. have been abducted in Haiti, according to police.
The group, which include some elderly people and a 2-year-old child, were snatched by the 400 Mawozo gang in Ganthier, a commune near Port-au-Prince, Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press.
The group worked for a U.S.-based organization and had been on a site visit to an orphanage to carry out their aid work, according to The Washington Post. They were stopped by the gang on their way to the airport to drop off some members, according to local officials.
One of the kidnapped people reportedly sent a WhatsApp message after the abduction. “Please pray for us!! We are being held hostage, they kidnapped our driver. Pray pray pray. We don’t know where they are taking us,” the unidentified sender wrote, according to the Post.
The 400 Mawozo gang is responsible for 80 percent of kidnappings in Haiti and is notorious for hijacking vehicles and kidnapping people with ransom potential from cars and buses. Earlier this year, they kidnapped five priests and two nuns.
“This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any entire bus or car,” Gedeon Jean, head of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, said, according to the Miami Herald.
The kidnapped group are thought to be part of the Christian Aid Ministries, which published a “prayer alert” to members to pray for the missing group, which includes children. “The mission field director and the American embassy are working to see what can be done,” the alert states. “Pray that the gang members will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”
Security officials cited by The New York Times said a gang abducted the group in Port-au-Prince, which has been rife with gang violence recently.
The violence has only intensified since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse thrust the country into political chaos over the summer. At least 328 people were kidnapped between January and September, 2021. Last month a deacon was killed and his wife kidnapped in front of a church in Port-au-Prince.
In 2020, 234 people were kidnapped, according to a report by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti. Gangs responsible have asked for ransom amounts up to $1 million. So far no known ransom request has been made for the latest group to be nabbed.
The U.S. State Department would not confirm that Americans were among the missing, but did issue a statement. “The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” a spokesman said, adding, “We are aware of these reports and have nothing additional to offer at this time.”
In July, more than 2,200 people died in a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the beleaguered nation.
The United Nations has vowed to help reestablish security in Port-au-Prince, extending their mission by a year. “The control that gangs exercise around strategic entry and exit points of the capital has had a detrimental impact on Haiti’s economy and the movement of people and goods,” Helen La Lime, the special representative for UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Haiti, told the Security Council ahead of renewing their mission.