The FBI is assisting Haitian authorities in their efforts to negotiate the safe release of a group of missionaries kidnapped by a gang in the troubled country, according to the White House.
Seventeen people, including 16 U.S. citizens, were abducted by a gang at a checkpoint in Haiti during an airport run on Saturday, sources told ABC News.
The kidnappings have put Haiti in the spotlight again after a turbulent few months, including a devastating earthquake and presidential assassination – although gangs’ violence and use of kidnapping for ransom have plagued the Haitian people for years.
MORE: 17 missionaries, including 5 children, kidnapped in Haiti, ministry says
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the kidnappings and “what the State Department and the FBI are doing to bring these individuals home safely,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
The State Department said Sunday its officials have been in “regular contact” with Haitian authorities “and will continue to work with them and interagency partners” to recover the group, a spokesperson told ABC News. The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is leading coordination with local authorities and providing assistance to the families, Psaki added.
The Haitian government suspects the gang known as 400 Mawozo to be responsible for the abductions, according to a source at the Haitian presidential office.
The Ohio-based ministry Christian Aid Ministries confirmed in a statement that a group of 17 people, including five children, were “abducted” while on a trip to an orphanage on Saturday. In addition to the Americans, the group includes one Canadian and two Haitian citizens.
“We request urgent prayer for the group of Christian Aid Ministries workers who were abducted while on a trip to visit an orphanage on Saturday, October 16,” Christian Aid Ministries said Sunday. “We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help.”
Haiti has seen a spike in gang violence in recent years amid political unrest and turmoil in its government, especially after July’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse – the controversial leader accused of creating a constitutional crisis. Just weeks after a successor was sworn in – U.S.-backed Ariel Henry – Haiti experienced a horrific 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August that killed over 2,200 people.
“You put the poverty on top of repeated 7.0 plus magnitude earthquakes over the years, and it’s just been brutal for the Haitian people and very difficult for them to establish not just the rule of law, but basic functions of society,” said retired Col. Stephen Ganyard, an ABC News contributor and former assistant secretary of state.
Haiti leads the world with the highest kidnapping rate per capita. According to Haiti’s Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, there have been some 600 kidnappings this year and nearly 800 in 2020. Ganyard said westerners like Americans increasingly make for easier targets because there’s a “sense that they can probably afford to pay.”
The group 400 Mawozo is responsible for the most abductions, the center’s director Gédéon Jean told the Washington Post, including allegedly kidnapping two French priests earlier the same day. The group is notorious for its violent tactics and for brazenly targeting clergy and churches – particularly controversial in Catholic-majority Haiti.
ABC News’s Ben Gittleson and Aicha el Hammar contributed to this report.Internet Explorer Channel Network