PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A protest strike shuttered businesses, schools and public transportation in a new blow to Haiti’s anemic economy, and unions and other groups vowed to continue the shutdown Tuesday in anger over worsening crime as authorities try to rescue 17 kidnapped members of a U.S.-based missionary group.
FBI agents and other U.S. officials are helping Haitian authorities hunt for the 12 adults and five children linked to the Christian Aid Ministries in Ohio who were kidnapped Saturday during a trip to visit an orphanage.
It is the largest reported kidnapping of its kind in recent years, with Haitian gangs growing more brazen and abductions spiking as the country tries to recover from the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck southern Haiti on Aug. 14 and killed more than 2,200 people.
"We are calling on authorities to take action," said Jean-Louis Abaki, a moto taxi driver who joined the strike Monday to decry killings and kidnappings in the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
With the usually chaotic streets of Haiti’s capital quiet and largely empty, Abaki said that if Prime Minister Ariel Henry and National Police Chief Léon Charles want to stay in power, "they have to give the population a chance at security."
Haitian police told The Associated Press that the abduction of the 16 Americans and one Canadian was carried out by the 400 Mawozo gang, a group with a long record of killings, kidnappings and extortion. In April, a man who claimed to be the gang’s leader told a radio station that it was responsible for abducting five priests, two nuns and three relatives of one of the priests that month. They were later released.
At least 328 kidnappings were reported to Haiti’s National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020, said a report last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.
A sector of the Jalousie neighborhood, Petion Ville commune of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince is seen on March 14, 2016. (Photo credit: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, bus passengers and others as they grow more powerful and demand ransoms ranging from a couple hundred dollars to millions of dollars.
Ned Price, the U.S. State Department’s spokesman, said U.S. officials have been in constant contact with Haiti’s National Police, the missionary group and the victims’ relatives.
"This is something that we have treated with the utmost priority since Saturday," he said, adding that officials are doing "all we can to seek a quick resolution to this."
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the rise in gang violence has affected relief efforts in Haiti. He said the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator reported that "violence, looting, road blockades and the persistent presence of armed gangs all pose obstacles to humanitarian access. The situation is further complicated by very serious fuel shortages and the reduced supply of goods."
Dujarric said that Haiti’s government should redouble efforts to reform and strengthen the police department to address public safety and that all crimes must be investigated.
Christian Aid Ministries said the kidnapped group included six women, six men and five children, including a 2-year-old. A sign on the door at the organization’s headquarters in Berlin, Ohio, said it was closed due to the kidnapping situation.
Among those kidnapped were four children and one of their parents from a Michigan family, their pastor told The Detroit News. The youngest from the family is under 10, said minister Ron Marks, who declined to identify them. They arrived in Haiti earlier this month, he said.
A pair of traveling Christians stopped by the organization’s headquarters Monday with two young children to drop off packages for impoverished nations. Tirtzah Rarick, originally of California, said she and a friend prayed on Sunday with those who had relatives among the abductees.
"Even though it’s painful and it provokes us to tears that our friends and relatives, our dear brothers and sisters, are suffering right now in a very real physical, mental and emotional way, it is comforting to us that we can bring these heavy burdens to the God that we worship," she said.
News of the kidnappings spread swiftly in and around Holmes County, Ohio, hub of one of the nation’s largest populations of Amish and conservative Mennonites, said Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in nearby Millersburg, Ohio.
Christian Aid Ministries is supported by conservative Mennonite, Amish and related groups in the Anabaptist tradition.
The organization was founded in the early 1980s and began working in Haiti later that decade, said Steven Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The group has year-round mission staff in Haiti and several countries, he said, and it ships religious, school and medical supplies throughout the world.
Conservative Anabaptists, while disagreeing over technology and other issues, share traditions such as modest, plain clothing, separation from mainstream society, closely disciplined congregations and a belief in nonresistance to violence.
The Amish and Mennonite communities in Holmes County have a close connection with missionary organizations serving Haiti.
Every September at the Ohio Haiti Benefit Auction, handmade furniture, quilts, firewood and tools are sold, and barbecue chicken and Haitian beans and rice are dished up. The event typically brings in about $600,000 that is split between 18 missionary groups, said Aaron Miller, one of the organizers.