A gang that kidnapped 17 members of a U.S.-based charity group has demanded a $17 million ransom for them, according to Haiti’s justice minister, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
Justice Minister Liszt Quitel said the gang was demanding $1 million per person. Quitel did not immediately return messages for comment, but he also confirmed the figure to the New York Times. The Journal said he identified the ages of the abducted children as 8 months and 3, 6, 14 and 15 years.
A wave of kidnappings prompted a protest strike that 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.
FBI agents and other U.S. officials are helping Haitian authorities hunt for the 12 adults and five children 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.
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.
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.
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.
Reporting by the Associated Press.