A group of American missionaries kidnapped in Haiti over the weekend are being held by one of the country's most notorious gangs, according to a Haitian police official.
Sixteen U.S. nationals and one Canadian were visiting an orphanage on Saturday as part of their work for Christian Aid Ministries, according to a statement from the nonprofit organization issued Sunday. Among those being held are five children, the statement added.
"Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers, and the families, friends, and churches of those affected," Christian Aid Ministries said in the statement.
The gang, known as the 400 Mawozo, abducted the missionaries in the Ganthier commune east of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The 400 Mawozo was also blamed by Haitian news agency Juno7 for the kidnapping of a group of five Catholic priests and two nuns earlier this year near the site of Saturday’s abduction. All were eventually released.
A team of FBI agents landed in Haiti on Sunday to assist the State Department in securing the release of the missionaries, a source close to the Biden administration confirmed Monday. The source did not have any further information on the status of locating the hostages or of negotiations.
While criminality has been on the rise for years in Haiti, a worsening wave of kidnappings and violence hit the country after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse at his home on July 7 and a deadly earthquake that killed 2,200 people a month later.
"When we hear there has been a kidnapping ... people don't go out in the streets," taxi driver Charles Pierre told the AP in the capital.
"The gangs run Port-au-Prince. It is in their control," Daniel Foote, former special envoy for Haiti, told NBC News in early October after he resigned in protest over President Joe Biden's deportation of Haitians seeking refuge in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.
Some 28,000 Haitians gathered under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, near the United States-Mexico border last month. More than 7,200 migrants had been deported to Haiti as of Oct. 7.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it has picked up three times as many Haitians at sea in 2021 as it did last year.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry on Sunday denied what he described as rumors that his office had paid money "for the benefit of armed gangs."
It came the same day he was met with gunfire while attempting to lay a wreath commemorating one the country's founding fathers in an area of Port-au-Prince controlled by gangs.
A senior State Department official told NBC News, "We are engaging with Haitian authorities at the senior-most levels." A spokesperson added that "the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad" was one of their highest priorities.
Christian Aid Ministries offers a school aid program for children and biblical training to local church leaders in Haiti's Titanyen and La Source villages, according to its website, as well as providing food and material support to locals.
The Millersburg, Ohio-based organization is affiliated with Amish, Mennonite and other conservative Anabaptist Christian groups but is just one of many foreign-run organizations in Haiti that often cover large gaps in government welfare.
Christian Aid Ministries' operations in that country were called into question in 2019, when the nonprofit group admitted that two managers had knowingly allowed a man with a history of sexual offenses against minors to serve the organization in Haiti.
As of May 2020, Christian Aid Ministries said it had paid abuse survivors in Haiti out-of-court settlements amounting to "$420,000 to help with housing, funding small business startups, relocation to other places, vocational training, and restitution."