Seventeen Christian missionaries were kidnapped by Haitian gang members on Oct. 16. 400 Mawozo, one of the country’s most notorious gangs, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded a ransom of $17 million dollars, $1 million for each person in the group. Sixteen of the 17 victims were American with one Canadian and included several children under the age of 18, as well as an eight-month-old infant. The missionaries were on their way home from building an orphanage when the attack took place. All were from the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, who posted a message on their website saying, “Civil authorities in Haiti and the United States are aware of what has happened and are offering assistance. We continue to monitor the situation closely and are in earnest prayer.” 

The kidnapping comes in the wake of a sharp rise in violent crime in Haiti, caused by an increase in gang membership and a collapse in government power as a result of the assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse in July of this year. According to a United Nations report, these gangs control large amounts of land across the country, including at least half of the capital Port-au-Prince, which has caused massive fuel and supply shortages as well as stretching an already thin police force. In many cases, police officers and security personnel are actively on the payroll of these gangs, giving them free rein to terrorize citizens and grow their influence. 

400 Mawozo, the gang responsible for the attack, has reportedly been responsible for at least 80% of the kidnappings in the country. The group also carries out murders, carjackings and extortion in and around the capital. The leader of the gang, Wilson Joseph, is wanted by the Haitian government and has several active warrants for his arrest. In a video recorded last year, Joseph can be seen saying, “I know you national police are scared of me, and you better be, I have bullets to shoot for a year.” He threatened to kill the missionaries if the ransom is not paid. 

The FBI is on the scene in Haiti working with local security forces to devise a plan to free the captives. However, National Police Chief Leon Charles resigned from his post after Joseph posted a video blaming him for the death of several gang members and promising to “pour blood.”

White House deputy press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre promised that the Biden administration will do “everything that we can to help resolve the situation,” regarding helping Haiti bolster the ability to combat the rampant gang violence but added that “it’s a very challenging and long-term process. We’re focused on it, but it is absolutely essential that this security dynamic changes if Haiti is going to make real progress.”

The situation in Haiti has raised concerns that the Caribbean nation might turn into a failed state, an outcome that could have disastrous effects on the surrounding region, as well as on its own people. Many blame the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and caused countless more to flee the country. Gangs quickly filled the void left by the ineffective government and have only grown their power in the past decade. This latest incident, though perhaps one of the most audacious examples in the last few years, simply highlights the depths of the many crises Haiti and its people face.