A wide-ranging strike in protest of the abductions, violence and lawlessness consuming battered Haiti stretched into a second day Tuesday amid reports that a powerful gang was demanding a $17 million ransom for 16 Americans and a Canadian kidnapped three days ago.
The streets of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince were oddly quiet and largely empty Monday as the protest shuttered businesses, schools and public transportation. Unions and other groups vowed to continue the shutdown.
Striking taxi driver Jean-Louis Abaki said Prime Minister Ariel Henry and National Police Chief Léon Charles “have to give the population a chance at security” if they want to keep their jobs.
“We are calling on authorities to take action,” he said.
Bold criminal activity was rampant even before the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse at his home. That crisis, along with an August earthquake that killed more than 2,200 and destroyed more than 130,000 homes, has fueled a near-total collapse of civil order.
The result has been gang rule, and abductions have become part of every day life in Haiti. The overwhelming number of cases involved Haitians, and gaudy financial demands are often negotiated to thousands of dollars – a lot of money in a nation that by most metrics ranks as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Haiti’s turmoil reached the global spotlight Saturday when 17 people – seven women, five men, five children, all Americans except one Canadian – were seized in the community of Ganthier east of the capital. The missionaries, with the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, had just visited an orphanage they helped build.
Haitian Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told multiple news outlets including the Wall Street Journal that the gang has demanded $17 million for the group’s release – $1 million each. Quitel said the missionaries and their families were being held in a safe house near where the kidnapping took place in a suburb of Port-au-Prince.
Quiatel told the Journal that the FBI and Haitian police are in contact with the kidnappers but that negotiations could take weeks.
The kidnapping was the work of the 400 Mawozo gang, which controls the area where the attack took place, Haitian police say. The gang was also blamed for the kidnapping of five priests and two nuns in April. In that case, the gang initially demanded a $1 million ransom. All seven captives were released, but authorities did not say whether a ransom was paid.
Alex Saint Surin, a popular Miami-based Haitian broadcaster, told the Miami Herald that the only country the gangs fear is the U.S.
“If the U.S. doesn’t do anything to get the missionaries out without paying a ransom, it will open the door for I don’t know how many kidnappings a day,” Saint Surin said. “There will be no exceptions, not even for diplomats. The U.S. will be giving a blank check to the gangs, saying ‘go ahead and do it every day.’ ”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price 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.”
Contributing: The Associated Press