Haiti on Sunday became the center of an international crisis as officials in the beleaguered Caribbean nation sought to liberate 17 missionaries and family members, most of them Americans, taken captive a day earlier by a street gang known for mass kidnappings and ransoming religious groups.

The kidnappings Saturday escalated the convergence of challenges in a country that analysts increasingly describe as a failed state, sitting less than 700 miles off the Florida coast. A succession of U.S. administrations has failed to stop its slide into chaos, and the abductions — part of a surge in kidnappings this year by armed gangs that control large swaths of the country — ramped up pressure on the fragile and bitterly divided interim government that stepped in after the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moïse, which remains unsolved.

Haitians from all walks of life have been swept up in the lucrative ransom racket, in which victims are held for days or longer as captors, families and authorities negotiate their release. Abductions of fuel trucks and their drivers have caused power and fuel shortages nationwide, and shipping contractors have refused to send drivers through key national arteries because of the police’s inability to secure key roads that are controlled by or overrun with gangs.

“This shows us that no matter who you are, or where you are in Haiti, you are never safe,” said Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries requested “urgent prayer” for the six women, six men and five children who were abducted Saturday. The group included 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian citizen, the organization said in a statement on its website Sunday.

“We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help,” the organization said. “Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers, and the families, friends, and churches of those affected.”

A voice on an audio recording described as a “prayer alert” from Christian Aid Ministries and obtained by The Washington Post said the missionaries were seized while returning from a visit to an orphanage and were being held by an armed gang. They included organization staffers and family members, according to the recording and a person familiar with the abduction who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about an ongoing crisis.

The recording said the field director’s family and one other man stayed at the organization’s Haitian base in Titanyen, about 12 miles north of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. All other staffers who were on the visit to the orphanage were abducted.

“The mission field director and the American Embassy are working to see what can be done,” the voice said. It later added: “Pray that the gang members will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.” Messages left for Christian Aid Ministries were not returned.

Organizations that monitor kidnappings in Haiti said the missionaries were abducted by a much-feared gang known as 400 Mawozo, which is known for targeting religious groups and controls parts of Ganthier, the town east of Port-au-Prince where the group was seized. In recent months, its members have increasingly engaged in mass kidnappings from buses and cars.

Haitian officials declined to comment on negotiations to free the kidnapped missionaries. Groups that follow kidnappings in Haiti say they believe they are being held in Croix-des-Bouquets, just east of the capital.

Authorities sought to negotiate with Joly “Yonyon” Germine, a jailed gang member considered to be the second-in-command of 400 Mawozo. The gang, whose name is Haitian Creole for 400 simpletons, has grown increasingly active, according to Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince. He estimates the gang is responsible for 80 percent of kidnappings in Haiti during the third quarter of this year.

In April, 400 Mawozo kidnapped five priests and two nuns, some of whom were French nationals. All eventually were released. Catholic universities and schools closed in protest. The prime minister at the time, Joseph Jouthe, resigned shortly afterward, following a surge of other gang crimes — including an attack on an orphanage in which children were sexually assaulted.

The Catholic clerics, held for three weeks along with other victims, suffered harsh conditions during their captivity, including a lack of food or poor quality meals. They were not tortured or beaten, Espérance said, but two suffered medical complications from lack of access to their prescription medications.

It is common in Haiti for kidnappers to wait 24 to 72 hours before issuing ransom demands, which typically start high before being negotiated down. Though kidnap victims have been killed, they are far more frequently set free — traumatized but without permanent physical damage — after ransoms are paid.

“Sometimes they start by asking for a million, but then accept $10,000 or $20,000,” Espérance said. “There is no fixed amount.”

A person familiar with the abduction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the ongoing crisis, said the abducted might also have included two Haitian nationals.

“The modus operandi is, they take entire cars and buses,” Jean said. “Then they ask for a price to release everybody.”

Christian Aid Ministries’ American staff members returned to their Haitian base in 2020 after being gone for nine months because of political unrest, the group says on its website.

The person familiar with the matter said that one of the abducted Americans posted a call for help in a WhatsApp group as the kidnap was occurring.

“Please pray for us!! We are being held hostage, they kidnapped our driver. Pray pray pray. We don’t know where they are taking us,” the message read.

Several Haitian government officials acknowledged that reports were “circulating” but could not immediately confirm the kidnappings. The U.S. State Department declined to detail its involvement in helping to rescue the aid workers.

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the agency said in a statement. “We are aware of these reports and have nothing additional to offer at this time.”

As if to highlight the implosion of Haiti’s rule of law, when Prime Minister Ariel Henry sought to honor the Haitian independence hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines on Sunday by laying a wreath at the symbolic Pont Rouge in Port-au-Prince, his motorcade encountered heavy gang gunfire, driving him to seek shelter inside a state security facility.

Police, unable to restore order, escorted Henry 83 miles north to commemorate the 215th anniversary of Dessalines’s death from the relative safety of Marchand Dessalines, the historic city named for the revolutionary leader. Back in Port-au-Prince, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, the capital’s most powerful warlord, donned the traditional white suit used by Haitian leaders on such occasions and, surrounded by heavily armed men, laid a bouquet of flowers by a portrait of Moïse, who was said to tacitly support the gangs.

Haiti has the highest per capita kidnapping rate in the world. Recorded abductions this year have spiked sixfold over the same period last year.

Criminals have nabbed doctors on their way to work, preachers delivering sermons, busloads of people in transit — even police on patrol. Port-au-Prince is now suffering more kidnappings than vastly larger Bogotá, Colombia; Mexico City; and São Paulo, Brazil, combined, according to the consulting firm Control Risks.

Haiti, saddled with endemic poverty and violence, has experienced waves of kidnappings before. But as armed gangs alleged to be linked to politicians and private business interests have taken control of roads and communities, analysts say, the current wave is the worst in Haiti’s history by far.

During the first six months of 2021, there were at least 395 kidnappings, compared with 88 during the same period last year, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights. After Moïse’s assassination, abductions dropped briefly. But they surged to 73 in August and 117 in September, according to the center.

The nation is reeling from a power vacuum following the assassination of Moïse and the August earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people and left tens of thousands of Haitians homeless across the southern part of the country.

Christian Aid Ministries, based in Millersburg, Ohio, was founded in 1981 as a “channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world,” according to its website.

The group has more than 100 field staffers and several centers in Haiti, Romania, Ukraine, Kenya, Liberia, Nicaragua, Israel, Moldova, Greece and the United States, according to its 2020 annual report. It said it was active in 126 countries and seven territories offering “aid, literature, or teaching” that year.

The group says its work includes anti-poverty projects such as providing food, housing and school assistance, helping victims in crisis, setting up health clinics and spreading Christian teachings by supporting local churches and evangelizing on billboards.

One program in Haiti provided textbooks, school supplies, meals and Bible training for some 9,430 students at 52 schools in Haiti, according to the website.

“The Haiti School Program helps Haitian children like Elmeus attend school and learn to read and write, better equipping them for the future,” the group wrote in a call for donations on its website on Oct. 12, four days before the abductions.

In 2019, an employee of Christian Aid Ministries was accused of sexually abusing minors while in Haiti. The organization said two of its managers knew the employee had previously confessed to a history of sexually assaulting minors in the United States but still allowed him to work in Haiti.

Christian Aid Ministries reached a settlement with victims in May 2020. The group said it provided over $420,000 in assistance and restitution to victims who came forward in previous months.

There is no known connection between the abuse allegations and the abductions.

Widlore Mérancourt in Port-au-Prince, Jennifer Hassan in London and Miriam Berger, Claire Parker and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

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