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Leader of Haitian gang behind missionary abductions is charged in U.S.

People at a vigil in Hart, Mich., on Oct. 24, 2021, pray for the return of 17 members of a missionary group who were kidnapped by a gang in Haiti. Among those taken were four children and a parent from Hart. (Anna Liz Nichols/AP)
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. authorities on Wednesday charged a leader of a notorious gang behind many of the brazen mass kidnappings that have terrorized Haiti, including the abduction of 17 American and Canadian missionaries associated with an Ohio-based charity last year.

The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia alleges that Germine Joly, the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, participated in a criminal conspiracy to smuggle firearms and munitions to the gang in violation of U.S. export laws.

Joly and three others, including a U.S. citizen and two Haitian nationals based in Florida, were charged with conspiracy to violate export control laws and to defraud the United States, violating export control laws, money laundering and smuggling, according to a 28-count indictment unsealed on Wednesday.

The Haitian national police said in a statement that Joly, 29, also known as “Yonyon,” was flown to the United States on Tuesday after a request from U.S. authorities last month.

Separately, a diplomat from the Dominican Republic was freed Wednesday after he disappeared last week in a 400 Mawozo stronghold in what officials called an “apparent” kidnapping while he was traveling to the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. Roberto Álvarez, the Dominican foreign minister, said Carlos Guillén Tatis was “safe and sound.”

Dominican Republic presses Haiti to probe disappearance of diplomat

Gangs have long been a presence in Haiti, but they’ve assumed greater power in recent years, controlling large parts of the country and holding fuel supplies and aid for earthquake victims hostage — mostly with impunity. They’ve filled a leadership vacuum after the assassination in July of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

By any measure, 400 Mawozo is among the most violent of Haiti’s gangs. The group is feared for its use of rape, extortion, assassination and the mass seizures of occupied cars and busloads of people. It has stepped over what other gangs have considered red lines, targeting churches, members of the clergy and young children.

The gang demanded $1 million for each of the 17 American and Canadian missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries who were kidnapped last year while they were returning from a visit to an orphanage. After two months in captivity, the missionaries were freed — they say they escaped — and a ransom was reportedly paid.

Analysts say that Joly ran 400 Mawozo — whose name loosely translates to “400 simpletons” or “400 inexperienced men” in Creole — from his prison cell in Port-au-Prince, where he had a cellphone, threw birthday parties for himself and dressed to the nines.

He appeared virtually before Magistrate Judge Robin M. Meriweather on Wednesday and was remanded into custody. The three Florida-based defendants were arrested in October and November and pleaded not guilty. They are detained pending trial.

Haiti’s assassination probe has stalled. The U.S. one is advancing.

U.S. prosecutors allege that Joly told his U.S.-based collaborators the weapons and ammunition he wanted for 400 Mawozo, all of which required export licenses. They allege that they communicated via WhatsApp and text messages, audio notes and phone calls — in some cases lasting as long as 86 minutes.

Prosecutors allege that the U.S.-based defendants falsely claimed that they were the “actual buyers” of the weapons when they bought them at Florida gun shops, did not obtain the required export licenses and then smuggled the firearms to Haiti.

“Specifically, certain of the firearms and ammunition were wrapped in garbage bags, loaded into large multi-gallon drums/barrels, and then covered with various products such as clothes, shoes and Gatorade to hide the presence,” they allege in the indictment. The conspiracy is alleged to have taken place from September to November 2021.

Haitian police said in a statement on Facebook that a warrant issued by the U.S. District Court in D.C. charged Joly with kidnapping U.S. citizens for ransom. U.S. authorities said the kidnapping is still being investigated.

Abductions by the busload: Haitians are being held hostage by a surge in kidnappings

James Boyard, a political scientist at the State University of Haiti, said Joly’s possible prosecution in U.S. courts could shed light on the invisible figures in Haitian civil society, government and businesses that are in league with the gangs.

Violent clashes between 400 Mawozo and rival gang Chen Mechan in recent weeks have left 26 people dead, including a family of eight, and uprooted hundreds of Haitians, according to Haiti’s civil protection agency and the United Nations. Homes have been burned and businesses, schools and markets have closed.

Boyard said Joly is a “symbol for 400 Mawozo” and his arrest could curb the gang’s power.

“This gang introduces itself as being untouchable,” he said. “Even in prison, Yonyon threw parties for his birthday. He was in a power position. … Neutralizing him physically and psychologically will have a negative impact on the power of 400 Mawozo.”

Coletta reported from Toronto.