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Haitian kidnappers threaten to kill missionaries

  • >> Maria Abi-Habib, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-10-22 19:08:02 BdST

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Bus passengers go through a police checkpoint in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, near the entrance of an area in Haiti’s capital controlled by the 400 Mawozo gang, on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. As negotiators worked to secure the release of 17 people associated with an Ohio-based missionary group, their kidnappers released a video threatening their lives. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times) 

The leader of the Haitian gang that is holding 17 people associated with an American missionary group has threatened to kill the hostages if its ransom demands are not met, according to two people present when the threat was made and captured in a video recording.

“I prefer that thunder burns me, if I don’t get what I need. You see those Americans, I will prefer to kill them and I will unload a big weapon to each of their heads,” the leader of the gang known as 400 Mawozo, Wilson Joseph, said in the video. “I mean what I said, that’s it.”

Joseph was speaking to a crowd of hundreds of gang members in the open, on the streets of Croix-des-Bouquet, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, according to the two people present when the remarks were made. The brazenness of the remarks, made in public at a large gathering as US officials were working with their Haitian counterparts to free the hostages, underscores the growing clout and confidence of Haiti’s gangs, which control much of the capital.

The threat was contained in a video circulating Thursday in Haiti, where 16 Americans and one Canadian working with the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries were abducted Saturday. It emerged as the FBI and the State Department worked to secure the release of the hostages, five of whom are children.

A senior State Department official traveling with the secretary of state in South America told reporters late Thursday that the video appeared to be legitimate. The official spoke on the condition that he not be identified because of travel protocols.

Earlier this week, the kidnappers demanded $1 million for each hostage. But in Haiti, where kidnapping is rife, the initial ransom demand often bears no resemblance to what is finally negotiated.

The video, shot on the street in Croix-des-Bouquet where the hostages were taken, was confirmed by a person who recorded the video and another who was present when the threat was issued. What is not shown in the video is the crowd size, which those present said was in the hundreds.

The video shows Joseph at the funeral of five gang members who had been killed in a confrontation with police earlier this month. Joseph is dressed in a purplish-blue suit, wearing a metal cross and holding a wide-brimmed hat.

Joseph uses the gang name Lanmò Sanjou, which roughly translates from Creole as “no day to die.”

Some of the gang members wore T-shirts with the names of their slain colleagues printed in the front and images of a rifle and a knife printed on the back with the words “we will move forward,” according to one of the eyewitnesses.

The funeral was held in the neighborhood’s Catholic church, the eyewitness added, and as gang members streamed out of the church onto the street, many began pulling balaclavas over their faces to hide their identities.

As the burials began in the cemetery, the throng of gang members shot in the air so relentlessly that residents in the neighborhood thought Haitian police and US officials were conducting a raid and took cover, one of the eyewitnesses added.

In the threat-making video, Joseph is standing next to a man in a white jacket, the leader of a gang controlling another neighborhood, underscoring the troubling alliances the armed criminal groups are forging to confront the weak and underequipped Haitian police. By some estimates, gangs control about half of Port-au-Prince and its suburbs.

The US government has a team on the ground in Haiti working with the US Embassy and local authorities to recover the hostages, White House and law enforcement officials have said.

In a separate development Thursday, Haiti’s general police director, Léon Charles, resigned without issuing a reason, after 11 months on the job. He was swiftly replaced by Frantz Elbé, a relatively unknown police official.

The resignation of Charles came nearly four months after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The killing of Haiti’s president remains unsolved and the government investigation into the crime has stalled.

Charles’ resignation has been a key demand by allies of Prime Minister Ariel Henry since September, when opposition parties signed a political accord with Henry.

Also Thursday, a Jamaican police official confirmed the arrest of Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios in Jamaica for overstaying his visa. Palacios is a suspect in the assassination of Moïse and is wanted by Interpol.

© 2021 The New York Times Company