(CNN) – A source from the Caribbean nation’s security forces told CNN on Sunday that one of the most powerful gangs in Haiti is believed to be behind the kidnapping of 17 American and Canadian missionaries.
Authorities believe the “400 Mawozo” gang kidnapped the group, which included 16 Americans and Canadians, after the missionaries visited an orphanage on Saturday in Croix-de-Bouquet, a northeastern suburb of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
While traveling from the orphanage to Titanian, north of Port-au-Prince, the gang members stopped the car at gunpoint.
A source in the Haitian security forces told CNN that the 400 Mawozo gang has grown in strength over the past three years, adding as many as 150 members, and essentially taking control of the Croix des Bouquets.
Kidnapping for ransom is a distinct gang activity. The source said that they kidnapped dozens of people this year alone, including foreigners.
400 Mawozo was notorious for car theft, and he pioneered “mass” kidnappings of large groups of victims in buses and cars, according to the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights (CARDH), a nonprofit organization. It is based in Port-O-Amir.
And according to CARDH, much of the increase in kidnappings in Haiti is due to the 400 Mawozo. Gang members engage in almost daily clashes with the Haitian police and even collect taxes from local businesses.
A source in the Haitian security forces said that in September the gang kidnapped “a number” of truck drivers in the Dominican Republic and continues to hold them hostage amid negotiations for their release.
The source added that these ongoing negotiations are being taken into account in the authorities’ decisions on how to proceed with the kidnapping of American and Canadian missionaries.
according to CardThe majority of the gang’s victims are Haitians, and kidnappings in Haiti have increased this year, up nearly 300% since July.
And there have been at least 628 kidnappings since January, including 29 foreigners, according to data released by the center. He said 400 Mawozo usually demanded a ransom of about $20,000.
Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries issued a statement on Sunday confirming the missionaries’ abduction and saying the kidnapped group consisted of five men, seven women and five children.
“We are seeking God’s guidance for a solution and the authorities are looking for ways to help,” the statement said.
Dan Holley, a former field director for Haiti’s Christian Aid Ministries, told CNN Sunday that all of the kidnapped missionaries were believed to have been in a car and that some were able to contact the local director of the organization before they were kidnapped.
He said the kidnappers had already contacted the organization.
“Two of his colleagues immediately texted the manager and told him what was going on,” Holly said. “One of them managed to throw a pin, and that’s the last I heard (the organization) until the kidnappers called them later. That day.” .
The country’s foreign minister, Claude Joseph, told CNN that Haitian officials are in contact with the US State Department about the kidnapping.
It reported that one of the kidnapped missionaries, a US citizen, also posted a call for help on a WhatsApp group during the kidnapping. Washington Post, citing a person familiar with the kidnapping who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Please pray for us! They have taken us hostage, kidnapped our driver. Pray, pray, pray. We don’t know where they will take us,” the message read.
It is unclear whether the message was a video or text message sent to the WhatsApp group, and there is no information about the WhatsApp group itself in the reports from Washington Post.
CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of this message or report.
A spokesman for the US State Department said, on Saturday evening, that it was aware of the reports and that “the well-being and safety of American citizens abroad is a top priority of the State Department.”
According to a senior US official familiar with the situation, FBI and State Department officials are not aware of the current location of the kidnapped missionaries.
A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada told CNN that Canadian officials are also working with local authorities and “involved NGOs” to gather information.
CNN has reached out to Haiti’s Ministry of Justice and National Police, but they have not commented yet.
The former field director for Christian Aid Ministries, Holly, said group members were aware of the risks they were taking.
“These are very loyal people, people who have risked their lives, who know the risks they are taking, or at least they know what could happen, I’m sure,” he said.
Holley added that he personally knows many of the victims. “Two of them are single. One has been there for a while, the other is a friend of ours who just arrived on Friday and was planning to help with the Haiti earthquake, and the situation is there in the south.”
“And then there’s a young couple there, a young couple with two kids who were also kidnapped. We lived with her (mother) in Oregon and we knew her family very well,” Holly said.
Kidnapping in Haiti is often random and targets both rich and poor citizens. Several kidnapping victims and their families previously told CNN they were still working to pay off their debts, after borrowing money from friends, employers and even banks to pay the ransom.
In one case that has become notorious across the country, a 5-year-old girl was reportedly found dead earlier this year with signs of suffocation. His mother, a peanut seller, told Reuters she was unable to get the equivalent of a $4,000 ransom.
Just before the missionaries were kidnapped, the Haitian Transportation Federation called an indefinite strike starting Monday to protest the increase in kidnappings, among other issues.
“We call on the government to end the kidnappings and provide us with safety or resign immediately. We are the biggest victims; the transportation sector is an easy target for kidnappers across the country,” said Miho Changux, president of Haiti Inners. CNN Drivers Association on Sunday.
“We lost many members due to insecurity and the kidnapping of dozens of members. The recent tragedy of the kidnapping of American missionaries shows that no one is safe in this country,” Changux said.