Religious groups are among the final institutions left in Haiti, delivering aid and support to an afflicted population. Unfortunately, that has made priests, nuns and missionaries prime targets for kidnapping and extortion.
On December 5, three of the 17 missionaries abducted nearly two months ago from an orphanage in a neighborhood outside Port-au-Prince were released by their captors. This brings the number of freed hostages to five, as two others were released on November 21, due to health issues.
The kidnapping of the 17 missionaries by 400 Mawozo, a gang operating in the southern town of Croix-des-Bouquets and known for mass kidnappings, has garnered worldwide attention. But it was only the latest attack targeting religious groups on the island. In April, 400 Mawozo kidnapped five priests and two nuns in Croix-des-Bouquets, demanding $1 million for each hostage released. The victims were released after 21 days in captivity, with no details as to a ransom. The 400 Mawozo has also demanded $1 million for the release of each missionary but it is unclear if any such ransom has so far been paid.
Not all escape with their lives. On September 6, Haitian priest, Father Andre Sylvestre, was shot dead as he left a bank, carrying a suitcase of money.
In October, Al Jazeera reported that at least 40 religious officials had been kidnapped in Haiti, including some being abducted inside churches.
InSight Crime Analysis
There are several factors behind this continuous focus on Haiti’s religious personnel.
First, religious groups are among the institutions with international funding to regularly be functioning in the country. While international aid organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, have had to at least temporarily suspend operations in Haiti, religious charities are still going.
Second, religious groups are usually well-funded. “Armed gangs know that worshippers are more likely to raise the money demanded to rescue their pastors, which ensures the gangs access to cash,” a security analyst in Haiti, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.
Third, these kidnappings are a way to get attention. Religious services are often live-streamed on social networks, providing platforms for gangs to pressure the government and invoke terror within the population. In April, a priest and three congregants were kidnapped during such a broadcast.
James Boyard, a political scientist specializing in security matters at the State University of Haiti, told InSight Crime that the “broadcasting of the kidnapping of religious leaders on social networks puts pressure on the government to negotiate with criminal actors, either with money or with political favors in exchange for peace.” Such negotiations only end up giving the gangs more power, Boyard added.