A wide-ranging strike in protest of the abductions, violence and lawlessness consuming battered Haiti stretched into a second day Tuesday amid reports that a powerful gang was demanding a $17 million ransom for 16 Americans and a Canadian kidnapped three days ago.

The streets of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince were oddly quiet and largely empty Monday as the protest shuttered businesses, schools and public transportation. Unions and other groups pledged to keep the shut down going.

Striking taxi driver Jean-Louis Abaki said Prime Minister Ariel Henry and National Police Chief Léon Charles “have to give the population a chance at security” if they want to keep their jobs.

“We are calling on authorities to take action,” he said.

Bold criminal activity was rampant even before the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse at his home. This crisis and the August earthquake, which killed over 2,200 people and caused more than 130,000 home losses, have fueled an almost total collapse in civil order.

The result has been gang rule, and abductions have become part of everyday life in Haiti. In the first 8 months of 2021, more than 300 kidnappings had been reported to Haitian authorities. The overwhelming number of cases involved Haitians, and gaudy financial demands are often negotiated down to thousands of dollars – still a lot of money in a nation that by most metrics ranks as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

Haiti’s turmoil reached the global spotlight Saturday when 17 people – seven women, five men, five children, all Americans except one Canadian – were seized in the community of Ganthier east of the capital. The missionaries, with the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, had just visited an orphanage they helped build.

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Haitian Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told multiple news outlets including the Wall Street Journal that the gang has demanded $17 million for the group’s release – $1 million each. Quitel said the missionaries and their families – the ages of the kids are 8 months and 3, 6, 14 and 15 years – were being held in a safe house near where the kidnapping took place in a suburb of Port-au-Prince.

Quiatel told the Journal that the FBI and Haitian police are in contact with the kidnappers but that negotiations could take weeks.

The kidnapping was the work of the 400 Mawozo gang, which controls the area where the attack took place, Haitian police say. In April, five nuns and two priests were kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo gang. The gang demanded $1 million as ransom in the initial case. Authorities did not specify whether ransom had been paid, although all seven prisoners were freed.

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Tracey Herstich, a professor of pediatrics and global health at Ohio’s Walsh University, has been to the Caribbean country multiple times over the past decade. She says Haiti was “open and welcoming to people coming to help” in 2011. This has been impacted by the rise in gang violence, she stated.

Herstich explained that now gangs are targeting foreigners in order to get monetary and political benefits. 

“They are getting much bolder in taking foreigners. “They have gone after staff at hospitals in order to force them to pay ransom,” she stated. They assume that the hospital is Haitian-owned because they think it has enough money.

Alex Saint Surin, a popular Miami-based Haitian broadcaster, told the Miami Herald the only government the gangs fear is the U.S. government.

“If the U.S. doesn’t do anything to get the missionaries out without paying a ransom, it will open the door for I don’t know how many kidnappings a day,” Saint Surin said.  “There will be no exceptions, not even for diplomats. The U.S. will be giving a blank check to the gangs, saying ‘go ahead and do it every day.’ ”

In collaboration with Haitian officials and the FBI, the FBI worked on this case. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. officials have been in constant contact with Haiti’s National Police, the missionary group and the victims’ relatives.

“This is something that we have treated with the utmost priority since Saturday,” he said, adding that officials are doing “all we can to seek a quick resolution to this.”

The impact of Saturday’s kidnappings on international humanitarian efforts in Haiti was unclear at the moment.

Herstich stated that most people who want to aid in developing countries do so because they are trying to raise awareness about their situations and to restore dignity for the inhabitants. You have to be able to understand the cultural context and the politics of where you are going.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Source: USAToday.com

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