Two of the 17 people with an American missionary group who were kidnapped in Haiti more than a month ago have been released, the organization said Sunday.
The hostages, who included women and children, were seized by one of Haiti’s most fearsome gangs on Oct. 16 as the missionary group visited an orphanage outside the capital, Port-au-Prince.
In announcing that two of them had been released, the group, Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio, said it would not make public their names or say why they were freed. But the group said that those released are “safe, in good spirits, and being cared for.”
The ministry urged discretion to protect those still in the hands of the gang members.
“We ask that those who have more specific information about the release and the individuals involved would safeguard that information,” its statement said. A spokesman for Christian Aid Ministries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The group of hostages, which included 16 Americans and one Canadian, had been working with Christian Aid Ministries before being abducted by a gang called 400 Mawozo, which is infamous for orchestrating mass kidnappings.
The gang initially demanded a ransom of $1 million per person, but that was widely viewed as a start to the negotiations that are common in kidnappings in Haiti. It was not immediately clear how much money, if any, was paid.
The U.S. government responded carefully to the news. “We welcome reports that two individuals held hostage in Haiti have been released,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We do not have further comment at this time.”
The spokesman for the Haitian National Police, Gary Desrosiers, confirmed that two hostages were released on Sunday, although in its statement, Christian Aid Ministries did not specify when they were freed.
It remained unclear why only two of the 17 hostages were released — whether their family or friends had cobbled together the ransom, perhaps, or if the gang had taken pity on them for a medical condition or some other reason. In some previous kidnappings, the 400 Mawozo gang released several hostages who were severely ill or elderly from a larger group.
The youngest hostage seized from the missionary group was an infant.
Since the kidnapping, Christian Aid Missionaries has been involved in protracted negotiations for the group’s release, with the gang demanding more money and the missionary group offering to bring services into their area instead, an official with knowledge of the matter said.
The mass kidnapping of more than a dozen American citizens, five children among them, set off a furor, with U.S. lawmakers condemning the violence in Haiti, and the F.B.I. and the State Department working with the local authorities to win the missionaries’ freedom.
Mass abductions have become commonplace in Haiti, but the brazen kidnapping in broad daylight shocked even local officials and residents accustomed to gang-fueled violence, a further sign of the country’s growing lawlessness.
American officials estimate that tens of thousands of Haitian Americans are in Haiti at any given moment, either because they live there or because they go back and forth between the countries regularly. They are prime targets for abduction, and every time a ransom is paid, the gangs get encouragement to look for new victims.
Security in the country has broken down in the wake of numerous natural disasters and political crises, including the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moïse. That has allowed gangs to increase their stranglehold over Port-au-Prince and its suburbs, where nearly half the nation lives. Violence has overwhelmed much of the capital, and by some estimates, gangs now control about half the city.
Many gangs wield enough power to bring the country to its knees.
Last month, one prominent criminal group blocked the delivery of fuel to much of the country, plunging Haiti into darkness and halting everything from hospital operations to cellphone connectivity.
The gangs, which often have political backing, have long been part of the country’s social fabric, but after Mr. Moïse’s killing, they have turned more assertive, taking control of vast swaths of territory.
Three Recent Crises Gripping Haiti
Haitian officials estimate that 400 Mawozo is making about $70,000 a week from activities like kidnapping and extortion, and say it has recently moved into human trafficking and organ theft from kidnapping victims who cannot come up with the ransom.
The gangs are equipped with a steady supply of arms smuggled from the United States, including assault weapons like AR-15s. That gives them far more firepower than that available to the average police officer. About a dozen or so gangs are so powerful they are able to operate like a paramilitary force, a senior Haitian security official said in a recent interview. The official asked for anonymity in order to share sensitive information.
Morale within Haiti’s security forces is low, and it is not unusual for police officers to start up their own gang or defect to those that are already established, while continuing to work for the government.
The criminal groups also benefit from regular payments from powerful business tycoons who pay “protection fees” so their operations do not come under attack. Politicians have also paid gangs to spread their influence and suppress voting during national elections.
In the absence of a fully functioning government since the killing of Mr. Moïse, the gangs’ power has only grown.
A spate of natural disasters has made things only worse.
In August, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake deepened the devastation of a country that has yet to recover from a quake in 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people. Rescue efforts this summer were initially hampered by security concerns, and aid flowed freely only after gangs that controlled a highway connecting the southern peninsula to the rest of Haiti declared a truce.
A severe storm followed days later.
In recent weeks, Haitian security forces have stepped up their operations to counter the criminal organizations, but security experts say that the government lacks a coherent strategy. The Haitian police need a complete overhaul, with thousands more police officers needed, a renewed focus on vetting during recruitment and money to buy new equipment, increase salaries and restore morality, American officials say.
Unless a reformed police force can step in to reimpose control after neighborhoods are cleared of the gangs, observers say, the government will be unable to restore stability.
The surging gang violence has prompted peaceful protests of late, with groups in towns and cities demanding a government response. Some blockaded roads and set tires on fire, a common protest symbol in Haiti.
Harold Isaac contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.