400 Mawozo: the Haitian gang behind kidnapping of 17 American missionaries

Experts say the notoriously violent criminals are responsible for 80% of abductions in the Caribbean country

A Haitian man protests against rising gang violence on International Human Rights Day 2020
A Haitian man protests against rising gang violence on International Human Rights Day
(Image credit: Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty Images)

The gang behind the kidnapping of a group of North American missionaries near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince is among a new breed of violent criminals causing terror throughout the Caribbean country.

Known as 400 Mawozo, which roughly translates as “400 simpletons” in Creole, the gang “is widely feared for using rape and assassinations to maintain its grip of Haitian streets, businesses and power players”, said The Washington Post.

And the gang is also leading “a new trend rattling Haiti of mass kidnappings from cars and buses”, the paper added, as well as targeting “clergy and churches – a red line for many in the Catholic-majority Caribbean nation”.

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‘New level of horror’

For Haitians “rich and poor”, gang violence and kidnappings for ransom have become an “increasingly common facet of life” in recent years, said The Washington Post.

But according to The New York Times (NYT), 400 Mawozo “has taken kidnapping in Haiti to a new level”. The group “controls the area” of the capital where the 17 missionaries – 16 US citizens and one Canadian – were abducted.

The missionaries, from the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, were seized on Saturday in the suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets, which has “been largely deserted as residents have fled the daily violence”, reported The Independent. For “several months now”, the paper continued, “400 Mawozo has fought in armed combat with rival gangs” there and “openly abducted people from all walks of life”.

The 400 Mawoza criminals are reported to be “raping women and recruiting children into its ranks”.

They have also been “blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year”, said the NYT, and for the killing last week of Anderson Belony, a renowned sculptor who had “worked to improve his impoverished community”.

The abducted missionary group consisted of five men, seven women and five children, the youngest aged just two. In a statement, Christian Aid Ministries urged people worldwide to join in “praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers and the families, friends, and churches of those affected”.

‘Seemingly uncontrollable’

Haiti has “one of the highest rates of kidnapping in the world”, said the BBC. And “this year has been particularly bad, with more than 600 kidnappings recorded in the first three quarters of 2021, compared with 231 over the same period last year”.

The spike followed the assassination in July of ​​President Jovenel Moise, which triggered a battle between “rival factions fight to gain control of the country in the face of a struggling police force”.

Gedeon Jean, director of the Centre for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, told The Washington Post that 400 Mawozo was believed to be responsible for 80% of abductions in Haiti between June and September.

Following the kidnapping of the missionaries, locals “fed up with the violence” that “prevents them from making a living and keeps their children from attending school” have started a petition calling for action against the region’s gangs, said the NYT.

According to the petition authors, “the violence suffered by the families has reached a new level in the horror”.

“Heavily armed bandits are no longer satisfied with current abuses, racketeering, threats and kidnappings for ransom,” the petition continued. “At the present time, criminals break into village homes at night, attack families and rape women.”

Haitian police issued a wanted poster nearly a year ago for 400 Mawozo’s alleged leader, Wilson Joseph, who is facing “charges including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, auto theft and the hijacking of trucks carrying goods”, reported Associated Press.

Joseph goes by the nickname “Lanmo Sanjou”, which means “death doesn’t know which day it’s coming”, the news agency added, and has “posted videos detailing the alleged crimes the gang has committed in recent years”.

Amid growing fears for the abducted missionaries, the country’s authorities are “trying to negotiate” with Joseph’s jailed second-in-command, Joly “Yonyon” Germine in a bid to get information, said The Washington Post.

But 400 Mawozo represent a new type of threat that continues to escalate despite attempted crackdowns. While “older, more established gangs trafficked in kidnapping or carrying out the will of their political patrons”, said the NYT, the newer groups are “recruiting children, forcing the youth in their neighbourhood to beat up those they captured and training a newer, more violent generation of members”.

And these terrifying new faces on the block “have grown into a force that is now seemingly uncontrollable, thriving in the economic malaise and desperation that deepens every year”.

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