Haitian Workers Go on Strike, Leaving Streets Mostly Empty After Weekend Kidnappings

Thousands of workers in Haiti went on strike Monday to protest the country's shortfall in security two days after a violent gang kidnapped 17 members of a visiting U.S.-based missionary group, the Associated Press reported. The strike left the streets of Port-au-Prince, usually bustling with activity, unusually calm and empty Monday.

The 12 adults and five children from the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries group disappeared Saturday, spurring American officials, including the FBI, to collaborate with Haitian authorities in the hopes for their safe release. The 400 Mawozo gang was responsible for the mass kidnapping, Haitian police told the AP, adding to the group's history of killings, abductions and extortions.

The strike on Monday, led by local unions and other organizations, saw public transportation drivers stay home and businesses and schools close. Some who participated in the strike threw rocks at passing cars and set up barricades with burning tires to block streets in Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities, according to the AP.

"The population cannot take it anymore," said Holin Alexis, a moto-taxi driver who took part in the strike.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Worker Strike Commences in Haiti
Workers in Haiti angry about the nation’s lack of security went on strike in protest two days after 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group were abducted by a violent gang. Police remove a roadblock set by protesters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on October 18. Joseph Odelyn/AP Photo

The weekend abduction was the largest reported kidnapping of its kind in recent years. Haitian gangs have grown more brazen amid ongoing political instability, a deepening economic crisis and a spike in violence that is driving more people to flee the country.

Only a handful of moto-taxi drivers like Marc Saint-Pierre zoomed through Port-au-Prince looking for customers. He said he was attacked for working on Monday but had no choice.

"I have children, and I have to bring food to my house today," Saint-Pierre said.

The Western Hemisphere's poorest nation is again struggling with a spike in gang-related kidnappings that had diminished in recent months, after President Jovenel Moïse was fatally shot at his private residence on July 7 and a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people in August.

"Everyone is concerned. They're kidnapping from all social classes," Méhu Changeux, president of Haiti's Association of Owners and Drivers, told Magik9 radio station.

He said the work stoppage would continue until the government could guarantee people's safety.

The U.S. State Department said Sunday that it was in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and would continue to work with them and other partners.

"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the agency said in a statement.

Christian Aid Ministries said the kidnapped group included six women, six men and five children, including a 2-year-old. A sign on the door at the organization's headquarters in Berlin, Ohio, said it was closed due to the kidnapping situation.

A pair of traveling Christians stopped by the headquarters Monday with two young children to drop off packages for impoverished nations. Tirtzah Rarick, originally of California, said she and a friend prayed on Sunday with those who had relatives among the hostages.

"Even though it's painful and it provokes us to tears that our friends and relatives, our dear brothers and sisters, are suffering right now in a very real physical, mental and emotional way, it is comforting to us that we can bring these heavy burdens to the God that we worship," she said.

News of the kidnappings spread swiftly in and around Holmes County, Ohio, hub of one of the nation's largest populations of Amish and conservative Mennonites, said Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in nearby Millersburg, Ohio.

Christian Aid Ministries is supported by conservative Mennonite, Amish and related groups in the Anabaptist tradition.

The organization was founded in the early 1980s and began working in Haiti later that decade, according to Steven Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The group has year-round mission staff in Haiti and several countries, he said, and it ships religious, school and medical supplies throughout the world.

Conservative Anabaptists, while disagreeing over technology and other issues, share traditions such as modest, plain clothing, separation from mainstream society, closely disciplined congregations and a belief in nonresistance to violence.

The Amish and Mennonite communities in Holmes County have a close connection with missionary organizations serving Haiti.

Every September at the Ohio Haiti Benefit Auction, handmade furniture, quilts, firewood and tools are sold, and barbecue chicken and Haitian beans and rice are dished up. The event typically brings in about $600,000 that is split between 18 missionary groups, said Aaron Miller, one of the organizers.

Nearly a year ago, Haitian police issued a wanted poster for the alleged leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, Wilson Joseph, on charges including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, auto theft and the hijacking of trucks carrying goods. He goes by the nickname "Lanmò Sanjou," which means "death doesn't know which day it's coming."

Amid the spike in kidnappings, gangs have demanded ransoms ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $1 million, sometimes killing those they have abducted, according to authorities.

At least 328 kidnappings were reported to Haiti's National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020, said a report last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.

Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, busloads of passengers and others as they grow more powerful. In April, a man who claimed to be the leader of 400 Mawozo told a radio station that the gang was responsible for kidnapping five priests, two nuns and three relatives of one of the priests that month. They were later released.

Site of Haiti Kidnappings
The 400 Mawozo gang, notorious for brazen kidnappings and killings, took the group of 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian, after a trip to visit the Maison La Providence de Dieu orphanage in Haiti. Children stand in the courtyard of the orphanage in Ganthier, Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti on Ocotber 17. Joseph Odelyn/AP Photo