DOJ alleges Haiti gang kidnapped Christian missionaries to free leader

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U.S. authorities on Tuesday charged a leader of a violent Haitian gang with conspiracy to commit hostage-taking for his alleged role in the brazen kidnapping of 16 American missionaries with an Ohio-based charity in the Haitian capital last year.

Germine Joly, who also goes by “Yonyon,” was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington, nearly a week after he was transferred to the United States from a Port-au-Prince prison to face charges over his alleged participation in a separate criminal conspiracy to violate U.S. export laws by smuggling firearms to Haiti.

U.S. prosecutors said Joly, a leader of the notorious 400 Mawozo gang, is the first person to be charged in connection with the kidnapping of the missionaries from Christian Aid Ministries in October. This incident drew attention worldwide to the rise in kidnappings of armed gangs which has plagued the Caribbean.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news release that the charge reflects that the Justice Department will be “relentless” in its efforts “to track down anyone who kidnaps a U.S. citizen abroad” and will use “the full reach” of law enforcement authorities to hold those who undermine the safety of Americans accountable.

400 Mawozo demanded $1 million for each of the 17 missionaries — a group that included one Canadian and several children — who were kidnapped in October while returning from a visit to an orphanage. Five hostages were released in November and early December, while the rest escaped around Dec. 16, the release said.

The Associated Press reported this year that a ransom was paid.

The captives ranged in age from 8 months to 48 years at the time they were abducted. The captives were from Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Amish communities in Michigan and Ohio. They also came from Wisconsin, Oregon and Tennessee.

Christian Aid Ministries did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

U.S. prosecutors allege that Joly directed other members of 400 Mawozo from prison and “asserted influence and control over the gang’s operations,” including the ransom negotiation for the release of the missionaries.

“One of the gang’s stated goals in holding the hostages captive was to secure from the Haitian government Germine’s release from prison,” the indictment alleges. “The defendant was in regular contact with other 400 Mawozo leaders about the hostages’ kidnapping, captivity and ransom.”

Haitian analysts told The Washington Post that Joly had a cellphone in his Port-au-Prince prison cell that he used to run the gang’s operations. They said the 29-year-old was well-dressed and liked to throw birthday parties for himself.

400 Mawozo took responsibility for the kidnapping of the missionaries in videos posted on social media.

In one of them, recorded at a funeral for slain gang members, Wilson Joseph, another gang leader, threatened to “put a bullet in the heads” of each of the missionaries if his demands weren’t met and blamed a former Haitian national police chief for the gang members’ deaths.

“I cry water,” Joseph said in the video. “I will have you cry blood.”

Over the past year, armed gangs have inflicted terror on Haitians from all walks of life as they have carried out a growing number of violent kidnappings for ransom amid a weakening of institutions. In recent months, clashes between 400 Mawozo and a rival gang have displaced thousands and killed dozens of civilians.

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