Kidnappings for ransom have surged in recent months as gangs gain influence amid political crisis.
At least seven members of the Catholic clergy, five of them Haitian and two French, have been kidnapped in Haiti, the spokesman for the Bishop’s Conference for the island nation said.
The five priests and two nuns were abducted in the morning in Croix-des-Bouquets, a commune northeast of the capital Port-au-Prince, while they were “on their way to the installation of a new parish priest”, Father Loudger Mazile told the AFP news agency.
The kidnappers demanded a $1m ransom for the group, which includes one French priest and one French nun, he added.
The Haitian Conference of Believers (CHR) said in a statement that three other people had also been kidnapped at the same time.
Authorities suspect an armed gang called “400 Mawozo” – which is active in kidnappings – is behind the abduction, according to a police source who spoke to AFP on the condition of anonymity.
Kidnappings for ransom have surged in recent months in Port-au-Prince and other provinces, reflecting the growing influence of armed gangs in the Caribbean nation, which has been rocked by recent political unrest.
The rise in gang violence and political instability have recently drawn protesters onto the streets of Port-au-Prince.
“The CHR expresses its deep sorrow, but also its anger at the subhuman situation through which we have been wading for more than a decade,” the group said in its statement.
“Not a day goes by without weeping and gnashing of teeth, yet the so-called leaders of this country, while clinging to power, are increasingly powerless.”
Father Gilbert Peltrop, secretary-general of the CHR, in an interview with Reuters news agency, said: “The nation must stand up to fight these thugs.”
State of emergency
In March, the Haitian government declared a month-long state of emergency to restore state authority in gang-controlled areas, including in the capital.
The measure was motivated by the actions of armed gangs who “kidnap people for ransom, openly declaring it, steal and loot public and private property, and openly confront the public security forces”, according to the presidential decree.
The public has also responded to the increase in crime, with hundreds of female protesters last week rallying in the capital against the gangs’ growing power.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has also been in a months-long political crisis as President Jovenel Moise maintains that his term of office runs until February 7, 2022, while others argue it ended on February 7, 2021.
The disagreement stems from an initial election won by Moise in November 2015, that was later cancelled for fraud. Moise was re-elected a year later.
With legislative elections postponed indefinitely in October 2019, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the country has been without a parliament since January of 2020, casting it into further crisis.
Moise is governing by decree, which has fuelled mistrust, protests and crackdowns by police.
Amid the instability, Moise has said he plans to hold a constitutional referendum in June, which critics call part of a larger effort to consolidate power.