TAMPA, Fla. - Seventeen missionaries from the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries disappeared off the streets of Haiti over the weekend - four children and an infant among them. Local police say the 400 Mawozo gang is to blame.
A source on the ground in Haiti told FOX 13’s Jennifer Holton via text the missionaries were driving in a mini-bus, passing through gang-infested areas without the help of a member of the community on board, when they were kidnapped just east of Port-au-Prince.
"You have to travel smart, you have to travel in groups," humanitarian negotiator Johnny Shattuck. "You have to travel with a trusted member of the community, and if they did all of those things, then maybe the outcome would be a little bit different."
Amid government disarray and the assassination of the Haitian president over the summer, gang violence and kidnappings in Haiti have escalated.
"We’ve been working in Haiti for decades, and even in the best of times, it’s been dangerous," he said.
The CEO of Agape Flights, based out of Venice, says many within the ministry know the group out of Ohio.
"Obviously the first thing we did was call people to prayer," said Allen Speer.
He says their group has been back to Haiti more than once since the August earthquake. The key is knowing how to stay safe.
"You just always have to be on guard, you have to watch, you have to always know who is driving you, you have to understand and know that you do need security, because you’re a target oftentimes for some of these gangs," he said.
Shattuck recommends aiding from afar for anyone who wants to help Haiti. With the State Department’s advisory at a Level Four Do Not Travel, everyone, including missionaries, should heed that warning.
"The simplest thing is if you’re there, leave. If you’re thinking of going, don’t go," Shattuck said.
The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after high-level U.S. officials visited the country and promised more resources for Haiti’s national police, including another $15 million to help reduce gang violence.