More From NBC
Follow NBC News
The leader of a Haitian gang accused of kidnapping 17 missionaries has threatened to kill them if its demands are not met, a new video apparently recorded Wednesday shows.
The 400 Mawozo gang, which controls the Ganthier commune in the suburb of Port-au-Prince where the missionaries were abducted Saturday, has been demanding $1 million per hostage, according to the country’s justice minister.
A U.S. State Department official said the video, which has been circulating on social media, appears to be legitimate.
Christian Aid Ministries, an Ohio-based nonprofit organization, said Thursday that it was aware of the Facebook video appearing to show members of the gang that kidnapped its staff members.
“We will not comment on the video until those directly involved in obtaining the release of the hostages have determined that comments will not jeopardize the safety and well-being of our staff and family members,” Christian Aid Ministries said.
The families of the hostages asked in a statement for prayers for the hostages’ safe return and said they were praying for the gang members.
Christian Aid Ministries described the families as being from Amish, Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario. The kidnapped missionaries are five children 8 months to 15 years old and 12 adults, the group has said.
Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere when its president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in July. A devastating 7.2-magnitude earthquake then struck the country in August, killing more than 2,000 people and displacing thousands more.
There have been demonstrations in Haiti over the conditions there, and on Monday, Haitians held a general strike in Port-au-Prince to protest pervasive violence and the country’s devastated economy.
This week, people in the capital city said they were “terrified,” fearing for their lives while conditions on the ground continued to deteriorate. The unrest was fed by a fuel shortage and anger the government is unable to get a grip on kidnappings.
“Many people fear,” Hernest Vales, an English teacher in Port-au-Prince, told NBC’s “TODAY.” “Many people want to leave the country.”
Vales said the country is overrun by corruption and he’s struggling to find work, noting he used to secure employment with missionaries. “Now things are a little bit down. I can’t find work,” he said.
David Wine, a missionary, said he arrived to the country about five weeks after the earthquake. He’s been a victim of violence during his short time in the country, he told “TODAY.”
“I was robbed at gunpoint, two miles from my home and I just thank God that I’m still here to tell about it. They had a gun at my head and the cartridge fell out.”
Wine said his friend was also held up and that gang violence has overtaken the country.
“The people of Haiti are good people,” he said. “They just want to work. They just want to take care of their business and their families. … And it’s just terrible that gangs … are controlling the streets, literally, you have to pay when you pass.”
Wine added he’s staying in the country because Haitians need missionaries, especially the most vulnerable.
“The children here are going to suffer greatly because the children of Haiti need the organizations coming in here. They need the people coming in helping them.”
Wine fears for his life and prays the kidnapped missionaries are released unharmed, he said.
Christian Aid Ministries has said the group’s work in Haiti included providing medicine to clinics, teaching Haitian pastors and, most recently, coordinating a rebuilding project for Haitians who lost their homes in the July earthquake.
The FBI is assisting the State Department in trying to secure the release of the hostages. A State Department official said its focus is their safety.
The Human Rights Analysis and Research Center, a Haitian nonprofit group, said it has recorded at least 628 kidnappings since January, 29 of them of foreign nationals. The number of incidents rose by 300 percent in September compared to July, the center said.
Phil Helsel is a reporter for NBC News.
Gabe Gutierrez is an NBC News correspondent based in New York. He reports for all platforms of NBC News, including “TODAY,” “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC and NBCNews.com.
Antonio Planas is a breaking news reporter for NBC News Digital.
© 2021 NBC UNIVERSAL