US charges Haitian gang leaders over kidnappings, offers reward

The United States has announced charges against a total of seven Haitian gang leaders for their alleged involvement in the kidnappings of US citizens, as Washington heaps pressure on armed groups and others contributing to a security crisis on the Caribbean island.

The US Department of Justice said on Monday that it charged three Haitian citizens with “conspiracy to commit hostage taking and hostage taking” for their roles in the abduction of a group of Christian missionaries near Port-au-Prince last year.

Sixteen American missionaries and one Canadian were abducted in October 2021 by a powerful criminal gang known as 400 Mawozo after they visited an orphanage east of the Haitian capital, local authorities said.

Two leaders of 400 Mawozo – Lanmo Sanjou, also known as Joseph Wilson, and Jermaine Stephenson, also known as Gaspiyay – were charged, the US Justice Department said, along with the leader of the Kraze Barye gang, Vitel’homme Innocent.

“According to the indictment, Innocent worked together with 400 Mawozo in the hostage taking,” the department said in a statement, adding that four more Haitian citizens who lead three separate gangs were also charged in relation to two other kidnappings of US citizens in Haiti.

Meanwhile, the US Department of State offered a reward of up to $1m each for information that will lead to the arrest or convictions of Sanjou, Stephenson and Innocent. The three men are believed to still be in Haiti, the Justice Department said.

“The United States supports the efforts of our Haitian law enforcement partners seeking to enforce rule of law in Haiti and combat transnational organized crime which continues to be a driving factor in worsening the humanitarian and security situation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the reward.

“These actions are part of the United States’ commitment to support the people of Haiti as they bear the brunt of the crisis.”

Haiti has experienced a surge in violence in the political vacuum created by the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise, with armed groups battling for control of key roads and infrastructure.

In recent weeks, gangs have blockaded a key petrol terminal in Port-au-Prince, leading to fuel and water shortages, and complicating the nation’s response to an outbreak of cholera.

On Sunday, the leader of the powerful G9 Haitian gang alliance, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, said that fuel trucks could approach the Varreux terminal without fear for their safety.

A fuel terminal is seen from a plane in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on November 4, 2022 [Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

“Once again, the drivers and employees of the Varreux terminal can come down without fear,” Cherizier, who was recently sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, said in a video circulating online. “We’ve decided among us … to allow for the gas to be released.”

Haitian police on Friday said they had retaken control of the terminal after confronting the gangs in the area. It was still not evident when fuel would begin flowing.

The gang’s blockade cut off access to about 38 million litres (10 million gallons) of diesel and gasoline and more than 3 million litres (800,000 gallons) of kerosene, forcing gas stations to close, hospitals to cut back on critical services, and banks and grocery stores to operate on a limited schedule.

Haiti’s acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry last month asked the international community to help set up a “specialised armed force” to help quell the violence and restore security – a call backed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Haitian civil society groups have raised staunch opposition to the prospect of a foreign force coming into the country, saying such interventions have historically brought more harm than good.

But the situation on the streets of Port-au-Prince has continued to deteriorate, and the US has been holding talks towards setting up a “non-UN, international security assistance mission” in the country.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration has announced a series of measures it says aim to tackle insecurity in Haiti. Last week, the US and Canada sanctioned two Haitian politicians over their alleged involvement in gang violence and drug trafficking.

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