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Members of a missionary group are taken hostage in Haiti


Within the space of a few months, Haiti has endured a presidential assassination, an earthquake, a crumbling economy and the spread of street gangs. Now authorities suspect one of those gangs in the abduction of 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group. Sixteen are U.S. citizens. One is Canadian. And this group also includes five children.

Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald, and she's on the line via Skype from Miami. Good morning.


INSKEEP: What is this missionary group, and what were the members doing in Haiti?

CHARLES: Well, it's the Christian Aid Ministries. And the members, they're part of the Mennonite community. And these individuals actually live in Haiti. They provide assistance, education, other kinds of services. There are a number of missionary groups that are there and that do assist the Haitian population.

INSKEEP: And as best you can determine, what were they doing when they were captured, and how were they captured?

CHARLES: They had been visiting an orphanage. And they were on their way back. And they were traveling in a van, as we understand. And this is when they were captured by this gang. This gang is known to attack vehicles and to basically kidnap the entire vehicle - whether it's a bus, it's a car or it's a van.

INSKEEP: Now, do I understand this correctly? This is on a highway leading out of Port-au-Prince and heading toward the border of the country, heading toward the Dominican Republic. That's the highway in question here?

CHARLES: It's actually a road. It's a national road. But yes, it connects Haiti to the Dominican Republic. So it's very well-traveled. And this has become an issue in recent years, not just, you know, in the last several days.

INSKEEP: And is it clear what it is the kidnappers want?

CHARLES: Well, usually when these situations happen, you will eventually hear from the kidnappers - well, not us, but, you know, the individuals or their family members, where there is a request for a ransom. We do not yet have any information as to whether one has been issued and if so, how much. These are usually large amounts. And the individuals or their family members, or in this case, organization will have to negotiate. Contrary to what a lot of Americans believe, the FBI doesn't go in and just release you. They will assist you with negotiating the ransom release.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises the next question. We're told the United States has become involved in the investigation here. What is the U.S. doing?

CHARLES: Yes, because these are American citizens. Ironically enough, yesterday, the Haitian National Police had no confirmation whatsoever of this kidnapping, while, you know, there are all of these reports, you know, and we had confirmations from others. But because we're talking about Americans, they would contact the Embassy, which would then alert the FBI. The FBI arrived in country yesterday. And so they - their job now is to get in touch with either family members and help.

INSKEEP: We are hearing about this because there are U.S. citizens involved, because it is a U.S.-based missionary group. But I'd like to ask more broadly about the law and order situation in Haiti, which may pass by without our notice or without as much notice. How secure, how safe are Haitians feeling these days?

CHARLES: Haitians are not feeling safe these days. I have to tell you, between July and September, the number of kidnappings in Haiti has increased by 300%, according to a local human rights organization that's there. There are kidnappings that happen that we don't know about because people do not go to the police. And so Haitians, whether they're doctors, whether they are merchants on the streets, whether they are in church - be headed into just a week ago - people are potentially the next victim for a gang.

INSKEEP: People don't go to the police. They're probably told not to go to the police. Is that right?

CHARLES: They're afraid to go to the police because it can alert, you know, the gang members. And gang members do not want them - yeah - alerting authorities or even talking about their abductions.

INSKEEP: Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. Thanks for the update - really appreciate it.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.