A Haitian gang leader has threatened to kill 17 members of a U.S. Christian missionary group being held hostage in the lawless Caribbean nation. In a video posted to social media on Thursday, a man believed to be the leader of the “400 Mazowo” gang says he’ll shoot the 16 Americans and one Canadian, including five children, if his group’s demand for $1 million in ransom for each hostage is not met.
CBS News has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the video, but the Reuters news agency said a U.S. State Department official had called it “legitimate.” The voice of the man speaking in the video does resemble that of gang leader Wilson Joseph.
The gang kidnapped the missionaries near an orphanage last Saturday and made the $17 million ransom demand shortly after.
The Ohio-based group Christian Aid Ministries, with which the kidnapped missionaries are affiliated, said in a statement on Thursday that it was aware of the video “that appears to depict members of the Gang suspected of kidnapping our staff.”
“We understand law enforcement in the United States and Haiti are also aware. 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,” the Christian group said.
The Christian organization said the adults being held captive range in age from 18 to 48, and the children from 8 months to 15 years.
As CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez has reported this week, rampant poverty fueled by natural disasters, political unrest and corruption, have left Haiti to descend into utter chaos, with criminal gangs running rampant in the streets and both foreign nationals and Haitians facing the risk of kidnapping for ransom on a daily basis.
Residents in the capital, Port-au-Prince, live in a constant state of fear. One man told Bojorquez that he “fears for his life,” but has no choice but to go out to work to feed his family.
Charl Joel, a 29-year-old married father of one, told CBS News that if he doesn’t pay the gangs an extortion fee, they won’t let him do his work as a driver. He’s one of a small army of delivery drivers that delivers desperately needed food, medicine and other items from the central warehouse of “Food for the Poor.” All the drivers told CBS News they feel the constant threat of from the gangs.
The insecurity is also impacting international groups trying to provide help to the desperate Haitian population, including International Medical Relief and Doctors Without Borders, which has seen its ambulances attacked and health care workers threatened.
“The situation has deteriorated…but there’s no way Doctors without Borders is considering leaving the country,” Thierry Goffeau, head of the group’s mission said.
The FBI has a team on the ground in Port-au-Prince working closely with Haitian authorities to secure the safe release of the missionaries.