PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The leader of the 400 Mawozo gang that police say is holding 17 members of a kidnapped missionary group is seen in a video released Thursday saying he will kill them if he doesn’t get what he’s demanding.
The video posted on social media shows Wilson Joseph dressed in a blue suit, carrying a blue hat and wearing a large cross around his neck.
“I swear by thunder that if I don’t get what I’m asking for, I will put a bullet in the heads of these Americans,” he said in the video.
He also threatened Prime Minister Ariel Henry and Haiti's national police chief as he spoke in front of the open coffins that apparently held several members of his gang who were recently killed.
“You guys make me cry. I cry water. But I’m going to make you guys cry blood,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, Henry's office announced that Léon Charles had resigned as head of the National Police and was replaced by Frantz Elbé. The newspaper Le Nouvelliste said Elbé was director of the police departments of the South East and Nippes and previously served as general security coordinator of the National Palace when Jocelerme Privert was provisional president.
“We would like for public peace to be restored, that we return to normal life and that we regain our way to democracy,” Henry said.
There was no immediate comment from Charles or Elbé.
Earlier this week, authorities said that the gang was demanding $1 million per person, although it wasn’t immediately clear that included the five children in the group, among them an 8-month-old. Sixteen Americans and one Canadian were abducted, along with their Haitian driver.
The missionaries are with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, which held a news conference before someone posted the video of the gang leader.
Weston Showalter, spokesman for the religious group, said that the families of those who’d been kidnapped are from Amish, Mennonite and other conservative Anabaptist communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario, Canada. He read a letter from the families, who weren’t identified by name, in which they said, “God has given our loved ones the unique opportunity to live out our Lord’s command to love your enemies.”
The group invited people to join them in prayer for the kidnappers as well as those kidnapped and expressed gratitude for help from “people that are knowledgeable and experienced in dealing with” such situations.
“Pray for these families,” Showalter said. “They are in a difficult spot.”
The organization later issued a statement saying it would 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 gang leader’s death threat added to the already intense concern in and around Holmes County, Ohio, where Christian Aid Ministries is based and has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Amish, conservative Mennonite and related groups. Many members of those groups have supported the organization through donations or by volunteering at its warehouse.
“These kinds of things erase some of the boundaries that exist within our circles,” added Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in Millersburg.
“Many people in the community feel helpless, but they also realize the power of prayer and the power of our historic theology,” he said, including the Anabaptist belief in nonresistance to violence.
The same day that the missionaries were kidnapped, a gang also abducted a Haiti university professor, according to a statement that Haiti’s ombudsman-like Office of Citizen Protection issued on Tuesday. It also noted that a Haitian pastor abducted earlier this month has not been released despite a ransom being paid.
“The criminals ... operate with complete impunity, attacking all members of society,” the organization said.
UNICEF said Thursday that the number of women and children kidnapped in the first eight months of this year has surpassed the total for all of last year.
“Nowhere is safe for children in Haiti anymore,” Jean Gough, UNICEF regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in a statement. “Whether on their way to school, at home or even at church, girls and boys are at risk of being kidnapped anywhere, at any time of the day or night.”
UNICEF said 71 women and 30 children were kidnapped this year, up from 59 women and 37 children last year.
“They represent one third of the 455 kidnappings reported this year,” the agency said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators blocked roads and burned tires in Haiti’s capital to decry a severe fuel shortage and a spike in insecurity and to demand that the prime minister step down.
The scattered protest took place across the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.
In addition to kidnappings, the gangs also are blamed for blocking gas distribution terminals and hijacking supply trucks, which officials say has led to a shortage of fuel. Many gas stations now remain closed for days at a time, and the lack of fuel is so dire that the CEO of Digicel Haiti announced on Tuesday that 150 of its 1,500 branches countrywide are out of diesel.
“Nothing works!” complained Davidson Meiuce, who joined Thursday’s protest. “We are suffering a lot.”
Some protestors held up signs including one that read, “Down with the high cost of living.”
Demonstrators clashed with police in some areas, with officers firing tear gas that mixed with the heavy black smoke rising from burning tires that served as barricades.
Alexandre Simon, a 34-year-old English and French teacher, said he and others are protesting because Haitians are facing such dire situations.
“There are a lot of people who cannot eat,” he said. “There is no work ... There are a lot of things we don’t have.”
Associated Press writers Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, and Peter Smith in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.