PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The leader of a notorious Haitian gang behind many of the brazen mass kidnappings that have terrorized the nation, including that of 17 American and Canadian missionaries associated with an Ohio-based charity last year, has been extradited to the United States.
A diplomat from the Dominican Republic was freed Wednesday after he disappeared last week in a 400 Mawozo stronghold in what officials called an “apparent” kidnapping while he was traveling to the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. Roberto Álvarez, the Dominican foreign minister, said Carlos Guillén Tatis was “safe and sound.”
It’s unclear whether the two events are related.
Gangs have long been a presence in Haiti, but they’ve assumed greater power in recent years, controlling large parts of the country and holding fuel supplies and aid for earthquake victims hostage — mostly with impunity. They’ve filled a leadership vacuum after the assassination in July of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, which has left the country’s government deeply divided and has worsened insecurity.
By any measure, 400 Mawozo is among the most violent of Haiti’s gangs. The group is feared for its use of rape, extortion, assassination and the mass seizures of occupied cars and busloads of people. It has stepped over what other gangs have considered red lines, targeting churches, members of the clergy and young children.
The gang demanded $1 million for each of the 17 American and Canadian missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries who were kidnapped last year while they were returning from a visit to an orphanage. After two months in captivity, the missionaries were freed — they say they escaped — and a ransom was reportedly paid.
Analysts say that Joly ran 400 Mawozo — whose name loosely translates to “400 simpletons” or “400 inexperienced men” in Creole — from his prison cell in Port-au-Prince, where he had a cellphone, threw birthday parties for himself and dressed to the nines.
Haitian police said in a statement on Facebook that a warrant issued by the U.S. District Court in D.C. charges him with several crimes including conspiracy and the kidnapping for ransom of American citizens.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
James Boyard, a political scientist at the State University of Haiti, said that Joly’s possible prosecution in U.S. courts could shed light on the invisible figures in Haitian civil society, government and businesses that are in league with the gangs.
He said the corruption of judges and a lack of resources have left the Haitian justice system “bankrupt.”
“Every time we transfer to foreign countries individuals implicated in crimes on Haitian territory, it’s a slap in the face of the Haitian justice system,” said Boyard, a security analyst.
In recent weeks, violent clashes between 400 Mawozo and Chen Mechan, a rival gang, have left 26 people dead, including a family of eight, and uprooted hundreds of Haitian civilians, according to Haiti’s civil protection agency and the United Nations. Homes have been burned and businesses, schools and markets have closed.
Boyard said Joly is a “symbol for 400 Mawozo” and that his arrest could curb the gang’s power.
“This gang introduces itself as being untouchable,” he said. “Even in prison, Yonyon threw parties for his birthday. He was in a power position. … Neutralizing him physically and psychologically will have a negative impact on the power of 400 Mawozo.”