Special: Gang Crisis in Haiti: 17 Missionaries Kidnapped

Oct. 14, 2021 AT 11:38 p.m. EDT

The panel discussed the crisis of insecurity and gang violence in Haiti and the case of 17 missionaries, who were kidnapped last weekend.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

- Good evening and welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. It's been 6 days since 17 missionaries were kidnapped in Haiti. The group, which includes 16 Americans and 1 Canadian, were taken by the notorious gang Kat San Mawozo. Or 400 Mawozo. After visiting an orphanage East of Port-au-Prince on Thursday, the gang released a video threatening to kill the missionaries, if a $17 million ransom is not paid. The case is putting the spotlight on the issue of insecurity and gang violence in Haiti. Here's a Haitian protestor pleading for the release of the group.

- This protestor says, these missionaries do things for us in our village, the government doesn't. They've handed the country over to the gang. We demand their release because these missionaries are everything for us here.

- Still White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, insisted the United States does not negotiate with terrorists and groups holding hostages. The fate of the missionaries remains uncertain. Joining me tonight for the latest on Haiti, Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean reporter for the Miami Herald. And joining me here at the table, Mike Memoli, NBC News White House correspondent. And Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for the Washington post. Thank you, all of you for being here. Jackie, I want to start with you. You're the best reporter on this subject when it comes to Haiti. Talk to me a bit about what these kidnappings, what they really say about the state of Haiti, the insecurity, the turmoil.

- No one is immune. I, you know, everybody is sort of paying attention to the kidnapping today, but you know, last year I wrote about 2 Haitian-Americans. One of them was an active member of the U.S. Military who was kidnapped. This is something that Haitians have been living in, living with day in and day out. It's just a state of terror in the Country.

- It is a state of terror in the Country. And I wonder, when you talk to people and they, and you talk to them about these missionaries being kidnapped, how surprised are they? And how do they think this might get resolved? I wonder if you could talk a bit about sort of how other kidnappings have been resolved.

- Let me just tell you while everybody is focusing on these 16 Americans and 1 Canadian. There is currently a pastor, a Haitian-American pastor, who is now been in the hands of gang members for 3 weeks, along with a member of his church. They paid reportedly $300,000 and neither one of them has been released. So this is how Haitians are processing it. You know that on one hand, it's like, oh my God, they actually kidnap Americans. But on the other hand, it is, this is something that we are living in every day. But everybody is watching this very carefully because what folks have said to me is that if the United States negotiates, if the United States pays this ransom. Then it's just going to be a field day, with kidnappings and nobody is going to be safe in that country. Because the gangs will become even more emboldened than they are now.

- And you talked about the gangs becoming more emboldened. I wonder if you could talk a bit about this gang Kat San Mawozo. What more do we know about them? How does this kidnapping sort of gel with what they've done in the past, in terms of, the other kidnappings that they've carried out?

- So Kat San Mawozo, 400 Mawozo, they control the largest territory in Port-au-Prince. They're located East of the Capitol. It's a road that connects Port-au-Prince to the border with the Dominican Republic. It connects Port-au-Prince to the Central part of the Country, as well as the North. Their MO is to do group kidnappings, collective kidnapping. They will do bus loads, car loads, van loads. And as of May, they were doing was just ransoming the entire bus load. So for instance, where other gangs may kidnap an individual, or like, as I just explained ask for $300,000. This gang will ask for $20,000 for a bus load. That way it doesn't get noticed, they pay it out fast. And these kidnappings they're like an assembly line. They have to move people in and move people out. But what we're seeing here with these Americans is that the gang, when they stopped this vehicle at gunpoint, they did not walk away when they realized it was Americans. Usually gangs like I don't want to invite the wrath United States on me. This same gang was also behind the kidnapping of certain members of the Catholic Clergy in April. And among them were 2 French citizens. So, you know, we've been watching them and they have become even more and more emboldened. And of course the latest news, isn't just that they're asking for $17 million, a million dollars a piece, but they are also vowing to kill the hostages. To put a bullet in their head, if their demands are not met.

- It was such a disturbing video to see that, that leader of that gang threatening to kill these missionaries. Some of them are children. We should know 5 children, some as young as 2 years old, 18 months old, it's a heartbreaking situation. Mike, talk a bit about the Biden Administration stance on this. I know that the President is getting briefed regularly on this, but also what's the broader outlook here? When you think about the US policy toward Haiti, under the Biden Administration.

- Well, this hostage situation, it's a very troubling case, but it's very much symptomatic of a much broader problem. And it's not clear that it's one that's high on the priority list for the Biden Administration. At this point. We've heard the President over the course of the last few months, very clearly talk about not wanting to engage in Nation building. Now, of course, that's in relation to Afghanistan, but there are challenges here that at this point, he's not clearly willing to risk further political capital on. There are options on the table, a peacekeeping force of the US Military. There was some indication that maybe that was on the table, no indication that that's where we're heading in terms of Haiti, which is frankly, a failed State. If not already there. Then there's the issue of migration, which we saw posing a domestic political problem for them as well. This White House, we heard from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Mayorkas at the White House podium, ruling out the idea of expanding the definition of an asylum claim, the credible fear test to include situations like Haiti. He pretty flatly ruled this out. And so it's not clear short of this problem unfortunately, escalating further, what would jar the Biden Administration into further action. At this point, they've deployed some FBI agents. This is a law enforcement matter from their perspective, but not clear that there's much more of a solution that they're willing to engage in, at this point.

- And Seung Min. I wonder if you could talk a bit about President Biden's reaction to when he was questioned about going to the border, but also I wonder what you're hearing from Republicans and how they might be trying to use this against President Biden, because obviously immigration and talking about the border is a key part of the Republican sort of talking points against this administration.

- Right. The challenges at the border have certainly been one of the most significant challenges of the Biden Administration so far, because a lot of it is out of their control. And that's why, from their perspective, they've been really trying to focus on what they call the root causes. And that is what Vice President Kamala Harris has been tasked with trying to resolve. Obviously she went to Central America to deal with that issue, but the focus certainly hasn't let up. And the pressure from Republicans hasn't let up on President Biden himself. Which is why when he was asked that question at the CNN town hall on Thursday night and his answer, probably not the greatest answer he could have given to say, you know, I guess I'll go to the border and kind of signal that he hadn't had time to do so that he had been to the border previously in his previous roles in public office. But Republicans went on that immediately and say, why isn't he doing this? Why isn't he going up there firsthand seeing the considerable challenges that, that the Country is facing? So this is something that the Administration is continuing to grapple with. They're getting a lot of criticism from the left for months as you know, Yamiche, for their continued use of that Title 42 Authority at the border. So lots of different pressures, different challenges for the Administration here.

- By the way. This question of I've been to the border before I've been covering the President for a long time, I was with him the last time he came close, it was a, he landed in El Paso to drive to New Mexico. Driving by the border is not what Republicans are really looking for in this case. It's a drive by solution quite literally. But the point from the White House is that's a public optics thing where he's actually doing the work to try to deal with the more systemic challenges. A photo op is not what they're after here.

- Jackie, talk a bit about the Biden Administration's policy toward Haiti. And you, you wrote this smart piece about the idea that, you know, solving Haiti has to be a critical part of the Biden agenda, or it will continue to haunt this Administration.

- Exactly. I mean, it was sad to hear, Mike say that this is not a priority for this Administration. The reality is right now, the Administration does have options. Maybe they are not good options because each one comes with its own set of challenges. But if the Administration allows this to continue to escalate, the United States is going to find itself in a position where it has run out of options. And the only option is going to do, is one where it loses the narrative and it has no choice. There are several options that are out there, but the Biden Administration, they have not dealt with Haiti. They decided to put Haiti on the back burner. And yes, my colleague and I earlier this year, had talked about how, if you don't do anything, Haiti's going to blow up in your face. You're talking about a Country right now, where you have rampant kidnappings, you have gangs, you know, running wild. You have this pressure from within the country for the U S to do two things. 1 to sort of let Haitians lead. Stop dictating what the policies should be, but also at the same time to do more. And I understand that the Administration is getting sort of mixed signals or contradictions, but this is the same United States that was pressing Haiti to go to election. We have to remember, the President was assassinated on the 7th of July. Then a month later, there was this tragic, devastating earthquake. Today the gangs are preventing humanitarian aid trucks from going in there. And just this week, there is a gas shortage. There is not a ounce of fuel in any of the pumps. The truck drivers have gone on strike. They have announced a shutdown of the entire Country as of Monday. Why? Because 1, the gangs are kidnapping fuel truck drivers. They're ransoming their vehicles selling the fuel on the Black Market. So all of these are problems, and this is a Country, just 100's of miles, less than a 1000 miles from the shores of Florida. So if you don't do anything, this migration crisis that has arrived at the Southern border of the United States. Is soon going to arrive at the shores of Florida. And we all know that US Policy unfortunately, has been based on how to stop a migration crisis from Haiti hitting the United States, vis-a-vis Florida.

- And there's just such a, so many challenges that Haiti is facing. It's so heartbreaking. Jackie, you also did some reporting on the developments in the assassination, the investigation on the assassination of the President, the late President Jovenel Moise. Could you tell us, talk a bit about, the arrest that happened and sort of where the state of that investigation is?

- So exactly, and let me just say the United States has been assisting with this investigation, and just this week, it was announced that a key suspect, Mr. Palacios, who is Columbian and he was actually the only Afro-Colombian in this tech squad of ex-Columbian Military, who are accused of assassinating the President. He was found in Jamaica. So right now, what you have going on in United States is that basically US officials are trying to figure out how do you get him to the US, or do you have him extradited to the US or you have him sent back to Haiti? And the issue with that is Haiti is the Country, where the justice system is not functioning. There's no telling if they will ever be able to get to the bottom of the assassination of the President. That's why they requested the help of the United States. The Colombian Government has complained about the conditions in which the 18 ex-Colombian Militaries are being kept. So we're watching this very closely to see what happens to this gentleman, where does he end up and ultimately, can he provide some sort of light on this assassination? According to his fellow Colombians, he was part of this team called the Delta team. It was a 4 man team that actually gained access to the President's private bedroom based on the Haitian Police report that the Miami Herald obtained. But that report still doesn't say exactly who pulled the trigger and not only assassinated the President, but tortured him before they killed him.

- I mean, it's, there's just so much there to unpack Jackie. I'm so lucky to have you to come back to Washington Week, time, and time again, and break it down. Thank you so much for just being here. Of course, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much to Jackie, again. Thank you to Mike and Seung Min who are breaking down the sort of, domestic side of this. Thank you for joining and sharing your reporting and make sure all of you, to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We'll give you a look at all things, Washington, and a bit of Haiti as well. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. Thank you for joining us. Goodnight from Washington.


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