WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) – Reports of a Haitian gang kidnapping members of an American-based missionary group was shocking, but conditions have been deteriorating in the country for years, a Polk County missionary group leader said.
Sixteen Americans and one Canadian from the Ohio-based organization Christian Aid Ministries were kidnapped Saturday after visiting an orphanage. Five of the people taken hostage were children.
U.S. State Department officials and FBI agents are in Haiti working to secure the missionaries’ release, according to reports.
“This is something that we have treated with the utmost priority since Saturday,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
“They were trying to do good work to help the people,” said Dr. Ron Patterson, the executive director of Christian Disaster Response. “It could have been us at one time. As a matter of fact, my wife mentioned that – how blessed we were.”
The Winter Haven-based group provides relief to people in need around the world. It regularly sends supplies to Haiti.
Patterson says he has taken 20 mission trips to Haiti since the catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010.
“Things have gone downhill rapidly. And every time we’d go back, we’d see things were in worse condition,” said Patterson.
Kidnappings among foreigners and Haitians alike have been on the rise. Data from the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights shows a 300% increase of kidnappings in Haiti since July.
In an interview with NBC News, Florida International University’s Eduardo Gamarra called this weekend’s missionary kidnappings a crime of opportunity.
“A foreigner is going to be an easy target. There are no authorities to go [to]. There’s no police. There’s no military. There hasn’t been a military for decades,” said Gammara.
Patterson refers to Haiti as a “spoiled state,” hit hard by corruption and natural disasters. He calls missionary work the sole “industry” of Haiti.
“Capturing these volunteer missionaries was like shooting themselves in the leg,” he said. “It’s going to affect the economy. It’s going to affect how many trips will be taken. It will affect how much help will be given to Haiti.”
The situation escalated in July with the assassination of the Haitian president.
“It’s gotten worse since the assassination and I don’t see any hope for it right now. I really don’t,” said Patterson.
The U.S. State Department advises Americans not to travel to Haiti – citing kidnapping, crime, civil unrest and COVID-19.