By Gessika Thomas and Brian Ellsworth
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti's 400 Mawozo gang, which kidnapped a group of U.S. and Canadian missionaries over the weekend, started out as small-time local thieves and rose to become one of the country's most feared gangs that controls a rural area east of the capital Port-au-Prince, according to security experts.
The group is seeking $17 million for the release of 16 Americans and one Canadian who were in Haiti as part of a missionary visit, boosting global attention on the country's kidnapping problem, which has worsened amid economic and political crises.
Criminal gangs in Haiti kidnapped at least 119 people, including the missionaries, during the first half of October alone, the Port-au-Prince-based Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights said on Wednesday, marking a clear escalation over even the previous month.
The 400 Mawozo, a self-mocking name that loosely translates to "400 idiots," controls the city known as Croix-des-Bouquets where a mission of Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries was traveling.
In April, the gang abducted a group of nuns and priests that included two French citizens, who were released later that month. A ransom was paid in that case, Haitian Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told the Wall Street Journal.
The group was originally called "Texas" and was made up of a dozen youth who would hold up residents and steal motorcycles, said Jean Renel Senatus, a former Haitian senator who headed the justice and security commission, who is from the area where the weekend's kidnapping took place.
"In 2016, they used someone from the gang to call me to say that they wanted to assassinate me and have my skull at their place," Senatus said in a telephone interview, adding he continued to receive threats from them and asked for police protection but has not received a response.
"To my knowledge, they haven't been kidnapping for more than two years. Sometimes they ask for money to let trucks through."
Senatus said the gangs have proliferated due to corruption of public officials working in connivance with gangs, as well as lack of gun control.
Internet videos purport to show members of 400 Mawozo in gun battles with police or offering long-winded commentary by who celebrate their conquests and spurn rivals.
Reuters was unable to confirm the veracity of the videos.
One man who goes by the alias Lamo Sanjou, which translates to "death has no day," often appears in videos wearing a Spider-Man mask and holding a rifle, surrounded by other men who are similar masked and armed.
In one video published on YouTube, the man says he killed a rival he identified as Karl Henry, adding he subsequently took over his late rival's house.
"I killed Karl Henry and I'm at his house right now sitting in his patio and that's where this interview is going on," he said, sitting with a rifle on his knees, in a long-running three-hour conversation.
Haitian press in late August reported the murder of a man by that same name as he left a Croix-des-Bouquets bank.
Haitian police did not respond to a request for comment.
Croix-des-Bouquets provides an ideal base of operations for kidnappings because its isolated hamlets serve as a long-term hideouts that allow for weeks-long ransom negotiations, said one Haitian security source, who asked not to be identified.
Kidnappings in many other parts of Latin America, in contrast, have in recent years tended toward "express" operations in which the abductions are settled in less than a day without the involvement of authorities.
"It's a very large area and an isolated area," said the source, adding that truck drivers have been targeted recently. "It's very difficult to spot them because there are many small villages."
(Reporting by Gessika Thomas in Port-au-Prince and Brian Ellsworth in Miami, additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco; Editing by Alistair Bell)