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Dealing with gangs in Haiti a daily way of life for organization that runs Becky DeWine School

Fr. Tom Hagan
Fr. Tom Hagan
Posted at 5:44 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 18:38:14-04

CITE SOLEIL, Haiti — Fr. Tom Hagan is president of Hands Together, a group that operates over 20 schools in Haiti, eight in the Port Au Prince area including the Becky DeWine School named after the Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's late daughter who died in a car crash in 1993.

"We have eight schools in Cite Soleil, about 6,600 students but each school also has an elderly component so we have 1,700 elderly that come to the school mostly for food and medical treatment," Hagan said.

Following the assassination of the country's president this summer he said the lawlessness has only gotten worse.

"There's no police presence absolutely no police at all none in the Cite Soleil and what's erie is you see these police stations that are empty," Hagan said.

To continue to operate the schools and feed the poor, he deals daily with the rival gangs in the area, meeting just yesterday with one that he learned was looking to kill one of his workers.

"I said I heard you put word out to have him killed and the report I'm getting is he did, he told all his soldiers if they see him anywhere around they'd shoot him right away. So that's what that discussion was about and I said 'you know if you're going to attack him you're attacking us too and you know we're trying to work together."

Over the last 30 years, he estimates they've had about a dozen of their staff killed.

"Every time we put people on top there's a good chance they could get killed," Hagan said. "I have 700 people that work for our organization, some of my top people are always in danger cause there's a lot of jealousy they think they're getting extra money or they're getting this or that."

He said the 400 Mowozo gang being blamed for the kidnapping of the Ohio missionaries is located only about a mile or so away. News 5 asked if he had any dealings with them.

"Not so much all of the gangs of course have some connection to one another," he said. "That particular gang has a reputation of killing people and kidnapping they're a very evil group."

He said he spoke with a different gang leader about the situation and the heat it will be bringing on them.

"I said you know this is going to look bad for you he said well I don't get into kidnapping, most of them I don't think are into kidnapping but yes they know that."

Doug Campbell is Executive Director of Hands Together, he said the danger is ever-present but the good works they've done over the decades have helped them.

"I remember about 10 years ago we were following a jeep and we saw a muzzle flash and we heard the shots and this body gets thrown out of the back of the Jeep."

Campbell recalled telling the driver to slow down in the hopes those in the jeep didn't see them which they did.

"They turn around and start chasing us, the guns come out of the windows. I told my driver to head for Cite Soleil which is where the large gangs reside. What we were doing was we were going into the lion's den to be safe. And as soon as we went into Cite Soleil the jeep that was following us with the guns stopped, they couldn't go in there."

"We've been working there almost 33 years and they kind of say things like 'your roots are very deep here.' When all the NGOs (non-profits) were pulling out and Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross were leaving and shutting everything down, we were building schools, we were opening new schools and they're not unaware of that."

Still, Campbell and Hagan believe deep down many of these gang members do what they do because they have no other options.

"I really do believe they have worth and they have value," Hagan said. "And honestly John if we could just get them jobs there's 80 percent unemployment a top gang leader you know what he says 'I would love to be able to drive a truck,' that's all he wants to do."