After the arrest of more than a dozen foreigners, including two Americans, who the Haitian authorities said were part of a hit squad that assassinated President Jovenel Moïse this week, there were few clues as to who ordered the attack even as turmoil threatened to engulf the fragile nation.
Political intrigue, gang violence, general lawlessness, a public health crisis driven by the pandemic and difficulties delivering essential international aid have conspired to create the worst crisis in Haiti in years.
The Caribbean nation’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, says he has taken command of the police and the army. But the president, days before his death, had appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry. Mr. Henry told a local newspaper after the assassination that he was the rightful prime minister.
That constitutional crisis has been complicated by the pandemic. While there are many legal uncertainties, in the past the country’s top justice has been expected to fill any void in the political leadership. But that justice, René Sylvestre, died of Covid-19 in June.
Haiti, the only country in the Americas with no active Covid-19 inoculation campaign, has virtually no vaccine doses, and public health experts say that the coronavirus is far more widespread there than publicly reported.
With the prospect of greater turmoil looming, international observers worry that a growing humanitarian crisis could lead to the kind of exodus that has previously followed natural disasters, coups and other periods of deep instability.
The Pan American Health Organization said in a statement that the crisis was “creating a perfect storm, because the population has lowered its guard, the infrastructure of Covid-19 beds has been reduced, the security situation could deteriorate even further and hurricane season has started.”
Briefing reporters on Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that Mr. Joseph was “the incumbent” at the time of the assassination and that the United States would continue to work with him. But the spokesman, Ned Price, added that the United States had been in contact with Mr. Henry, and urged all Haitian officials to work together “to refrain from violence.”
The top United Nations official in Haiti also backed Mr. Joseph’s claim as the rightful prime minister.
After 24 hours filled with intense standoffs and gun battles, the police said they had identified more than two dozen people involved in the assault, including 26 Colombians and two Americans of Haitian descent.
On Friday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Haitian police had arrested 11 armed people on the grounds of the Taiwanese Embassy. It was not immediately clear whether they were counted among the arrested suspects, but in a statement the embassy called them “mercenaries.”
More than a dozen of the suspects — some with physical injuries — were paraded before the cameras at a late-night news conference on Thursday. Several suspects were killed in clashes with the police, and at least eight other suspects are on the run, the authorities said.
“We are pursuing them,” said Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, before a phalanx of politicians and police officers.
Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, said initial information suggested that the people from his country in custody were retired members of the Colombian military. The authorities identified the American men as Joseph Vincent and James Solages.
But the authorities offered no clue as to who might have organized the operation or a motive for the attack.
A tense calm held in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which was devoid of the usual buzz that fills the streets. In Pétionville — usually a bustling suburb near the president’s home — businesses, markets and gas stations were shuttered.
At the same time, there were signs that public anger was growing as civilians joined in the hunt for people they believed to be part of the hit squad — capturing some people thought to be suspects and setting afire vehicles thought to have been used in the attack.
Despite declaring what is essentially martial law and imposing a curfew, Mr. Joseph asked people to return to work on Friday and said he planned to reopen the country’s main airport.
As the Haitian security forces continued to hunt for suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the arrest of more two dozen foreigners, including two Americans, offered early clues into who carried out the operation even as the motive remains unclear.
Most of those in custody are Colombian, the authorities say, and include retired members of the military.
One of the Americans was identified as James J. Solages, a U.S. citizen who lived in South Florida and previously worked as a security guard at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti. The other was identified as Joseph Vincent, 55.
At a news conference announcing the arrests, the authorities singled out the Americans as they sat on the floor with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. It was not clear what evidence the Haitian authorities had against the two men, when they had entered the country and what their connection might be to those identified as Colombian.
Mr. Solages, 35, is a native of Jacmel, a city in southern Haiti, and lived in Broward County, the Florida county that includes Fort Lauderdale. He was the president of a small charity organization that said it focused on giving grants to women in his home city. But federal tax records show that he claimed to work 60 hours a week on an organization that in 2019 took in just over $11,000.
The organization, Jacmel First, says that its primary objective is reducing poverty and promoting education and better health systems in Haiti. His biography on his website said that he was a consultant, building engineer and “certified diplomatic agent.”
He also claimed to be chief commander of the bodyguards for the Canadian Embassy in Haiti. A Canadian government official said that Mr. Solage was briefly a reserve officer for a security company that had a contract to protect the embassy in 2010.
By the end of Thursday, as photographs of Mr. Solage in custody in Haiti circulated online, the charity group’s website had been taken down. So was a Facebook page that showed Mr. Solage in sharp suits.
Asked about the president’s murder and Mr. Solage’s arrest, Jean Milot Berquin, of Jacmel First’s board members, said, “I’m so sorry about that,” and declined to comment further.
While the biography on Mr. Solage’s charity website paints him as a professional and politician, his LinkedIn profile lists an entirely different set of jobs that sound more like maintenance positions.
His online résumé says that he has an associate degree from a technical college and is a plant operations director at a senior living facility in Lantana, Fla. (Company officials did not respond to requests for comment.)
State corporation records show that he owns maintenance company whose address was the same as the charity’s: a second-floor office above a restaurant in a strip mall. The office is now occupied by someone else.
Efforts to reach Mr. Solage’s relatives were unsuccessful on Thursday. No one answered the door at the home in Tamarac, west of Fort Lauderdale, that public records list as his address. A former uncle by marriage said that the home belonged to Mr. Solage’s aunt and that he sometimes stayed there.
Mr. Solage’s Twitter account, which has been dormant for over a year, includes inspirational quotes like “Don’t let nobody tell you that you are aiming too high or expecting too much of yourself, with both Mars, your ruler, and the Sun about to move to your favor, you should in fact expecting more of yourself then (sic) ever before.”
The political storm in Haiti intensified on Thursday as two competing prime ministers claimed the right to run the country, setting up an extraordinary power struggle over who has the legal authority to govern after the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his home the day before.
Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, says he has taken command of the police and the army. He has also declared a “state of siege” that essentially put the country under martial law, although constitutional experts questioned his right to impose it, and a rival quickly challenged his claim to power.
Two days before his death, Mr. Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as a new prime minister. Mr. Henry, who was supposed to take up the role this week, told a local newspaper after the presidential assassination that he was the rightful prime minister.
The dueling claims created a volatile political crisis that left constitutional experts confused and diplomats worried about a broad societal collapse that could ignite violence or prompt Haitians to flee the country en masse.
“No one understands” what is happening right now, said Lilas Desquiron, a Haitian writer who was culture minister from 2001 to 2004, leaving the nation’s 11 million people in a “wait-and-see and powerless position.”
Alarmed that Haiti may be approaching a breaking point reminiscent of the surge of Haitian refugees fleeing on boats to Florida after a 1991 coup, American officials have sided with the interim prime minister, Mr. Joseph.
Haiti, the only country in the Americas without a Covid-19 vaccine campaign, is also the country with one of the world’s most dysfunctional health care systems.
Even as Haitians struggle to understand a shifting political crisis in the wake of the assassination of the nation’s president and worry about a surge in violence on the streets, looming in the backdrop is a pandemic whose scale is essentially unknown.
The country of 11 million people has yet to receive its first doses from the Covax vaccine-sharing program, making it one of few places that have not started an inoculation campaign.
Having never fully recovered from a 2010 earthquake that destroyed the Health Ministry’s building and 50 health care centers, Haiti has long depended on billions of dollars of foreign aid and the work of nongovernmental organizations to provide basic services.
But even before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this week, violence posed an increasing challenge to those working to deliver assistance. Humanitarian groups have become primary targets, and last month Doctors Without Borders evacuated some of its staff members and closed an emergency center in Haiti after gangs attacked it.
The dozens of armed gangs that control more than a third of the capital have also killed hundreds of people and impelled thousands to flee their homes over the past year.
International organizations and humanitarian groups warn that the assassination threatens to worsen a crisis that has been building for more than a year, ever since Mr. Moise’s decision to remain in office after opponents said his term had expired essentially paralyzed the government.
In the first two weeks of June, UNICEF says, 8,500 women and children fled their homes to escape violence. “Every time, clashes between armed groups are more violent, and every time more women and children are forced to flee their homes,” Bruno Maes, the organization’s Haiti representative, said in a statement at the time.
“Since the beginning of this year, insecurity has been escalating. But the capital city is now facing an urban guerrilla, with thousands of children and women caught in the crossfire,” Mr. Maes added. “The displaced families I’ve talked to have lost everything and urgently need clean water, food, personal hygiene items, mattresses, blankets and clothes.”
Less than three weeks after Mr. Maes made those remarks, the president was gunned down.
Against this backdrop, many in the country have viewed the pandemic as an abstraction. But there are indications that the coronavirus is far more widespread than officially reported.
The neighboring Dominican Republic, which has roughly the same size population, has reported more than 330,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths. Haiti has registered 19,000 cases and 467 deaths — but hospitals have reported struggling in recent weeks to find enough oxygen for a surge in patients.
The Rev. Richard Frechette, a doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, told the humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief that he had pleaded with gang leaders to allow the delivery of critical supplies, including oxygen.
“If the streets turn into looting and riots, we’re not going to be able to get oxygen,” he said. “That always happens when there’s instability.”
Haiti is due to receive about six million coronavirus vaccine doses from the United States, but it is unclear when they might be delivered.
The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on Wednesday by gunmen who broke into his private residence was a stark reminder of the violence that has plagued Haiti for years and escalated in recent weeks.
Armed groups have become increasingly powerful in Haiti, playing on the nation’s political instability and growing poverty to seize control of large swaths of cities like Port-au-Prince, the capital.
About a third of Port-au-Prince’s territory is affected by criminal activity, and a recent upsurge in clashes between rival gangs has caused numerous casualties among civilians and stark levels of displacement of people fleeing violence.
A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that in the first three weeks of June over 13,600 people had fled their home in Port-au-Prince, which has a population of about one million. That was four times the violence-related displacement in the capital than in the previous nine months, the report said.
Gangs have attacked businesses, stealing food and other supplies, and engaged in kidnappings, including the abduction of five Roman Catholic priests and two nuns in April.
“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” Archbishop Max Leroy Mesidor of Port-au-Prince said in a statement at the time.
In June, one of Haiti’s most powerful gang leaders, Jimmy Cherizier, also known as “Barbecue,” warned that he was launching a revolution against the country’s political and business elites. He called on people to take back what he said was their money in banks and supermarkets, prompting looting in several stores in Port-au-Prince.
Jacky Lumarque, the rector of Quisqueya University, a large private school in Port-au-Prince, said that in the current situation it was not possible to hold elections in September, as planned by Mr. Moïse and still demanded by the international community.
“Which candidate will be able to campaign in gang-controlled neighborhoods? Will they even be able to set up polling stations?” he asked.
Holding elections, he said, would amount “to perpetuating the chaos, sustaining the instability.”
Two videos filmed at the same time from separate buildings near Haiti’s presidential compound suggest that the group who killed President Jovenel Moïse claimed to be agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
The videos appear to show the assailants arriving near Mr. Moïse’s residence. A witness on one video claims to see the assailants disarming some of Mr. Moïse’s guards stationed nearby.
In the videos, about a dozen armed men can be seen walking slowly up a main street, Pèlerin 5, alongside at least eight vehicles — a mix of sport utility vehicles and trucks. They appear calm and do not encounter resistance or try to hide.
Over a loudspeaker, a male voice shouts multiple times in English: “This is a D.E.A. operation! Everybody, don’t shoot!”
He repeats the command in Creole.
The D.E.A. has an office in Port-au-Prince to help Haiti’s government “develop and strengthen its counternarcotics law enforcement program,” according to the U.S. Embassy. But Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told Reuters that the gunmen had falsely identified themselves as D.E.A. agents. “No way they were D.E.A. agents,” he said.
The attack “was carried out by foreign mercenaries and professional killers,” Mr. Edmond said in Washington.
In one of the two videos, the man holding the camera comments on what is unfolding, saying that the armed men are coming to the president’s home.
“They’ve taken Jovenel. Jovenel is gone,” he says, referring to Mr. Moïse by his first name, as shouting can be heard in the distance. “Don’t you see the guys disarming the Jovenel guys?”
The Taiwanese authorities said on Friday that 11 heavily armed people had been arrested on Thursday on the grounds of its embassy in Port-au-Prince, about a mile from where President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti was assassinated.
It was not immediately clear whether the people arrested at the embassy were involved in the assassination. Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said the Haitian police were still looking into the matter.
In a separate statement posted on Friday, Taiwan’s Embassy in Haiti condemned the assassination as “cruel and barbaric” and referred to those arrested on its grounds as “mercenaries.”
Ms. Ou, the spokeswoman, said that on Thursday morning, security personnel had discovered a group of “fully armed, suspicious-looking individuals” breaking through the embassy’s security perimeter and had immediately notified the police and embassy staff.
She said that no embassy personnel were on the grounds when the intruders were discovered, because they had been instructed to work from home shortly after the assassination in the early hours of Wednesday.
Ms. Ou said embassy officials had immediately agreed to allow the Haitian police to enter the grounds to conduct a search and make arrests.
By 4 p.m. on Thursday, the police had arrested the suspects, she said, adding that no one was harmed and that an initial inspection indicated only minimal property damage.
It was not immediately clear whether the 11 people detained at the embassy were included in the group of 17 suspects who the Haitian authorities say have been arrested in connection with the assassination.
Haiti is one of only 15 nations to have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by China. Taiwan’s embassy in Port-au-Prince is in Pétion-Ville, the suburb where Mr. Moïse was killed.
“At this difficult time,” Ms. Ou said, “the government of Taiwan reiterates its support for interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph in leading Haiti to overcome this crisis and restore democratic order.”
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Haiti was gripped by unease on Friday after the nation’s president was killed at his home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince earlier in the week. There are questions about who is in charge of the Caribbean nation even as the coronavirus is spreading and armed gangs wield growing power.
The presidential house peppered with holes and littered with bullet casings. The front doors badly damaged. The president’s body lying on the floor at the foot of his bed, “bathed in blood.”
The Haitian justice of the peace who arrived at the home of President Jovenel Moïse in the hours after his assassination on Wednesday described a haunting scene.
“There were 12 holes visible in the body of the president that I could see,” the justice, Carl Henri Destin, told The New York Times. “He was riddled with bullets.”
In the days after the assassination, the Caribbean country was still reeling, and as details of the assassination emerged, they seemed to offer more questions than answers.
Forty to 50 people were involved in the assault, and they appeared to have been well-trained, State Department officials told members of Congress on Thursday, according to three people familiar with the briefing who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That report was in keeping with earlier comments by the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, who described the attackers as “professionals, killers, commandos” in a call with reporters.
The assailants made it past two police checkpoints before reaching the president’s gate, the State Department said, according to people familiar with the briefing, adding that the security personnel guarding the president’s residence had suffered no injuries.
There were also said to be no reports of an exchange of gunfire between the guards and the attackers — which raised some eyebrows.
“It’s weird that there was no one was fighting back,” said Laurent Lamothe, a former prime minister of Haiti, noting that the presidential guard usually had a detachment of about 100 officers. “There was a lot of shooting, but no deaths. The only death was the president.”
One American lawmaker, Representative Andy Levin, a co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the circumstances of the attack, and particularly the apparent lack of fighting, raised questions about whether the assassination could have been “an inside job.”
Mr. Destin, the justice of the peace, said the president’s house had been ransacked. “Drawers were pulled out, papers were all over the ground, bags were open,” he said. “They were looking for something apparently.”
And the attack, he said, had been very violent.
President Moïse had been dressed in a white shirt and jeans, he said, both of which were torn and covered in blood. Bullet holes perforated his arms, hip, backside and left ear.
Mr. Destin said two of the president’s children had been present during the attack. He took a statement from the president’s 24-year-old daughter, who had returned to the house from the hospital to collect clothing for her wounded mother.
She told him that she and her younger brother had hid together in his bathroom, Mr. Destin said.
The international airport in Port-au-Prince is resuming commercial flights on Friday, two days after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti led to its closure and a series of canceled flights.
Christopher D. Johnson, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, confirmed in a statement that flights would resume on Friday. The facility, Toussaint Louverture International Airport, first closed early Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said.
Among the U.S. airlines that operate flights between the United States and Haiti are American Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit. JetBlue, which averages five flights per day between the United States and Haiti, has suspended flights until at least Saturday, a spokesman said, and is evaluating the situation.
“If and when we add flights before Sunday, we will reach out to customers to inform them,” said the spokesman, Derek Dombrowski. The Haiti-based Sunrise Airways, which flies within the Caribbean, grounded all flights until further notice.
American Airlines operates two daily flights from Miami and one daily flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The airline said it planned to operate both flights out of Miami but was still evaluating Fort Lauderdale flights because of “early timing.”
On Thursday, a day after declaring a “state of siege” and a curfew, Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, asked people to return to work and ordered the airport reopened.
The Dominican Republic’s president, Luís Abinader, had closed the country’s border with Haiti and also increased security, causing dozens of trucks to back up along the crucial passageway, according to The Associated Press.
During an attack in the early hours of Wednesday, a group of assassins fatally shot President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti and wounded his wife, Martine Moïse, in their private residence on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The assassins charged into Mr. Moïse’s residence sometime after 1 a.m. in what officials described as a well-planned operation. Yet Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said there had been no specific warning of the attack.
Carl Henry Destin, a Haitian justice of the peace, said the president’s home had been peppered with holes and littered with bullet casings, and he had found the body of the president lying on the floor at the foot of his bed, “bathed in blood.”
The president’s house was also ransacked, Mr. Destin said. “Drawers were pulled out, papers were all over the ground, bags were open,” he said. Two servants were tied up, he said.
The attackers’ precise motive is not yet clear.
Two Americans are among the more than two dozen people who have been detained in connection with the killing. Thy were identified as Joseph Vincent, 55, and James Solages, 35, Florida residents of Haitian descent. Another 15 detained suspects were described as Colombians.
At least eight other suspects are on the run, the authorities said.
The official manhunt for the assassins who burst into the home of Haiti’s president continued on Thursday, but as some ordinary Haitians set out to capture suspects themselves, setting afire vehicles believed to have been used in the attack, the interim prime minister appealed for people to be calm and refrain from violence.
“I’m asking everyone to go to their homes,” Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon. “The police have the situation under control.”
The goal, Mr. Joseph said, is to maintain security in the country and get justice for President Jovenel Moïse and his family.
The Haitian authorities say that they have arrested more than two dozen suspects, including two American citizens, and that three foreign nationals have been killed, adding to Haitian assertions that “foreigners” were involved in the assassination.
Little was known about them, but officials identified the Americans as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55, Florida residents of Haitian descent. Another 15 suspects were described as Colombian.
Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said that 11 people had been arrested after breaking into the Taiwanese Embassy on Thursday.
The arrests took place inside the embassy, she said, adding that the Haitian authorities were still investigating whether any of the 11 had links to the presidential assassination.
Several of the vehicles that the police suspect were used in the attack have since been burned by citizens, said Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, making it impossible for the police to gather evidence.
“We can’t have vigilante justice,” Mr. Charles said. “Let us do our work. Help us do our work.”
But passions were high on the streets of Pétionville, an affluent suburb of the capital close to where the president lived. A large crowd gathered in front of the police station there, demanding to hear from the police chief about the assassins — some of whom were believed to be inside.
Some demanded street justice.
“Burn them,” they cried.
Later, drifting away from the police station, some took their anger into nearby streets, at one point attacking a car dealership. Two protesters were arrested.
A video shared widely on social media shows a crowd of more than 30 Haitians pulling light-skinned men through the footpaths of a dense neighborhood. One of the men was shirtless and had his arms tied with a rope behind his back. The people in the crowd, who appeared to be unarmed, brought the men to the police station, sources told The New York Times.
The police also surrounded two buildings in which suspects in the assassination had holed up, Helen La Lime, the top U.N. official in Haiti, said at a news conference.
One of the suspects arrested in Haiti is an American citizen of Haitian descent from South Florida, said Haiti’s minister of elections, Mathias Pierre.
Andre Paulte and Harold Isaac contributed reporting.
Haiti has been thwarted by outside interests from its very foundation as a country.
For decades, European powers, and later the United States, refused to recognize it as an independent republic.
The Caribbean nation became the world’s first Black-led republic when it declared its independence from France on New Year’s Day 1804. That day, Saint-Domingue, once France’s richest colony, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” became Haiti.
It was a land long coveted for its riches of sugar, coffee and cotton, brought to market by enslaved people. Its declaration of independence meant that, for the first time, a brutally enslaved people had wrenched their freedom from colonial masters. But it came only after decades of bloody war.
In 1825, more than two decades after independence, the king of France, Charles X, sent warships to the capital, Port-au-Prince, and forced Haiti to compensate former French colonists for their lost property.
Haiti, unable to pay the hefty sum, was forced into a debt that it had to shoulder for nearly a century. Throughout the 19th century, a period marked by political and economic instability, the country invested little in its infrastructure or education.
In 1915, U.S. troops invaded after a mob killed the Haitian president.
The United States later justified its occupation as an attempt to restore order and prevent what it said was a looming invasion by French or German forces. But U.S. troops reintroduced forced labor on road-construction projects and were later accused of extrajudicial killings.
The widely unpopular occupation ended in 1934, but U.S. control over Haiti’s finances lasted until 1947.
After a series of midcentury coups, the Duvalier family, father-and-son dictators, reigned over Haiti with brute force until the 1980s. Their regime plunged Haiti deeper into debt, and introduced the so-called Tontons Macoutes, an infamous secret police force that terrorized the country.
In the early 1990s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, was elected president. He was then ousted twice from power over the next 15 years.
Haiti, with a population of 11 million, is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2010, it suffered a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people. The country never really recovered, and it has remained mired in economic underdevelopment and insecurity. A cholera outbreak in 2016, linked to U.N. peacekeepers, killed at least 10,000 Haitians and sickened another 800,000.
Then early Wednesday, Jovenel Moïse, who became president in 2017, was assassinated at his residence.