United States and Colombian officials say they will work with Haiti to understand the origins of a complicated plot that left Haiti’s president dead and the country in chaos even as Haitian investigators confront questions emerging closer to home.
Of the at least 20 people detained so far in the investigation into the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this past week, 18 have been identified as Colombians and two as Haitian Americans. Five suspects are still being sought.
At least 13 men said to be involved in the plot had served in the Colombian military, Colombian officials confirmed on Friday. They said two of the men had been killed in the aftermath of the assassination.
Haitian officials have emphasized foreign involvement in the plot, but U.S. officials and many observers within Haiti are increasingly questioning whether the attack was planned with the cooperation of the nation’s own security apparatus.
The Haitian authorities have summoned four of the president’s chief bodyguards for questioning next week as investigators try to unravel how armed assassins could have breached the heavy security presence outside Mr. Moise’s residence without encountering much resistance.
In Washington, administration officials said that F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security officials would go to Port-au-Prince, the capital, “as soon as possible” to assess how to help. Haiti has also requested military assistance, but a senior administration official said there were no plans to provide that.
Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, the head of Colombia’s national police force, said that officials there were investigating four businesses that they believe recruited Colombians for the operation. Investigators, he said, were using the businesses’ Colombian tax numbers to learn more.
In an interview with a local radio station, a woman who identified herself as the wife of one of the detained Colombians said he had left home one day after telling her that he had “a very good job opportunity.”
Colombian officials said that some of the accused people had left Bogotá as early as May and flown to Panama before traveling to the Dominican Republic and then to Haiti. Others arrived in the Dominican Republican in early June and then traveled to Haiti.
The two detained Haitian Americans said in an interview with a Haitian judge that they had worked only as interpreters for the hit squad, the judge said in an interview.
The judge, Clément Noël, who is involved in the investigation, said the two men had maintained that the plot was planned intensively for a month. He said that they had met with other members of the squad at an upscale hotel in the Pétionville suburb of Port-au-Prince to plan the attack. The goal was not to kill the president, they said, but to bring him to the national palace.
As the investigation has broadened, the crisis over the country’s political succession has deepened. An opposition senator on Friday accused the country’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, of having instigated a coup by claiming national authority after Mr. Moïse’s assassination.
The senator, Patrice Dumont, speaking on a Haitian radio station, said of Mr. Joseph: “He installed himself. We cannot accept this.”
A group of more than 20 political and civil society leaders also demanded that Mr. Joseph step down, to be replaced as prime minister by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and politician whom Mr. Moïse had named as prime minister two days before the assassination. Dr. Henry was supposed to be sworn in this past week.
To take over for the assassinated president, that group is calling for Joseph Lambert, the head of the Senate and one of only 10 sitting lawmakers in the entire country, to take over the nation’s presidency.
Yet another group, one composed of prominent civil society organizations, is planning a meeting with more than 100 people on Saturday to hammer out a consensus on how the country should move forward.
The political chaos has caused large crowds to gather at the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, with many responding to rumors on social media that the United States would be giving out humanitarian and asylum visas.
Intellectuals and members of Haiti’s civil society quickly criticized a call by Haitian officials for the United States to send in troops, citing earlier interventions by foreign powers and international organizations that further destabilized Haiti and left a trail of abuses.
“We do not want any U.S. troops on Haiti’s soil,” Monique Clesca, a Haitian pro-democracy activist and former United Nations official, said in a post Friday on Twitter. “The de facto prime minister Claude Joseph does not have any legitimacy to make such a request in our name. No, No & No.”
Many in Haiti had argued that President Jovenel Moïse was no longer legitimately in office at the time of his assassination this week. Mr. Joseph, who said that he was in charge after the killing of Mr. Moïse, has also faced widespread criticism after taking over the country on Tuesday.
Yet, despite the sudden uncertainty brought by Mr. Moïse’s assassination, some residents and intellectuals argue the many questions raised by his killing give them a long-awaited opportunity to reform Haiti’s institutions.
“We never have a chance to figure out the rules of the game ourselves,” said Melodie Cerin, a resident of Port-au-Prince and the co-editor of Woy Magazine’s, an online publication. “That’s what’s most frustrating to Haitians. We’re put aside each time we’re trying step up.”
A senior Biden administration official said on Friday that there were no plans to provide U.S. military assistance at the moment — and regardless, Haitians have argued that they need to find a solution to the country’s instability on their own.
Operations by outside powers like the United States, and by international organizations like the United Nations, have often added to the instability, they say.
“The solution to the crisis must be Haitian,” said André Michel, a human rights lawyer and opposition leader, calling for a broader institutional debate that would gather politicians, Haiti’s civil society and its diaspora.
Many have also argued that a foreign intervention would simply not work.
“It’s like coming back with a toolbox, but the box has the wrong tools in it,” Ms. Clesca said in a telephone interview. “What needs to be in the toolbox are voices from Haiti.”
Some criticism has focused on the contested legacy of a U.N. peacekeeping mission that intervened in Haiti from 2004 to 2017. Peacekeepers brought cholera to the country, and numerous instances of rape and sexual abuse, including of girls as young as 11, have been documented.
“This is outrageous,” Marlène Daut, a professor of American and African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia, said this week in response to a Washington Post editorial that called for a new international peacekeeping force in Haiti. The editorial described the previous U.N. peacekeeping mission as having brought “a modicum of stability.”
Ms. Clesca said the United Nations now had a disastrous reputation in Haiti. “One needs to be coherent, the United Nations’s nickname is ‘cholera’ or ‘Minustah babies,’” Ms. Clesca said, a reference to the French acronym for the peacekeeping operation in Haiti.
For others, their opposition has been rooted in the way in which the killing of Mr. Moïse have echoed events of the past. “The last U.S. occupation was preceded by the assassination of another Haitian president, under the guise of wanting to restore order, similar to what is happening now,” Woy Magazine wrote in a newsletter this week, alluding to the 1915 assassination of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The United States then occupied Haiti until 1934.
“What followed,” Woy Magazine’s Valérie Jean-Charles wrote, “was years of weakening of Haitian institutions and the senseless killings of many Haitians.”
Even before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this past week, Haiti was already in the grips of a political crisis, divided over the legitimacy of Mr. Moïse’s continuing term and over efforts to hold a presidential election this year.
Some other countries and international organizations including the United States, the Organization of American States and the United Nations had supported Mr. Moïse’s bid to remain in office until new elections could be held.
This past week, they reaffirmed their backing for elections scheduled for September. But much of Haiti’s civil society believes that the country is not ready to take that step, even though many argue that Mr. Moïse’s term had expired and that he should have left his office.
Mr. Moïse was elected president for a five-year term in 2016, and opposition parties and many members of civil society say that his term should have come to an end early this year. He had argued that his term should end in 2022, because he was sworn in February 2017.
Yet many contend that the country’s present institutions are too weak and that the election of a new president would perpetuate the systemic challenges it faces. Haiti currently has no functioning Parliament, and only 10 of its Senate’s 30 seats are filled.
One group of civil society members planned to meet on Saturday to try to figure out a way forward, with a focus on overhauling the Constitution while a large coalition would temporarily run the country. Another group has called for Joseph Lambert, the head of the Senate, to take over as president.
Jacky Lumarque, the rector of Quisqueya University, a large private university in Port-au-Prince, offered several reasons for putting the election on hold: Campaigning in the city would be unfeasible because of gang violence; many voters have yet to receive the identification cards required for casting a ballot; and Haiti’s highest court has not recognized a committee that Mr. Moïse appointed to organize elections.
“If we are not careful, the country will be plunged into political chaos with the help of the international community,” Mr. Lumarque said.
Melodie Cerin, a resident of Port-au-Prince who is a co-editor of Woy Magazine, an online publication, said Haitians needed time to figure out what should come next.
“We’ve spent the past four years contesting the legitimacy of P.H.T.K.,” she said of Mr. Moïse’s party. “The answer would be new elections, which would reinforce this very same party: What for?”
Ms. Cerin added that a broader debate about the country’s future should gather the religious community, the private sector, the government and other members of the public. “It isn’t clear who is supposed to be leading the country,” she said, “but it’s time to discuss between ourselves.”
Some outside observers have echoed the concerns of Haitian civil society. Peter Mulrean, a former U.S. ambassador to the Caribbean nation, supported calls within the country to revise the Constitution and the electoral process before any elections are organized.
“This is one of the most severe crises we have faced,” Mr. Lumarque said. “We have never been in such a serious case of institutional dismantling.”
After 24 hours filled with intense standoffs and gun battles, the police said they had identified more than two dozen people involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this week, including 18 Colombians and two Haitian Americans who have been arrested and five others still on the loose.
Mr. Moïse’s chief bodyguards have been called for questioning as part of the investigation into the president’s murder, said Bedford Claude, the chief public prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. He said he had issued summons for the head of presidential guard, Jean Laguel Civil; the security chief for the presidential palace, Dimitri Hérard; and two other top presidential bodyguards to appear for questioning next Wednesday.
One of the main questions surrounding Mr. Moïse’s murder is how the assassins managed to enter the residence of Haiti’s most guarded man without apparently encountering resistance from dozens of bodyguards protecting him.
The authorities have so far offered no clue as to who might have organized the operation or a motive for the attack, but they have pointed to “foreign” involvement.
On Friday, the Taiwanese authorities said that 11 heavily armed people had been arrested a day earlier on the grounds of its embassy in Port-au-Prince, about a mile from where the assassination occurred. Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said the Haitian police were investigating.
In the aftermath of the assassination, at least two people killed in clashes with the police were also identified as Colombians.
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.
On Friday, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, said that he had spoken with Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph. “We expressed our solidarity and support at this time,” Mr. Duque said on Twitter. “We offered full collaboration to find the truth about the material and intellectual authors of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.”
Mr. Joseph said he had 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.
Despite declaring what is essentially martial law and imposing a curfew, Mr. Joseph asked people to return to work on Friday. Airports resumed commercial flights, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
Rony Célestin is one of the few lawmakers left in Haiti, a close ally of the assassinated president who has kept his seat while the country’s democratic institutions have been whittled away.
As one of only 10 remaining members in all of Haiti’s Parliament, Mr. Célestin, a swaggering figure who styles himself as a self-made multimillionaire, belongs to a tiny circle of leaders with the legal authority to steer the nation out of crisis now that the president is dead.
But to many Haitians, Mr. Célestin is also a symbol of one of their biggest grievances: a governing class that enriches itself while so many go hungry.
In recent months, Mr. Célestin has been parrying accusations of corruption from Haitian activists over his purchase of a mansion almost 2,000 miles away in Canada.
The $3.4 million villa, with its 10-car garage, home cinema and swimming pool overlooking a lake, was among the most expensive homes ever sold in one of Quebec’s most affluent neighborhoods, and the purchase set off a corruption investigation into Mr. Célestin by officials in Haiti.
Mr. Célestin vehemently denies any wrongdoing, describing himself as a savvy entrepreneur whose success and donations to the election campaign of the assassinated president, Jovenel Moïse, have afforded him a variety of privileges, including the ability to pay for the villa and get his wife a job at the Haitian consulate in Montreal.
But The New York Times found little or no indication in Haiti of the thriving businesses that Mr. Célestin cites as the source of his great wealth. Some appear to operate on a much smaller scale than he claimed, if at all in some cases.
A clearer picture of the group that Haiti accuses of assassinating President Jovenel Moïse has emerged as officials in the Colombian defense ministry identified 13 suspects by name and said that all were former members of the Colombian military.
Two have been killed, the officials said, and the other 11 are in custody. They said some had traveled to Haiti as early as May.
In the past, some former members of the Colombian military, which receives heavy financial support and training from the U.S. military, have acted as hired guns after their service.
Colombians are attractive to those looking for military help, because they often have years of experience fighting left-wing guerrillas and drug traffickers inside their own country — and are often trained by U.S. experts.
Colombian officials condemned the attack and said they were doing everything possible to assist the Haitian government in its search for the truth. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, the head of the national police, said that Colombian officials were investigating four businesses that they believed had recruited people for the operation.
One of the suspects, Francisco Eladio Uribe, was being investigated last year by the country’s special peace court for homicide, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Uribe was accused of being involved in a scandal known in Colombia as “false positives,” in which hundreds of members of the military were accused of killing civilians and saying they were combat casualties in a bid to show success in the country’s long civil war.
In an interview with W Radio, a woman who identified herself as Mr. Uribe’s wife said that the two had been married for 18 years and had three children, and that he had left home one day after telling her that he had “a very good job opportunity.” She said her husband had been investigated but exonerated in the military scandal.
Colombian officials said that some of the accused had left Bogotá as early as May and flown to Panama before traveling to the Dominican Republic and then to Haiti. Others, the officials said, arrived in the Dominican Republic in early June, and then traveled to Haiti. The two countries share a Caribbean island, Hispaniola.
General Luis Fernando Navarro said that the accused people had left the military between about 2002 and 2018 and that they were involved in “mercenary activities” with “purely economic” motives.
It is not clear whether the people recruited for the operation knew the specifics of the task they were being assigned, according to John Marulanda, the head of the association for retired military officials.
Paul Angelo, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies security issues, said that Colombians had a history of being recruited into criminal tasks because they sometimes had limited options once they left the armed forces.
“Colombia is a country that for far too long had military conscription, which fell on the shoulders of the poorest men in the country,” he said. “When an economic underclass is taught how to fight and how to conduct military operations and little else, those skills don’t transfer readily to the civilian sector except in the private security realm.”
A former officer in Colombia’s army, who asked not to be identified, said that a mercenary who traveled abroad could easily be paid about $2,700 a month, compared with a military salary of about $300 a month — even for soldiers with years of combat experience.
“It’s not just Haiti, it’s Kabul, Mexico, Yemen, Emirates,” he said in a telephone interview, listing where former Colombian soldiers have gone.
Sofía Villamil and Edinson Bolaños contributed reporting.
The Haitian government’s extraordinary request for U.S. forces to help stabilize the country in the aftermath of the assassination of its president this past week carries haunting vestiges from American military interventions that happened more than a century ago.
Back then, the United States dispatched forces without an invitation from Haiti. The American government was motivated by Haiti’s internal turmoil and a willingness to meddle in the affairs of neighbors to protect its own interests under the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines into Haiti, calling the invasion a justifiable response to avert anarchy after a mob assassinated Haiti’s president, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The American military stayed for nearly two decades.
But even before that, Mr. Wilson saw fit to take military action in Haiti, worried about what his administration saw as the growing influence of Germany there, according to a historical page about the U.S. interventions on the State Department archive website.
In 1914, his administration sent in Marines who removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank for what the administration called “safekeeping” in New York, giving the United States control of the bank, the website said.
Eighty years later, President Bill Clinton ordered more than 23,000 U.S. troops sent to Haiti in what was termed “Operation Restore Democracy,” aimed at ensuring a transition that would return the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
In 2004, President George W. Bush sent in the Marines as part of an “interim international force” after Mr. Aristide resigned under intense U.S. pressure.
Orlando Barria/EPA, via Shutterstock
Estailove St-Val/ReuteJoseph Odelyn/Associated Pres
- Fernando Llano/Associated Press
Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press
Haitians gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince on Friday, hoping to be granted visas to leave the country as the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this week heightened an uncertain and volatile situation in the country.
The usually crowded streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, returned to some normalcy on Friday, in the wake of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this past week, according to a local journalist.
“But it’s a precarious, apparent calm, it can go awry at any moment,” said the journalist, Robenson Geffrard, a reporter for Le Nouvelliste, one of the country’s leading newspapers.
Mr. Geffrard said that economic activity had resumed. Street vendors were out, supermarkets, gas stations and banks reopened, and public transportation and public administration tentatively picked up.
So had gang violence, he said.
“Armed gangs resumed hostilities with a lot of bursts of automatic weapons,” Mr. Geffrard said, adding that there was gang fighting along one of the main roads connecting the south of Port-au-Prince to the surrounding provinces.
A “sense of uncertainty” was looming over the capital, he said.
“In supermarkets and public markets, people are jostling” to stock up on basic goods such as rice and pasta, Mr. Geffrard said. Lines have appeared in front of stations selling propane gas, which is often used for cooking.
Mr. Geffrard said that in the hours after the assassination, the shock and fear were such that people deserted the streets, turning Port-au-Prince into a ghost town.
A video he posted on Twitter on Thursday showed the usually bustling suburb of Pétionville, where the presidential residence is, almost empty of people, with only a few motorcycles venturing out on the roads.
The silence in the capital was broken on Thursday only when crowds of protesters gathered outside a police station to demand justice for suspects whom the police had arrested in the search for the president’s killers. A video from the Agence France-Presse news service showed protesters shouting slogans in front of a police station while cars and tires were being burned in nearby streets.
“There is still this specter of violence, of insecurity that haunts the minds of the population,” Mr. Geffrard said.
During a news conference on Thursday, the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, called on businesses to reopen despite the 15-day “state of siege” he imposed, essentially putting the country under martial law.
“It is true that there is a state of siege, but I want to tell everyone to resume economic activities,” Mr. Joseph said as he also ordered the reopening of Port-au-Prince’s international airport.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States has formally requested that the Biden administration impose human rights sanctions on the people behind the assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken dated Wednesday, Haiti’s envoy to Washington, Bocchit Edmond, said his government was asking the United States to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act “on all perpetrators who are directly responsible or aided and abetted in the execution of the assassination of the president.”
Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016 to penalize foreign government officials for human rights abuses in any country, after the death of a Russian tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian prison in 2009.
Mr. Edmond and other Haitian officials have said they believe “foreigners” were behind the plot to kill Mr. Moïse, who was gunned down in his residence early Wednesday.
Mr. Edmond’s letter also details his government’s previously known request for American assistance with its investigation into the killing. He said the F.B.I.’s international operations office and the Department of Justice could “play a critical role in rendering justice.”
During a briefing for reporters, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, said the Biden administration was “committed to cooperating with Haitian authorities” but did not provide detail.
Ms. Porter referred questions about the detained Haitian Americans to the Haitian authorities, citing “privacy considerations,” and also referred questions about the detained Colombians to officials of that country.