A heavily armed commando unit that assassinated Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was composed of 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans, authorities have said, as the hunt goes on for the masterminds of the killing.
Moïse, 53, was fatally shot early on Wednesday at his home by what officials said was a group of foreign, trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil amid political divisions, hunger and widespread gang violence.
Authorities tracked the suspected assassins on Wednesday to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern, hillside suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince. A firefight lasted late into the night and authorities detained a number of suspects on Thursday.
Police chief Charles Leon paraded 17 men before journalists at a news conference late on Thursday, showing a number of Colombian passports plus assault rifles, machetes, walkie-talkies and materials including bolt cutters and hammers.
“Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” Charles said. “There were 26 Colombians, identified by their passports, and two Haitian Americans as well.”
He said 15 Colombians were captured, as well as two Haitian Americans. Three of the assailants were killed and eight remained on the run, Charles said.
Eleven of the suspects were arrested after breaking into the embassy of Taiwan in Port-au-Prince, which sits near the residence where Moïse was killed, a statement from Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs said.
Early on Thursday morning embassy security discovered the “group of armed suspects”, described as “mercenaries” in the ministry’s statement, and notified the Haitian government. Taiwan agreed “without hesitation” to allow Haitian police access, a spokeswoman said.
“The Haitian police launched an operation at about 4pm … and successfully arrested 11 suspected armed criminals. The process was smooth and the suspects did not resist.” The spokeswoman did not provide the nationalities of the arrested men.
The embassy had been closed on Wednesday as a safety measure in response to the assassination and staff had been working from home.
Colombia’s defence minister, Diego Molano, said in a statement that preliminary information indicated that Colombians involved in the attack were retired members of the country’s military. He said Bogotá would cooperate in the investigation.
Haiti’s minister of elections and interparty relations, Mathias Pierre, identified the Haitian-American suspects as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55.
A state department spokesperson could not confirm if any US citizens were among those detained, but US authorities were in regular contact with Haitian officials, including investigative authorities, to discuss how the US could provide assistance.
Officials in the mostly French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean nation had said on Wednesday the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.
“It was a full, well-equipped commando, with more than six cars and a lot of equipment,” Pierre said.
Officials have not yet given a motive for the killing.
Moïse, a 53-year-old former banana exporter who took office in 2017, was murdered at his family home in the hills above Port-au-Prince about 1am local time on Wednesday. The first lady, Martine Moïse, was also wounded and later evacuated to Miami, where she is reportedly in a stable condition.
According to new details that have emerged in local reports, the attackers tied up staff, and one of Moïse’s three children survived by hiding in her brother’s bedroom.
Moïse was shot at least a dozen times and died at the scene, according to Carl Henry Destin, a judicial official, who said the president’s office and bedroom were ransacked.
“We found him lying on his back, with blue trousers, a white blood-stained shirt, his mouth open, the left eye gouged out,” Destin told Haiti’s main newspaper, Le Nouvelliste.
As details of the audacious raid emerged, Haiti was enveloped by profound political uncertainty and the streets of the capital emptied as many residents chose to stay at home. “I really don’t know what to say … the insecurity is too much,” said Darline Garnier, a 23-year-old university student from Pétionville, near where the president was killed.
“It’s a humiliation for our nation,” said Luckner Meronvil, a 46-year-old taxi driver, tears welling in his eyes as he spoke.
Theories about who was behind the killing ran wild in Haiti and in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the same island. Amid claims that some of those involved in the attack had spoken Spanish, the Dominican paper Diario Libre reported that investigators there were examining the possibility that some of the assassins may have used the country to access or flee Haiti.
And in the febrile atmosphere, competing – and so far unverified – theories have continued to emerge, one suggesting that a hit squad of Colombians and Venezuelans contracted to powerful figures in Haiti involved in drug trafficking and other criminality had ordered the killing, or that the killing involved individuals linked to Moïse’s own security staff.
Many people in Haiti had wanted Moïse to resign. Since taking over in 2017 he had faced calls to leave office and mass protests, first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy and then over his increasing grip on power.
Credit: The Guardian