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What we know about the assassination of Haiti’s president

Haiti’s president was assassinated in his home at the beginning of July. Since then, more questions than answers have surfaced. As the investigation into the plot to kill President Moïse continues, here is what is known so far. 

The Assassination

Jovenel Moïse, Haitian President

Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home on July 7, 2021. Moïse’s wife, Martine Moïse, was severely wounded during the attack and was flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, as local10.com reported

The New York Times reported that a team of about two-dozen armed mercenaries, who were recruited overseas, gained entry to the house around 1 a.m. These mercenaries posed as Drug Enforcement Administration agents as they approached Moïse’s home. 

In a video posted to YouTube of the incident, a man yells in English, “This is a DEA operation!” through a megaphone. Despite Moïse having a formidable security team, the assailants were met with little resistance. 

WHO: The Two Americans

As the mercenaries identified themselves as DEA agents, a big question has been whether or not the DEA was involved or had knowledge of president Moïse’s assassination. On July 13th, the Miami Herald reported that the “DEA steadfastly denies any knowledge of or involvement in the monumental events that unfolded in impoverished Haiti.” However, one of the individuals at the scene has been identified as a former DEA informant. 

This person is Joseph Gertand Vincent, a Haitian émigré from South Florida. “Vincent, 55, was identified by Haitian authorities over the weekend as an arrested suspect,” according to the Miami Herald’s report. The former DEA informant was first arrested 20 years ago for submitting false information on a U.S. passport application.

Another American among the assailants is James Solages. Solages, 35, is also a Haitian emigre from South Florida. According to the Miami Herald, he “was a maintenance director in a Lantana senior-living center” until April of this year. 

Solages has a somewhat convoluted history of employment, though. In addition to being a maintenance director in Florida, the New York Times reported that he was also the president of a small charity organization that focused on providing aid for his hometown, Jacmel, in southern Haiti.

While the organization’s site appears to no longer be operational, the web address is jacemelfirst.org. Before the site went down, the Times reported that Solages’s biography claimed “he was a consultant, building engineer and ‘certified diplomatic agent.’”

Solages additionally claimed to be a “chief commander of bodyguards for the Canadian Embassy in Haiti.” The Times checked in on this claim and found that, according to a Canadian government official, “Mr. Solages was briefly a reserve officer for a security company that had a contract to protect the embassy in 2010.”

In a meeting among the mercenaries prior to President Moïse’s assassination, Solages was introduced to the group as “a seasoned international investor leading the reconstruction of Haiti,” according to the Times

Both Solages and Vincent reportedly told investigators that they were hired as translators for Spanish-speaking Colombians who were also a part of the operation. 

On July 9th, the Miami Herald reported that both men claimed not to have been in the room when the president was assassinated. The same article includes video footage of 17 detained suspects involved in the assassination. As they sit on the ground with their hands cuffed, the men’s faces can be seen. One of them is wearing a shirt that reads “ARMY” on its front. The video also captures footage of their machetes, hammers, cellphones, and passports laid out on a table. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Clement Noël, a Haitian judge involved in the investigation, said that “the two Americans maintained that the plot had been planned intensively for a month.” As they spent a month planning and strategizing, this suggests that the two men did more than merely translate.

Judge Noël also told the Times that, according to Vincent and Solage, the plan was not to kill president Moïse but to bring him to the national palace. 

WHO: The Colombians and the Masterminds

The group of mercenaries involved was described by the Times as “20 former Colombian commandos.” Being that they are former Colombian military personnel, the name seems appropriate. However, their involvement in the assassination has an unorthodox history. Instead of taking part in a plot to kill a president, the men believed they were serving a more noble cause, at least initially.  

The main suspects under investigation for plotting and funding the assassination portrayed themselves to the former commandos in “grandiose and often exaggerated terms as well-financed, well-connected power brokers ready to lead a new Haiti with influential American support behind them,” according to the Times.

Haiti’s national chief of police has recognized Dr. Christian Emmanuel Sanon as the main suspect in the plot to kill president Moïse. But how did this 63-year-old doctor and pastor from Florida manage to carry out such an ambitious crime? Even the New York Times admits that it is “not easily explainable.”

Sanon, who was born in Haiti, studied in the Dominican Republic, and has been living in Florida, is a man of little renown. It is especially baffling how he could have funded such an operation overseas as he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2013, as was reported by the Times. It is also unclear how Sanon, who still lives in Florida, planned to seize power over Haiti post-assassination.

Dr. Sanon holds degrees in medicine and theology, and, according to the Times, “there are suggestions that if he did see himself taking over for the presidency, he felt it was a divine calling.”

A statement from a university professor who recently met with Dr. Sanon corroborates these suggestions. The professor told the Times that Sanon “had spoken then of being sent by God to take over Haiti’s presidency.”

To accomplish his goal, Dr. Sanon would need hired guns. Through an array of connections detailed in a New York Times article titled, “Suspects in Haitian President’s Killing Met to Plan a Future Without Him,” Sanon successfully recruited the Colombian commandos. 

A recruitment pitch for the job read, “We are going to help in the recovery of the country, in terms of its security and democracy,” and made no mention of a plan to kill Haiti’s leader. The pitch was shared via WhatsApp and also read, “We are going to be pioneers.” 

As the investigation uncovered more details, it became clear that the Colombian commandos were not aware of what they were getting into when they accepted the job offers. Julie Turkewitz, the Andes Bureau chief for the New York Times, had a chance to interview the wives and family members of the detained Colombians involved. Through these conversations, it became apparent that, at the very least, the family members were completely unaware of the plot to kill Haiti’s president. 

Turkewitz went to Colombia and interviewed 30 people to try to understand the recruitment process for the former Colombian commandos. She shared her findings from these conversations on an episode of The Daily, the podcast produced by the New York Times. One interviewee who stood out to Turkewitz was Diana, the wife of one of the detained soldiers named Franco Castenera. 

Franco, 39, had just recently retired from the Colombian military, and like most of the men who accepted this job, he was desperate for a way to support his family. One day, Franco was contacted by an old military associate of his, Daburney Capador.

Through her interview with Diana, Turkewitz learned that Capador had an enticing opportunity for Franco. The offer included monthly earnings of $2,700, a significant amount of money for him and his family. Capador also assured Franco that the work would feel familiar to him — which meant “protecting people from bad actors,” according to Turkewitz.

After 20 years of service, the Colombian military retires its servicemen unless they continue to move up the ranks. While there is a pension for retired military personnel in Colombia, it only amounts to $400 a month, as Turkewitz explained. Ultimately, this job offer seemed to Franco to be exactly the type of opportunity he needed to support his family. 

In June, Diana said her husband traveled out of California to meet up with the rest of these men in Bogata, Colombia. From there, they flew to the Dominican Republic. “While they’re there,” Turkewitz said, “it’s clear that these men do not believe that they’re on a secret mission.”

Turkewitz spoke about how the men behaved as if they were on vacation. They took photos of themselves at tourist destinations and posted them on social media. After a few days, their bosses gathered the men up and transported them to a villa in Haiti. Turkewitz said that “the next couple of days and weeks appear to pass in a fairly mundane way.”

From her interviews, Turkewitz learned that the men were taking English-speaking lessons and that they’d practice what they learned when they called home to their wives. They would exercise, cook, and rotate shifts on the night-watch. 

“The impression that the men gave to their wives is that they were training to do security for someone important,” Turkewitz explained. The men didn’t seem to know, or at least they did not reveal to their wives, what they would be doing there. 

At some point during their time at this villa, the men were given a presentation. An audio recording of this meeting reveals that the Colombians were gathered around this leader, who identified himself as a member of a security company called Worldwide Capital. As Turkewitz explains, “from our reporting, we know that Worldwide Capital is a Florida-based company that works with C.T.U., the company that hired Capador, the guy who recruited all of these Colombian soldiers.”

This leader told the men that Worldwide Capital was an experienced and prestigious global security syndicate that has worked on all sorts of projects around the world, even in the United States. It was then that the men were told that they had been hired to help rebuild Haiti. 

Turkewitz reported that this man said their goal was to “make Haiti great again.”

The man went on to explain to the Colombians how Haiti is in crisis and that they “are going to work with existing security institutions in Haiti so that big investors will come in and strengthen this country in crisis,” according to Turkewitz. 

Turkewitz describes how this man was pumping up the Colombians by painting their mission as “noble” and “history-changing.” By the end of the presentation, the Colombians reacted so positively that one of them even stood to thank this authority figure for giving them the opportunity to help Haiti. 

According to Turkewitz, this Colombian continued by saying that he was “here not just because it’s a professional opportunity, but because he feels that it’s an opportunity to help a country in need.” After the presentation and this concluding comment, the men lined up for a photo. 

Diana, the wife of Franco, one of the men who took part in the assassination, spoke with her husband the night of the assassination. Diana told Turkewitz that “they had a very normal conversation.” Only hours after talking about their kids, Moïse was assassinated. 

To hear Turkewitz’s full report on her interview with Diana, listen to the episode released on July 22nd of the New York Times’ podcast, The Daily.

What Now?

On July 8th, Haitian police detained more than 18 of the Colombian soldiers. The New York Times reported on the 15th that “Another three Colombians, including the recruiter, Mr. Capador, were killed in the hours after the president’s death.” These men were killed by “Haitian security forces” who hunted the suspects down after President Moïse was assassinated. 

Police have also detained Dr. Sanon in Florida as of July 8th. During a police raid of Dr. Sanon’s residence, “police found six holsters, about 20 boxes of bullets and a D.E.A. cap — suggesting that it linked him to the killing because the team of hit men who struck Mr. Moïse’s home posed as agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration,” according to a report by the New York Times.

The New York Times also reported on July 20th that “Haiti’s national police announced […] they had arrested three police officers in connection with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.” While the specific role they played is unknown, it does suggest that the people who plotted to kill president Moïse may have infiltrated the Haitian police force. 

The most recent report from the Times also notes that a “former judge, a security equipment salesman, an insurance broker from Florida, and two commanders of the president’s security team” have also been arrested. 

On July 30th, the New York Times interviewed Mrs. Martine Moïse, who is still recovering from her bullet wounds. While she was flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Florida immediately after the incident, the Times could not disclose her current whereabouts.

Martine Moïse, Wife of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse

Mrs. Moïse remains baffled as to where the 30 to 50 men in charge of protecting the president were at the time of the assassination. “I don’t understand how nobody was shot,” she said. 

None of the assailants were injured or killed when they entered the president’s home. It was only after the assassination that Haitian police engaged with the mercenaries. Mrs. Moïse told the Times that her husband called the two commanders of his security, who have since been arrested when the attack began. 

According to Mrs. Moïse, the assailants spoke Spanish and were on the phone with someone as they searched the room. She recounts how, after the shooting stopped, the men ransacked their home, looking through files saying, “That’s not it. That’s not it,” repeatedly in Spanish, until eventually, they found what they were seeking. 

While Dr. Sanon has been the central figure in this investigation, Mrs. Moïse believes someone else might have orchestrated it all. The Times reports that “Mrs. Moïse, like many Haitians, believes there must have been a mastermind behind them, giving the orders and supplying the money.”

Speaking of potential suspects, Mrs. Moïses expects evidence “to trace back to wealthy oligarchs in Haiti, whose livelihoods were disrupted by her husband’s attacks on their lucrative contracts,” according to the Times. 

It is no secret that President Moïse was a controversial leader who had no shortage of critics. As nbcnews.com reported after the incident, “Moïse had been resisting calls to step down from opponents who accused him of corruption and who insisted his term expired in February because the country’s Constitution starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.”

The power vacuum left in Haiti after president Moïse was killed seems to have been filled by a 71-year-old neurosurgeon named Ariel Henry. According to an NPR report published on July 20th, Henry “studied in France and Boston. He’s been in the government before. He’s held several ministerial-level positions. And on Sunday, he posted a video referring to himself as the prime minister and pledging an inclusive government for all Haitians.”

As the story continues to unfold, more complex characters and more questions that need answers are revealed. The FBI has officially gotten involved in the investigation, saying in a statement on Friday that it “remains committed to working alongside our international partners to administer justice,” as reported by the Times.

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