- The uncertain security situation in Haiti was matched by an equally chaotic political standoff.
- Former Haitian PM Laurent Lamothe said police sources told him 28 mercenaries were involved.
- Rep. Levin: “shocking example of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled.”
WASHINGTON – Haitian police said they killed four suspects and detained two others late Wednesday, amid an ongoing manhunt for a group of “mercenaries” involved in the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, which also left his wife critically wounded.
The uncertain security situation in Haiti was matched by an equally chaotic political standoff. The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, declared a “state of siege” akin to martial law and said he was in charge of the country, even as his claim to power came into question.
Here’s what we know about the assassination and its aftermath:
Who killed Moïse and how?
Mathias Pierre, Haitis’s minister of Elections, told the AP Thursday that they had two Haitian American citizens in connection with the president’s murder.
He identified one of the men as James Solages. Solages on a charity website identified himself as a former bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials had previously declined to give any details about the nationality or motivation of the four suspects who were killed or the two who were detained on Wednesday. Police said they also freed three officers who had been held hostage.
Former Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said police sources in the country told him that 28 mercenaries were involved in the operation, many of them Venezuelan nationals. Lamothe said two Haitian-Americans were also part of the assassination team, and The Washington Post reported that one U.S. citizen of Haitian descent was among those arrested.
The Department of Justice and FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the possible involvement of American citizens. State Department spokesman Ned Price said he could not confirm the arrest of a U.S. citizen, noting the probe is being led by Haitian authorities.
The presidential guard did try to stop the assailants, Lamothe told USA TODAY in an interview from Miami on Thursday. He said the attackers fired 16 bullets into the president’s body and his wife was shot three times. Haitian government officials said the president’s killers shot him 12 times and mutilated him, removing his left eye, according to The Nouvelliste newspaper.
Many of the assailants are now trapped in the area near the president’s residence in an affluent suburb in the hills north of Port-au-Prince, after police sealed off surrounding roads, Lamothe said.
“They blocked all the roads … so they’re trapped now,” he said.
In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said the assassins falsely claimed to be U.S. agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
He described them as “mercenaries” and said they were “well-trained professional killers.” The ambassador also said a video of the attack shows they were speaking Spanish.
“The pursuit of the mercenaries continues,” Léon Charles, director of Haiti’s National Police, said Wednesday night in announcing the arrests of suspects. “They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested.”
Lemothe said “very few people in Haiti have the means to carry this out,” referring to the cost of such a bold operation. Moïse had some “powerful enemies in the oligarchy,” he said, but declined to speculate further on possible culprits.
Who is in charge now?
Joseph has assumed control of Haiti’s government, including the national police and armed forces, declaring a 15-day “state of siege” in the aftermath of Wednesday’s assassination.
“Everything is under control,” he told The Associated Press.
But Moïse had named a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, just one day before his murder.
“I am a prime minister,” Henry told the Nouvelliste newspaper on Wednesday. Henry said he did not want to fuel further confusion and praised Joseph’s handling of the crisis, but said he would assert his claim to the prime minister position and include Joseph in his Cabinet.
“The next few days are critical for Haiti,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Wednesday evening. He called for calm and urged the Haitian government “to do everything it can to ensure a peaceful transition of power.”
Haiti’s international airport in Port-au-Prince remained closed Thursday.
The legitimacy of Moïse’s presidency had been in question for months. U.S. human rights advocates said his presidency should have ended in February. But the 53-year-old politician had refused to step down and, using an alternative reading of Haiti’s Constitution, Moïse argued he could stay in office for another year.
Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat and co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus, said Moïse’s murder is a “shocking example of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled” and said the international community was at least partly responsible.
The U.S. and other countries have ignored Haiti’s spiraling violence and pleas from its people for a democratic transition, Levin said. And Joseph’s claim now – that the Haitian national police and armed forces have the country’s security under control – is “absurd” given the current crisis, he added.
What is the US response so far?
Edmond, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., said he has asked the White House for assistance in the investigation, and he made a fresh plea for American help in strengthening Haiti’s police force and its armed forces.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment on Thursday when asked if the agency was assisting Haitian authorities in an investigation into Moïse’s assassination.
Price said the Haitian police had made an official request for investigatory assistance and “the U.S. is responding,” but he could not provide additional details. He said American and Haitian officials have been in regular contact since the assassination.
As for the political standoff, Price noted that Joseph was the incumbent prime minister when the assassination took place, “and we continue to work with Claude Joseph as such.” But Price said State Department officials have also been in contact with Henry and other “officials and stakeholders” in Haiti.
“The situation on the ground is evolving rapidly,” Price said. He reiterated the Biden administration’s position that Haiti should proceed with “free and fair elections” scheduled for later this year.
“We know that free and fair elections are the democratic path towards ending Haiti’s irregular and prolonged rule by decree and restoring its parliament, which as of now has lapsed,” he said. “Free and fair presidential elections will facilitate a peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president as well.”
Human rights groups said Moïse’s assassination should serve as a “wake-up call” for the U.S. and other world powers to refocus on Haiti’s political and societal instability.
Gang violence has spiked in Port-au-Prince, and the country’s economic woes have become acute amid inflation and food and fuel shortages. Haiti is still trying to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake, among other problems.
“This is a wake-up call for the international community, and for the Haitian authorities who have overseen chronic impunity and ignored the calls of human rights defenders that has paved the way for such a serious crisis,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas Director for Amnesty International.
Levin implored the Biden administration to pursue a new policy toward Haiti that emphasized improving human rights, democracy and security.
Contributing: Daphne Duret and The Associated Press