Jovenel Moïse, close to his residence where he was killed in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Photo: AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn
Four suspects were killed in a gun battle that raged in the president’s neighborhood over several hours on Wednesday afternoon, and two were arrested. Police said all the suspects were foreigners, without elaborating. Photos and videos spread on WhatsApp in Haiti of two men, now in civilian clothing, in handcuffs. Gruesome photos also spread of Moïse’s corpse, stained red by 12 bullet holes to the chest, and with one eye missing from his face.
Haitians are still processing the shock of the president’s assassination, but it is unclear who hired the mercenaries and why, or if, those arrested are actually responsible. But people have already begun to point fingers. Moïse’s enemies included opposition politicians, gang leaders, and captains of industry, among other prominent figures who possessed wealth, influence, and anger, in abundance.
Moïse, 53, was assassinated in his home in the early hours of July 7. The alleged foreign mercenaries drove through the streets of Port-au-Prince in a five-car motorcade, blasted announcements on megaphones impersonating American DEA agents, and took control of the president’s neighborhood in the hills above Haiti’s capital.
After midnight, the caravan carrying the assailants was stopped at a police checkpoint below the president’s home, where the attackers identified themselves as DEA agents, and were let in. According to the Haiti Info Project, a collective of citizen journalists who contribute news on Haiti, officers on duty were given direct orders from the chief of police, Leon Charles, to let the cars enter the president’s street. Even though the street is normally patrolled by a squad of police officers, in addition to the president’s private security detail, no one in uniform was harmed in the attacks.
Several of the assassins were heard speaking Spanish to each other in videos from the neighborhood. Haitian journalist Alexander Galves told a local radio station that the mercenaries were suspected to be Colombian and Venezuelan, as well as Haitian, citing the outgoing Haitian prime minister and declared interim president, Claude Joseph, as his source.
The assassins shot machine gun shells into car windows, forced passersby to lie down in the street, and tied up the maid inside Moïse’s official residence while the operation was underway.
After murdering Moïse and critically injuring his wife, Martine Moïse, they ransacked the bedroom and home office. The President’s teenage daughter hid from the assassins and survived without any injuries. It was described by Haitian officials as a “professional” and “well-planned” attack by highly-trained foreign mercenaries, but even so, the assailants left black ski masks behind in the dust.
“It sounds shocking, foreign mercenaries in Haiti, but seeing a mercenary attack is a typical Monday in Haiti,“ Jake Johnston, a Haiti researcher for the Center for Economic and Policy Research told VICE World News. “Private companies, criminal actors, government actors, all have the ability to hire foreign mercenaries and often have private security teams.”
The timing of the attack could shed some light on the possible actors involved. The Haitian constitution is an evolving document, full of unratified amendments, but as it stands, the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court is first in line to become president following Moïse’s assassination. But that man, René Sylvestre, died of complications from COVID-19 on June 23. Also, the outgoing Prime Minister, Joseph, had just submitted his resignation, and a new Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, was set to be sworn in on July 7, just hours after the attack took place.
Members of the political opposition to Moïse were fiercely opposed to the new choice for Prime Minister, as Henry has been accused of having ties to criminal organizations. “It’s definitely an interesting moment to do this,” Johnston said, explaining that even people in Moïse’s inner circle could be considered suspects. “It’s not just a question of Moïse versus the political opposition, but there are other people who might ostensibly be allies, who then can turn in a second.”
Several hours after the assassination, Jean Rebel-Dorcénant, commonly identified as Moïse’s liaison to powerful gangs, was arrested attempting to cross the border into the Dominican Republic along with two others.
In a possible response to the assassination, the home of Senator Moise Jean-Charles, a critic of Moïse, was set on fire. After facing rumors he and other members of the political opposition were involved in the assassination, Reginald Boulos, a business mogul who has considered running for the presidency, told local media that he considered Moïse a friend. “I don’t think we should mix personal relationships with political relationships,” he said.
Back in February, Moïse had ordered the arrest of two dozen members of the political opposition, including a Supreme Court justice and a former chief of police, claiming they had conspired to assassinate him. Those arrested faced maltreatment in prison, including withholding of insulin for a diabetic prisoner. In March, Boulos accused Moïse of hiring the gang G9 an Fanmi to set his automotive dealership on fire.
G9 is an alliance of several powerful gangs that came together in 2020 under the leadership of Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier, a kingpin who refers to himself as a “community leader” and is responsible for the burning and pillaging of numerous neighborhoods over the past few years, and the assassinations of several police officers, among other crimes.
Moïse faced credible accusations of paying the G9 group to conduct raids in neighborhoods with heavy opposition influence. In June, Cherizier declared his group an anti-government “revolutionary force”. “People keep saying the video was theater, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the split between the G9 and Moïse was real,” a Haiti expert who chose to remain anonymous to avoid the possibility of drawing attention to the wrong suspects, told VICE World News.
Prior to Moïse’s assassination, Mark Schuller, a Haiti scholar and professor at l’Université d’État d’Haïti in Port-au-Prince, told VICE World News that Cherizier already seemed to be benefiting from the crumbling of government sovereignty in recent weeks as gangs took control of the capital. “Definitely above everything, he wants money. Maybe not by being president himself, but by being a kingmaker.”
A more mundane potential adversary with a possible motive and the means to hire a mercenary group is the Haitian electric company. In February, just after arresting a fleet of opposition leaders, Moïse accused the wealthy captains of the largely-government owned electric company of conspiring against him to turn Haiti into an oligarchy. He released a statement saying “The corrupt oligarchs who are used to controlling the president, ministers, parliament and judicial system think they can take the presidency” and adding that his administration faced “an enemy which is powerful and has a great deal of means.”
On television several hours after the assassination, the Prime Minister, Joseph, addressed the nation, declaring a “State of Siege”. Joseph has positioned himself as the new interim President and the leader of the country in the post-assassination situation, an act that has prompted scrutiny. The state of siege replaces police presence with military presence and allows for curtailment of certain rights, including giving the government the right to surveil the public freely and stricter control over the media.
Joseph has close ties to GNB, a group that participated in the ousting of another Haitian President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004, and was only appointed to the position in April. Henry, who was supposed to be sworn in on the morning after the assassination, claims he, rather than Joseph, is the legitimate Prime Minister. “It is a situation where everything is contested, even what the constitution says should happen,” Johnston, the Haiti researcher, said.
The former Haitian ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Edwin Paraison, told a Dominican TV station that Moïse had so many enemies partly because he “ignored the will of the people”. In February, tens of thousands of Haitians took to the streets to protest Moïse’s leadership and demand a change of command. Because Moïse had so many enemies, Paraison said, “Security experts told him to move, but that was another piece of advice he didn’t listen to.”