Who killed Haiti’s president? Plot thickens as Moise’s guards come under scrutiny

Police walk among protesters during a protest against the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse near the police station of Petion Ville in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, July 8, 2021. Officials pledged to find all those responsible for the pre-dawn raid on Moïse's home early Wednesday in which the president was shot to death and his wife, Martine, critically wounded. (AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn)

Police walk among civilians protesting the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise on the streets of Port-au-Prince on Thursday. (Joseph Odelyn / Associated Press)

Three days after Haiti’s president was killed inside his home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, it’s still unclear who ordered and carried out the brazen hit.

But a dense thicket of possible plots has emerged — with some officials blaming the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on a team of well-armed foreign mercenaries, with others suggesting that palace guards may have been involved. Evidence has also emerged that the guards and the mostly Colombian alleged mercenaries could have worked in tandem — or that the guards set up the mercenaries to take the fall.

As officials continued their investigation into the murky circumstances surrounding Wednesday’s early morning killing, Haiti’s political crisis deepened Saturday, with multiple politicians battling for control of the impoverished country and one faction calling for the United States to deploy troops to the island to ensure stability.

Amid the turmoil, some Haitians cautiously returned to the streets after days spent cowering inside.

Fear remains widespread, said Pierre Espérance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network in the capital, Port-au-Prince. But so is the need to earn money and buy food. “They’re focused on surviving,” he said.

Occupying the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with the average person surviving on less than $3 a day.

In recent decades, the former French colony has been besieged by every imaginable catastrophe — hurricanes, earthquakes, dictatorships and a series of foreign interventions that many believe only fueled ongoing instability.

And before Moise was killed, the country was engulfed in a series of criminal, political and health crises.

An epidemic of gang violence fueled by guns smuggled from the U.S. had forced thousands of residents to flee the capital. The coronavirus pandemic was raging, yet not a single vaccine dose had been distributed.

And Moise, who took office in 2017 after a strongly contested election, had been ruling by decree, despite a legal consensus that his term had expired in February. He had since refused to hold elections, leaving Parliament with just 10 members, too few for a quorum.

Police in riot gear scuffle with protesters on the edge of a large group

Protesters scuffle with riot police, right, at a rally in 2019 calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, who had remained in office even though his term had expired. (Associated Press)

Haitians had repeatedly taken to the streets in mass demonstrations calling for his resignation. Still, most were horrified to wake up Wednesday morning to news that Moise had been killed and his wife, Martine, wounded in an attack at their home in an affluent suburb of the capital.

“Most Haitian people didn’t like Jovenel Moise and weren’t happy with the way he governed the country,” Espérance said. “But they didn’t want him to die. People are in shock.”

The first explanation for the attack was put forth by Haiti’s national police chief along with interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who declared himself in control of the country after the killing. They blamed the attack on a group of foreigners who were detained in its aftermath — two Haitian Americans and 15 Colombians.

The director of Colombia’s police force said Friday that the Colombian suspects had been recruited to travel to Haiti by four security companies and most of them were former members of the nation’s armed forces. It’s common for former Colombian soldiers, who are well trained in counterinsurgency after decades of battling drug traffickers and guerrilla groups, to work for security firms in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world.

But there have been news reports that the mercenaries may have arrived at the president’s house after he was already dead. And fresh evidence suggests that the president’s own security team may have been involved in the hit.

For one thing, none of the president’s guards were reported injured in the attack. And records published by the Colombian magazine Semana show that top palace guard Dimitri Hérard traveled repeatedly to Colombia in the months before the killing, suggesting he might have been involved in recruiting the mercenaries. In Haiti, some have speculated that Hérard either collaborated with the foreigners in the killing or set them up to take the blame for the assassination.

Hérard, who is being investigated by U.S. officials for arms trafficking, according to a report from the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy and Research, has been asked to present himself for questioning by Haitian authorities along with other members of the president’s security detail.

On Friday, prominent opposition politician Steven Benoit told Haitian radio station Magik9: “The president was assassinated by his own guards, not by the Colombians.”

Joseph, Haiti’s self-declared leader, has also come under new scrutiny, with one high-profile member of the political opposition accusing him of orchestrating a coup.

Joseph’s mandate has been recognized by the Organization of American States. But at home, his leadership is contested.

The remaining members of Parliament have demanded that he stand down. They say Joseph Lambert, the head of Haiti’s Senate, should take over as president and Ariel Henry be confirmed as prime minister. Moise had named Henry, a neurosurgeon with little political experience, as prime minister two days before the assassination, but Henry hadn’t yet been sworn in.

Adding to tensions is Joseph’s recent request for U.S. military intervention.

“We’ve asked our international partners for help,” Joseph told the Associated Press on Friday.

But President Biden, who has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan after a largely fruitless two-decade war against the Taliban, has given no indication that he will provide military assistance to Haiti, and is unlikely to be willing to wade into another potential military quagmire.

Most Haitians and experts on the country oppose U.S. or United Nations troops, saying previous deployments of foreign forces have contributed to the erosion of state power and the militarization of street gangs.

“A new deployment of foreign troops to Haiti would be a tragic mistake,” said Jake Johnston, an expert on Haiti with the Center for Economic Policy and Research, a U.S. think tank.

What is needed, said Horace G. Campbell, a professor of political science and African American studies at Syracuse University, is for members of Haitian civil society to take the lead in crafting a solution to the current crisis — with the support of neighboring Caribbean countries.

For too long, he said, Haiti had been a protectorate of foreign powers who propped up corrupt politicians and allowed crime and poverty to flourish.

“The Haitian people need room to create their own democratic spaces,” Campbell said. “The combination of oligarchs, gunrunners … and outside political forces have ensured that the Haitian people have very little say about any of this.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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