U.S., Colombia to send officials to aid investigation of Haitian president’s assassination

Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph addresses the audience after suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, who was shot dead at his home, were shown to the media, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The United States and Colombia said on Friday they will send law enforcement and intelligence officials to help Haiti following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise and arrests of their nationals by Haitian authorities.

The United States will send federal law enforcement officers to Haiti as soon as possible, the White House said on Friday, adding that strengthening Haitian capacity for law enforcement remains a key U.S. priority.

Officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security will be involved, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing.

“Our assistance is to help the people of Haiti and to help them get through a very challenging time,” Psaki said.

The head of Colombia’s national intelligence directorate and the intelligence director for the national police will also travel to Haiti with Interpol to help with investigations, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Friday.

“We offer all possible help to find out the truth about the material and intellectual perpetrators of the assassination,” Duque wrote on Twitter, saying he had just spoken on the phone with Haitian interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph.

Colombian security sources said on Friday that several Colombians believed to be part of the commando unit that assassinated Moise in his home in the early hours of Wednesday had spent more than a month in Haiti before the killing, after entering via the neighboring Dominican Republic.

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The assassination of Moise, a 53-year-old former businessman, drew international outcry and pitched Haiti deeper into a political crisis which is feared could worsen growing hunger, gang violence and a COVID-19 outbreak.

Police in Haiti said the assassination was carried out by a squad of 26 Colombian and 2 Haitian-American mercenaries. The two Haitian Americans were identified as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55, both from Florida.

Seventeen of the men were captured after a gun battle with Haitian authorities in Petionville, a hillside suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince, while three were killed and eight are still at large, according to Haitian police.

Authorities are still hunting for the masterminds behind the operation, they said.

Two U.S. law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation, said that agencies were looking into U.S. connections to the killing, but declined to comment specifically on the two suspects.

Haitian officials have not given a motive for Moise’s killing or explained how the assassins got past his security detail. He had faced mass protests against his rule since taking office in 2017 – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.

Moise himself had talked of dark forces at play behind the unrest: fellow politicians and corrupt oligarchs who felt his attempts to clean up government contracts and to reform Haitian politics were against their interests.

Investigations show that 17 Colombian suspects, two of whom were killed and the rest captured, retired from Colombia’s army between 2018 and 2020, armed forces commander General Luis Fernando Navarro told journalists on Friday.

Colombia is seeking more information from Haiti on all the suspects, said Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s national police. He said the two dead men traveled to Haiti via Panama and the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

In Haiti, the government declared a 15-day state of emergency on Wednesday to help authorities apprehend the killers but has since urged businesses to open up again.

Grocery stores, gas stations and commercial banks re-opened on Friday although the streets were still quiet, with just a few vendors plying their wares.

Moise’s killing sparked confusion about who is now the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people, the poorest in the Americas.

“The assassination… has provoked a political and institutional vacuum at the highest level of state,” said Haitian opposition politician Andre Michel. “There is no constitutional provision for this exceptional situation.”

The 1987 constitution stipulates the head of the Supreme Court should take over. But amendments that are not unanimously recognized in the country state that it should be the prime minister, or, in the last year of a president’s mandate – the case with Moise – that parliament should elect a president.

The head of the Supreme Court died last month due to COVID-19 amid a surge in infections in Haiti, which is one of the few countries in the world yet to start a vaccination campaign.

There is no sitting parliament as legislative elections scheduled for late 2019 had been postponed amid political unrest.

Just this week, Moise appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to take over from Joseph, although he had yet to be sworn in when the president was killed.

Joseph appeared on Wednesday to take charge of the situation, but Henry – who is viewed more favorably by the opposition – told Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste he did not consider Joseph the legitimate prime minister.

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