Live Updates: Americans Claim They Were Just ‘Translators’ in Killing of Haiti’s President, Judge Says

A crowd surrounded a police vehicle carrying two suspects in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.
Credit…Jean Marc Herve Abelard/EPA, via Shutterstock

Two Americans arrested in connection with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti this week said that they were not in the room when he was killed and that they had worked only as translators for the hit squad, a Haitian judge said on Friday.

Clément Noël, a judge who is involved with the investigation and who interviewed both men soon after their arrest, said that neither was injured in the assault.

One of the Americans was identified as James J. Solages, a U.S. citizen who lived in South Florida and previously worked as a security guard at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti. The other was identified as Joseph Vincent, 55.

Judge Noël, speaking by telephone, said that he could not provide details on the wider plot or a possible motive, but said the two Americans maintained that the plot had been planned intensively for a month.

The Americans, he said, would meet with other members of the squad at an upscale hotel in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, to plan the attack. He said they had relayed that the goal was not to kill the president but to bring him to the national palace.

Mr. Moïse was shot dead in his private residence on the outskirts of the capital around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, his body riddled with bullets.

Judge Noël said the Americans had been taken into custody after a shootout with police that resulted in the death of two Colombians.

When they were taken into custody, they had in their possession weapons, clothes, food and other paraphernalia used in the assault.

Judge Noël said that it was Mr. Solages who had yelled that the assailants were agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency over a loudspeaker at the start of the assault.

Mr. Vincent said he had been in the country for six months and that he had been staying with a cousin. Mr. Solages said he had been in Haiti for a month.

The men said the Colombians involved in the plot had been in the country for about three months.

All that Mr. Vincent would say about the broader plot was that the mastermind was a foreigner named “Mike” who spoke Spanish and English. Mr. Solages said that he had found the job to translate for the hit squad in a listing posted online. They would not say how much they had been paid.

Judge Noël said Mr. Solages had “replied in a very evasive manner.”

As the Haitian security forces continued to hunt for suspects in Mr. Moïse’s assassination, the interview offered the clues into who carried out the operation. Most of those in custody are Colombian, the authorities say, and include retired members of the military.

The body of another mercenary was found on Thursday around 10 a.m., on the roof of a private residence in Pétionville. The man, presumed a Colombian, was hit by a single bullet in his left side and killed, despite the fact he was wearing a bulletproof vest, said a justice of the peace, Phidélito Dieudonné. The man had climbed the security wall of the home, and then used a ladder to get up on the roof, Mr. Dieudonné said. He had no firearm or identity documents on him, but a couple of license plates had been dropped to the courtyard.

“They were all wearing the same boots,” said Justice Dieudonné.

At a news conference announcing the arrests on Thursday, the authorities had singled out the Americans as they sat on the floor with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. It was not clear what evidence the Haitian authorities had against the two men, when they had entered the country and what their connection might be to those identified as Colombian.

Mr. Solages, 35, is a native of Jacmel, a city in southern Haiti, and lived in Broward County, the Florida county that includes Fort Lauderdale. He was the president of a small charity organization that said it focused on giving grants to women in his home city. But federal tax records show that he claimed to work 60 hours a week on an organization that in 2019 took in just over $11,000.

The organization, Jacmel First, says that its primary objective is reducing poverty and promoting education and better health systems in Haiti. His biography on his website said that he was a consultant, building engineer and “certified diplomatic agent.”

He also claimed to be chief commander of the bodyguards for the Canadian Embassy in Haiti. A Canadian government official said that Mr. Solages was briefly a reserve officer for a security company that had a contract to protect the embassy in 2010.

By the end of Thursday, as photographs of Mr. Solages in custody in Haiti circulated online, the charity group’s website had been taken down. So was a Facebook page that showed Mr. Solages in sharp suits.

Asked about the president’s murder and Mr. Solages’s arrest, Jean Milot Berquin, of Jacmel First’s board members, said, “I’m so sorry about that,” and declined to comment further.

While the biography on Mr. Solages’s charity website paints him as a professional and politician, his LinkedIn profile lists an entirely different set of jobs that sound more like maintenance positions.

His online résumé says that he has an associate degree from a technical college and is a plant operations director at a senior living facility in Lantana, Fla. (Company officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

State corporation records show that he owns maintenance company whose address was the same as the charity’s: a second-floor office above a restaurant in a strip mall. The office is now occupied by someone else.

Mr. Solages’s Twitter account, which has been dormant for over a year, includes inspirational quotes like “Don’t let nobody tell you that you are aiming too high or expecting too much of yourself, with both Mars, your ruler, and the Sun about to move to your favor, you should in fact expecting more of yourself then (sic) ever before.”

A protest on Thursday near the police station in the Pétionville suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Credit…Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

Fears that the turmoil gripping Haiti could plunge the already fragile country into a deeper humanitarian crisis grew on Friday even as the Haitian authorities sought to demonstrate their control over the roiling crisis.

After 24 hours filled with intense standoffs and gun battles, the police said they had identified more than two dozen people involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this week, including 26 Colombians and two Americans of Haitian descent.

But the authorities offered no clue as to who might have organized the operation or a motive for the attack.

Political intrigue, gang violence, general lawlessness, a public health crisis driven by the pandemic and difficulties delivering essential international aid have conspired to create the worst crisis in Haiti in years.

The Caribbean nation’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, says he has taken command of the police and the army. But the president, days before his death, had appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry. Mr. Henry told a local newspaper after the assassination that he was the rightful prime minister.

That constitutional crisis has been complicated by the pandemic. While there are many legal uncertainties, in the past the country’s top justice has been expected to fill any void in the political leadership. But that justice, René Sylvestre, died of Covid-19 in June.

Haiti, the only country in the Americas with no active Covid-19 inoculation campaign, has virtually no vaccine doses, and public health experts say that the coronavirus is far more widespread there than publicly reported.

With the prospect of greater turmoil looming, international observers worry that a growing humanitarian crisis could lead to the kind of exodus that has previously followed natural disasters, coups and other periods of deep instability.

The Pan American Health Organization said in a statement that the crisis was “creating a perfect storm, because the population has lowered its guard, the infrastructure of Covid-19 beds has been reduced, the security situation could deteriorate even further and hurricane season has started.”

The investigation into the assassination continued, including questions about how the attackers had eluded the president’s security detail.

More than a dozen of the suspects — some with physical injuries — were paraded before the cameras at a late-night news conference on Thursday. Several suspects were killed in clashes with the police, and at least eight other suspects are on the run, the authorities said.

“We are pursuing them,” said Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, before a phalanx of politicians and police officers.

Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, said initial information suggested that the people from his country in custody were retired members of the Colombian military. The authorities identified the American men as Joseph Vincent and James Solages.

A tense calm held in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which was devoid of the usual buzz that fills the streets. In Pétionville — usually a bustling suburb near the president’s home — businesses, markets and gas stations were shuttered.

At the same time, there were signs that public anger was growing as civilians joined in the hunt for people they believed to be part of the hit squad — capturing some people thought to be suspects and setting afire vehicles thought to have been used in the attack.

Despite declaring what is essentially martial law and imposing a curfew, Mr. Joseph asked people to return to work on Friday and said he planned to reopen the country’s main airport.

Claude Joseph, center, the interim prime minister, has essentially put Haiti under martial law, but constitutional experts questioned his right to impose it.
Credit…Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press

The political storm in Haiti intensified on Thursday as two competing prime ministers claimed the right to run the country, setting up an extraordinary power struggle over who has the legal authority to govern after the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his home the day before.

Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, says he has taken command of the police and the army. He has also declared a “state of siege” that essentially put the country under martial law, although constitutional experts questioned his right to impose it, and a rival quickly challenged his claim to power.

Two days before his death, Mr. Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as a new prime minister. Mr. Henry, who was supposed to take up the role this week, told a local newspaper after the presidential assassination that he was the rightful prime minister.

The dueling claims created a volatile political crisis that left constitutional experts confused and diplomats worried about a broad societal collapse that could ignite violence or prompt Haitians to flee the country en masse.

“No one understands” what is happening right now, said Lilas Desquiron, a Haitian writer who was culture minister from 2001 to 2004, leaving the nation’s 11 million people in a “wait-and-see and powerless position.”

Alarmed that Haiti may be approaching a breaking point reminiscent of the surge of Haitian refugees fleeing on boats to Florida after a 1991 coup, American officials have sided with the interim prime minister, Mr. Joseph.

A hospital employee transporting oxygen tanks in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in June.
Credit…Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press

Haiti, the only country in the Americas without a Covid-19 vaccine campaign, is also the country with one of the world’s most dysfunctional health care systems.

Even as Haitians struggle to understand a shifting political crisis in the wake of the assassination of the nation’s president and worry about a surge in violence on the streets, looming in the backdrop is a pandemic whose scale is essentially unknown.

The country of 11 million people has yet to receive its first doses from the Covax vaccine-sharing program, making it one of few places that have not started an inoculation campaign.

Having never fully recovered from a 2010 earthquake that destroyed the Health Ministry’s building and 50 health care centers, Haiti has long depended on billions of dollars of foreign aid and the work of nongovernmental organizations to provide basic services.

But even before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this week, violence posed an increasing challenge to those working to deliver assistance. Humanitarian groups have become primary targets, and last month Doctors Without Borders evacuated some of its staff members and closed an emergency center in Haiti after gangs attacked it.

The dozens of armed gangs that control more than a third of the capital have also killed hundreds of people and impelled thousands to flee their homes over the past year.

International organizations and humanitarian groups warn that the assassination threatens to worsen a crisis that has been building for more than a year, ever since Mr. Moise’s decision to remain in office after opponents said his term had expired essentially paralyzed the government.

On Friday, UNICEF said that nearly one-third of all children in Haiti — about 1.5 million of them — were in urgent need of emergency relief because of the rising violence.

Against this overall backdrop, many in the country have viewed the pandemic as an abstraction. But there are indications that the coronavirus is far more widespread than officially reported.

The neighboring Dominican Republic, which has roughly the same size population, has reported more than 330,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths. Haiti has registered 19,000 cases and 467 deaths — but hospitals have reported struggling in recent weeks to find enough oxygen for a surge in patients.

UNICEF said that some patients had died because gang violence prevented ambulances from reaching them with oxygen and emergency treatment. “Amidst the upsurge of coronavirus cases in Haiti, any additional day without vaccine puts hundreds of lives under threat,” Bruno Maes, the organization’s Haiti representative, said on Friday.

The Rev. Richard Frechette, a doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, told the humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief that he had pleaded with gang leaders to allow the delivery of critical supplies, including oxygen.

“If the streets turn into looting and riots, we’re not going to be able to get oxygen,” he said. “That always happens when there’s instability.”

Haiti is due to receive about six million coronavirus vaccine doses from the United States, but it is unclear when they might be delivered.

Some Port-au-Prince residents took shelter in a sports center last month after clashes broke out between two gangs.
Credit…Jean Marc Herve Abelard/EPA, via Shutterstock

The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on Wednesday by gunmen who broke into his private residence was a stark reminder of the violence that has plagued Haiti for years and escalated in recent weeks.

Armed groups have become increasingly powerful in Haiti, playing on the nation’s political instability and growing poverty to seize control of large swaths of cities like Port-au-Prince, the capital.

About a third of Port-au-Prince’s territory is affected by criminal activity, and a recent upsurge in clashes between rival gangs has caused numerous casualties among civilians and stark levels of displacement of people fleeing violence.

A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that in the first three weeks of June over 13,600 people had fled their home in Port-au-Prince, which has a population of about one million. That was four times the violence-related displacement in the capital than in the previous nine months, the report said.

Gangs have attacked businesses, stealing food and other supplies, and engaged in kidnappings, including the abduction of five Roman Catholic priests and two nuns in April.

“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” Archbishop Max Leroy Mesidor of Port-au-Prince said in a statement at the time.

In the current political crisis, with two men jockeying to be prime minister and institutions in shambles, the armed gangs’ power has raised fears of possible upheaval.

In June, one of Haiti’s most powerful gang leaders, Jimmy Cherizier, also known as “Barbecue,” warned that he was launching a revolution against the country’s political and business elites. He called on people to take back what he said was their money in banks and supermarkets, prompting looting in several stores in Port-au-Prince.

Jacky Lumarque, the rector of Quisqueya University, a large private school in Port-au-Prince, said that in the current situation it was not possible to hold elections in September, as planned by Mr. Moïse and still demanded by the international community.

“Which candidate will be able to campaign in gang-controlled neighborhoods? Will they even be able to set up polling stations?” he asked.

Holding elections, he said, would amount “to perpetuating the chaos, sustaining the instability.”

Video

transcript

transcript

Assassins in Haiti Claimed to Be D.E.A.

In videos filmed from nearby buildings and synchronized by the The New York Times, the group of commandos who appeared to be arriving to assassinate President Jovenel Moïse shouted that they were part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operation.

OK, they say, Everybody do not shoot. They say they are not our enemies, everybody do not shoot. This is a D.E.A. operation. This is a D.E.A. operation. This is a D.E.A. operation. Keep moving, guys. Keep moving. Keep. moving. Keep moving.

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In videos filmed from nearby buildings and synchronized by the The New York Times, the group of commandos who appeared to be arriving to assassinate President Jovenel Moïse shouted that they were part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operation.

Two videos filmed at the same time from separate buildings near Haiti’s presidential compound suggest that the group who killed President Jovenel Moïse claimed to be agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

The videos appear to show the assailants arriving near Mr. Moïse’s residence. A witness on one video claims to see the assailants disarming some of Mr. Moïse’s guards stationed nearby.

In the videos, about a dozen armed men can be seen walking slowly up a main street in the Pèlerin 5 neighborhood alongside at least eight vehicles — a mix of sport utility vehicles and trucks. The men appear calm and do not encounter resistance or try to hide.

Over a loudspeaker, a male voice shouts multiple times in English: “This is a D.E.A. operation! Everybody, don’t shoot!”

He repeats the command in Creole.

The D.E.A. has an office in Port-au-Prince to help Haiti’s government “develop and strengthen its counternarcotics law enforcement program,” according to the U.S. Embassy. But Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told Reuters that the gunmen had falsely identified themselves as D.E.A. agents. “No way they were D.E.A. agents,” he said.

The attack “was carried out by foreign mercenaries and professional killers,” Mr. Edmond said in Washington.

In one of the two videos, the man holding the camera comments on what is unfolding, saying that the armed men are coming to the president’s home.

“They’ve taken Jovenel. Jovenel is gone,” he says, referring to Mr. Moïse by his first name, as shouting can be heard in the distance. “Don’t you see the guys disarming the Jovenel guys?”

A police patrol in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.
Credit…Valerie Baeriswyl/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Taiwanese authorities said on Friday that 11 heavily armed people had been arrested on Thursday on the grounds of its embassy in Port-au-Prince, about a mile from where President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti was assassinated.

It was not immediately clear whether the people arrested at the embassy were involved in the assassination. Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said the Haitian police were still looking into the matter.

In a separate statement posted on Friday, Taiwan’s Embassy in Haiti condemned the assassination as “cruel and barbaric” and referred to those arrested on its grounds as “mercenaries.”

Ms. Ou, the spokeswoman, said that on Thursday morning, security personnel had discovered a group of “fully armed, suspicious-looking individuals” breaking through the embassy’s security perimeter and had immediately notified the police and embassy staff.

She said that no embassy personnel were on the grounds when the intruders were discovered, because they had been instructed to work from home shortly after the assassination in the early hours of Wednesday.

Ms. Ou said embassy officials had immediately agreed to allow the Haitian police to enter the grounds to conduct a search and make arrests.

By 4 p.m. on Thursday, the police had arrested the suspects, she said, adding that no one was harmed and that an initial inspection indicated only minimal property damage.

It was not immediately clear whether the 11 people detained at the embassy were included in the group of 17 suspects who the Haitian authorities say have been arrested in connection with the assassination.

Haiti is one of only 15 nations to have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by China. Taiwan’s embassy in Port-au-Prince is in Pétion-Ville, the suburb where Mr. Moïse was killed.

“At this difficult time,” Ms. Ou said, “the government of Taiwan reiterates its support for interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph in leading Haiti to overcome this crisis and restore democratic order.”

Haiti was gripped by unease on Friday after the nation’s president was killed at his home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince earlier in the week. There are questions about who is in charge of the Caribbean nation even as the coronavirus is spreading and armed gangs wield growing power.

Bullet holes in a wall at the home of President Jovenel Moïse on Wednesday.
Credit…Jean Marc Herve Abelard/EPA, via Shutterstock

The presidential house peppered with holes and littered with bullet casings. The front doors badly damaged. The president’s body lying on the floor at the foot of his bed, “bathed in blood.”

The Haitian justice of the peace who arrived at the home of President Jovenel Moïse in the hours after his assassination on Wednesday described a haunting scene.

“There were 12 holes visible in the body of the president that I could see,” the justice, Carl Henri Destin, told The New York Times. “He was riddled with bullets.”

In the days after the assassination, the Caribbean country was still reeling, and as details of the assassination emerged, they seemed to offer more questions than answers.

Forty to 50 people were involved in the assault, and they appeared to have been well-trained, State Department officials told members of Congress on Thursday, according to three people familiar with the briefing who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That report was in keeping with earlier comments by the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, who described the attackers as “professionals, killers, commandos” in a call with reporters.

The assailants made it past two police checkpoints before reaching the president’s gate, the State Department said, according to people familiar with the briefing, adding that the security personnel guarding the president’s residence had suffered no injuries.

There were also said to be no reports of an exchange of gunfire between the guards and the attackers — which raised some eyebrows.

“It’s weird that there was no one was fighting back,” said Laurent Lamothe, a former prime minister of Haiti, noting that the presidential guard usually had a detachment of about 100 officers. “There was a lot of shooting, but no deaths. The only death was the president.”

One American lawmaker, Representative Andy Levin, a co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the circumstances of the attack, and particularly the apparent lack of fighting, raised questions about whether the assassination could have been “an inside job.”

Mr. Destin, the justice of the peace, said the president’s house had been ransacked. “Drawers were pulled out, papers were all over the ground, bags were open,” he said. “They were looking for something apparently.”

And the attack, he said, had been very violent.

President Moïse had been dressed in a white shirt and jeans, he said, both of which were torn and covered in blood. Bullet holes perforated his arms, hip, backside and left ear.

Mr. Destin said two of the president’s children had been present during the attack. He took a statement from the president’s 24-year-old daughter, who had returned to the house from the hospital to collect clothing for her wounded mother.

She told him that she and her younger brother had hid together in his bathroom, Mr. Destin said.

The international airport in Port-au-Prince is resuming commercial flights on Friday, two days after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti led to its closure and a series of canceled flights.

Christopher D. Johnson, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, confirmed in a statement that flights would resume on Friday. The facility, Toussaint Louverture International Airport, first closed early Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said.

Among the U.S. airlines that operate flights between the United States and Haiti are American Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit. JetBlue, which averages five flights per day between the United States and Haiti, has suspended flights until at least Saturday, a spokesman said, and is evaluating the situation.

“If and when we add flights before Sunday, we will reach out to customers to inform them,” said the spokesman, Derek Dombrowski. The Haiti-based Sunrise Airways, which flies within the Caribbean, grounded all flights until further notice.

American Airlines operates two daily flights from Miami and one daily flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The airline said it planned to operate both flights out of Miami but was still evaluating Fort Lauderdale flights because of “early timing.”

On Thursday, a day after declaring a “state of siege” and a curfew, Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, asked people to return to work and ordered the airport reopened.

The Dominican Republic’s president, Luís Abinader, had closed the country’s border with Haiti and also increased security, causing dozens of trucks to back up along the crucial passageway, according to The Associated Press.

Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in 2017.
Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Haiti has been thwarted by outside interests from its very foundation as a country.

For decades, European powers, and later the United States, refused to recognize it as an independent republic.

The Caribbean nation became the world’s first Black-led republic when it declared its independence from France on New Year’s Day 1804. That day, Saint-Domingue, once France’s richest colony, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” became Haiti.

It was a land long coveted for its riches of sugar, coffee and cotton, brought to market by enslaved people. Its declaration of independence meant that, for the first time, a brutally enslaved people had wrenched their freedom from colonial masters. But it came only after decades of bloody war.

In 1825, more than two decades after independence, the king of France, Charles X, sent warships to the capital, Port-au-Prince, and forced Haiti to compensate former French colonists for their lost property.

Haiti, unable to pay the hefty sum, was forced into a debt that it had to shoulder for nearly a century. Throughout the 19th century, a period marked by political and economic instability, the country invested little in its infrastructure or education.

In 1915, U.S. troops invaded after a mob killed the Haitian president.

The United States later justified its occupation as an attempt to restore order and prevent what it said was a looming invasion by French or German forces. But U.S. troops reintroduced forced labor on road-construction projects and were later accused of extrajudicial killings.

The widely unpopular occupation ended in 1934, but U.S. control over Haiti’s finances lasted until 1947.

After a series of midcentury coups, the Duvalier family, father-and-son dictators, reigned over Haiti with brute force until the 1980s. Their regime plunged Haiti deeper into debt, and introduced the so-called Tontons Macoutes, an infamous secret police force that terrorized the country.

In the early 1990s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, was elected president. He was then ousted twice from power over the next 15 years.

Haiti, with a population of 11 million, is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

In 2010, it suffered a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people. The country never really recovered, and it has remained mired in economic underdevelopment and insecurity. A cholera outbreak in 2016, linked to U.N. peacekeepers, killed at least 10,000 Haitians and sickened another 800,000.

Then early Wednesday, Jovenel Moïse, who became president in 2017, was assassinated at his residence.

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