In the space of a few minutes, Haiti experienced the exact combination of violence and macabre spectacle that has accompanied its dizzying fall for too many years. On October 17, 2021, more than three months after President Jovenel Moïse was shot in his private residence, the Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, was dislodged by an armed gang from a ceremony in honor of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the father of independence.
The author of the coup, gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, nicknamed “Barbecue” for his propensity to burn his victims in their homes, then solemnly came to lay the traditional wreath of flowers on this place of celebration in Pont-Rouge, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.
With his face uncovered, this ex-police officer dressed in white with a black tie, the dress code required by the authorities, bowed to the late President’s portrait, presenting him as “a model” and “an extraordinary man” who fought the corrupt system of the island. On the T-shirts of the gang members, all hooded, one could read “Jistis pou Jovenel,” “justice for Jovenel Moïse.” Then, before leaving the scene promising to avenge him, “Barbecue” harangued the crowd with cries of: “We are hungry! We are hungry!.”
As grotesque as it was tragic, the scene illustrates the abyss into which the country, already the poorest and most violent on the continent, is plunged. The gang war, which was said to have reached its peak in the weeks leading up to the president’s assassination, has intensified further. At least 950 kidnappings were recorded in 2021, according to the Port-au-Prince-based Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research, with acceleration in recent months. On January 1, the Prime Minister, who has been in charge of current affairs since the disappearance of Jovenel Moïse, had to flee the city of Gonaïves, 150 kilometers north of the capital, after clashes between police and armed groups during the national holiday.
The investigation into the president’s assassination has stalled. Several Haitian citizens, including 20 Haitian National Police (HNP) officers, three Americans of Haitian descent, and 18 Colombian nationals, were admittedly incarcerated during the summer in the Port-au-Prince prison for their alleged role in the assassination. But six months after the events, incredible as it may seem, no judicial investigation is currently being conducted by the magistrate in charge of the case.
The authorities in place, or what remains of them, have shown no intention of finding all the culprits or bringing them to justice. The very name of the current Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, is among those who spoke by telephone, before and after the assassination, with one of the main suspects, Joseph Felix Badio, a former official of the Ministry of Justice, now on the run. According to several sources consulted by “Le Monde”, pressure and intimidation have been exerted on the investigators to avoid any questioning of the real sponsors.
“Haiti has become a black hole where gangsters and criminal forces have taken control of the capital,” said Jean-Marie Théodat, a geographer and expert on Haitian politics. “President Jovenel is another victim of this violence that gangrenes our society even in the corridors of power, but he is a meaningful victim. His death and this stalled investigation demonstrate the depth of State bankruptcy and compromises.”
Much has been written since, on the night of July 6 to 7, 2021, a squad of several men killed Jovenel Moïse and critically wounded his wife before fleeing without any of the 647 agents assigned to protect the Haitian President firing a single shot. The hypothesis of an international conspiracy was formulated. It was also said that drug traffickers could be involved. Their influence has only increased in recent years in Haiti, which has become one of the main drug routes to the United States.
The troubled role of Michel Martelly, omnipresent behind the scenes, was also exposed. The former president and political father of Jovenel, who accompanied him throughout his term of office, would have little taste for the independence of his protégé. This thesis was widely supported in a long and rich investigation published in December by “The New York Times.” The article also mentions an arms and drug traffickers list taken from the president’s home on the night of the attack.
“The difficulty with this assassination is that there are so many people who could have been involved that it is difficult to attribute it to anyone in particular,” said Nixon Boumba, a sociologist and human rights activist in Port-au-Prince. “Jovenel was playing on several levels at the same time, the gangs, the political clans, and the island’s oligarchs, a versatile mafia that has taken power hostage.”
A majority of the population against Moïse
A brief historical detour is necessary to untangle the knots of the investigation and the responsibilities of the various actors. When Jovenel Moïse entered the presidential race in 2015, he was unknown to the public. It was Michel Martelly. The Haitian Party Tèt Kale’s founder, accused of embezzling funds intended for the country’s reconstruction, had brought him out of anonymity and designated him as his successor. Born in 1968 in Trou-du-Nord, the future president presented himself as “a small successful farmer.”
A shady success. The man became rich by creating the first agricultural free zone in the country with his company Agritrans, a banana growing and exporting company, set up with a loan of several million dollars. This move into the business world brought forth accusations of money laundering. Farmers also filed complaints about hundreds of arbitrary expropriations by armed gangs for the benefit of Agritrans.
He was a poorly elected president. Despite the support of the Haitian oligarchy and the discreet backing of companies from the neighboring Dominican Republic, Jovenel Moïse had to go through two rounds of voting after a first invalidated election to win a majority of the votes in 2016 (with a turnout of barely 21 percent). By the end of his first year in office, he had turned a large majority of the population against him. The attempt to raise fuel prices, then the Petrocaribe scandal – a case of embezzlement of billions of dollars in loans from Venezuela, involving four Haitian heads of state including himself – provoked violent protests and calls for his departure in 2018. “The period was pivotal for the country, it was a tipping point where the street demanded accountability and undermined the power, which chose the path of repression,” emphasizes Jean-Marie Théodat.
Jovenel Moïse started to govern by decree. He became isolated and lost allies. After suspending the legislative elections, the president muzzled the Court of Auditors, created a new national intelligence agency, and amended the penal code to, among other things, extend the qualification of terrorist acts to road blockades – one of the main forms of protest in Haiti. He also announced elections and a referendum to amend the constitution.
At this point, the gangs’ stranglehold on Haitian daily life took on its full dimension. Even if the Haitian government has always maintained dangerous links with armed gangs (the “tontons macoutes” during the Duvalier era, the “chimères” under Jean-Bertrand Aristide), particularly for the control of so-called “opposition” neighborhoods, the increasingly obvious alliance of the executive with certain particularly violent groups sets off a deadly spiral.
In February 2020, Jovenel Moïse set up a commission to combat violence, the National Commission for Disarmament, Dismantling, and Reintegration. While it was supposed to bring the gangs to heel, this body promoted the underhanded creation of the “G9 an fanmi e alye” (“the group of 9 in the family and allies”), a federation of armed gangs in Port-au-Prince, headed by Jimmy Cherizier. Several local sources told “Le Monde” that they had seen, at least twice, two of his relatives go to the presidential palace at night. The alliance was denounced by political parties, from the left to the far right, and by social movements.
Armed gangs are growing in numbers, weapons, and in terms of funding, territorial dominance, and operational capacity. There are nearly 90 gangs in the capital alone. The G9 even has its own YouTube channel. On July 7, 2020, it mobilized 50 of its members, heavily armed, in the streets of Port-au-Prince in broad daylight to demand some form of legal recognition.
In a rare gesture of firmness on the part of political power, the Minister of Justice at the time, Lucmane Délile, called for action. At a press conference, he declared: “It’s a serious matter that armed bandits terrorize peaceful citizens. Haiti is not a banana republic where criminals can do whatever they want! I order the PNH to locate and arrest these criminals because what I saw on television is unacceptable.” Lucmane Délile was immediately removed from office by the President.
The G9 controls the areas of Martissant, Village-de-Dieu, Grand-Ravine, Delmas, Bel-Air, Fort-Dimanche, part of Cité-Soleil (300,000 inhabitants), and other areas, located mainly in the central region of Port-au-Prince, to the north and south. Given Haiti’s geographical particularity, this deployment gives it the capacity to isolate the capital from the rest of the country. And to keep a grip on the part of the city that is the most vocal.
The shootings and massacres in the neighborhoods are increasing. Thousands of inhabitants were forced to flee their homes. The use of kidnappings as a means of financing is becoming systematic. At the top of the State, the tension is extreme. There is talk of a new change of prime minister. That would be the fourth in two years. A fifth one could be nominated straight after.
New foreign mercenaries are arriving on Haitian soil in this context of generalized crisis. Already, in 2019, there were insistent rumors about the presence of Russian or Serbian enforcers. This time, at least three Americans of Haitian origin, one Venezuelan and 22 Colombians arrived in Port-au-Prince between January and June 2021. Most of them have contracts with the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU), a private security company in Florida. The exact nature of their mission has never been clarified.
A “gang report”
While facing armed gangs advancing in some of the capital’s most upscale neighborhoods, – particularly in the heights and Boule 12 area, not far from the president’s private residence -, several witnesses claim to have seen the Colombians assisting national police units to repel and kill gang members. At the same time, several secret meetings were organized in Port-au-Prince, Delmas, and Pétion-Ville.
In a report released on January 6, the serious National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) stated that the purpose of these meetings was “to arrest Jovenel Moïse and force him into exile or to plan his assassination.” According to its director, Pierre Espérance, “political figures took part in these meetings, and some of them believed that they would replace the president after his departure.”
In April, Jovenel Moïse contacted Ricardo Seitenfus on WhatsApp. “I was first surprised,” says the Brazilian diplomat, former representative of the Organization of American States in Haiti, known for his independence and outspokenness. He told me about his concerns and the accusations of collusion with armed gangs that he was facing. He then asked me to compile a report on the gangs with a list of the actors’ names involved. ’Whatever it takes,’ he insisted.”
The former member of the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission agreed. There followed many exchanges. Jovenel Moïse called him once or twice a week. “He did not mention any Haitian political figure, nor did he mention a gang name, only repeating that he wanted a ’scientific approach’.” Ricardo Seitenfus assembles a team of about 60 experts. The Haitian president approved a global budget of 700,000 dollars (616,000 euros) for the report on security, gangs, and drug traffickers, as well as a white paper on the cholera epidemic in Haiti, imported in 2010 by peacekeepers and a pact of democratic guarantees for the future of the country. Documents that he never saw. At the time of his assassination, the investigation into the drug traffickers, which “Le Monde” was able to consult, was only in its early stages, a first note of intent without names or clues. “I can’t say anything about the degree of his sincerity,” said the diplomat, who added: “These men of power in Haiti have a double or triple agenda. He obviously had the ability to create too many enemies at the same time…”
The beginning of an “armed revolution”
On June 1, two rival gangs clashed for control of the Martissant neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The hostilities ended five days later, shortly after the intervention of a member of a government member, further fueling suspicions of collusion between the gangs and the state. In an unlikely scene, “Barbecue” appeared in public on camera on June 23. Surrounded by hooded and armed youth – many in police uniforms – the G9 leader announces the start of an “armed revolution,” inviting the population to equip themselves and join his organization.
“The ruling party wants to hold a referendum and elections to defend its interests. The opposition demands a transitional government so that it can squander public resources. Members of the private sector benefit from tax breaks and do not pay taxes. The people are left alone, deprived of everything. This time is over”, he threatened. Before adding in a martial tone: “We will use our weapons against all these sectors!”
On July 5, two days before his assassination, Jovenel Moïse announced the appointment of Ariel Henry in place of Prime Minister Claude Joseph, in office for less than three months. Henry was imposed by Michel Martelly, to whom he was close.
According to the RNDDH investigation, the president made, on the night of the murder, distress calls to the director-general of the PNH, Léon Charles, to the divisional commissioner Jean Laguel Civil, coordinator of the general security of the national palace, and to the municipal commissioner Dimitri Hérard, in charge of the General Security Unit of the National Palace, set up by Michel Martelly. All of them promised to help him. None did, the report notes.
The foreign mercenaries had grouped themselves into four units of five members. The unit called Delta, to which a certain Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios, a 43-year-old ex-military man from Colombia, belonged, is responsible for entering the president’s residence. The first photo of Jovenel Moïse’s corpse was captured, according to the investigation, by a cell phone used by one of the members of this unit.
Immediately after the assassination, Joseph Felix Badio, the former official who worked in an anti-corruption unit, arrived at the scene in a pickup truck. He broke into the victim’s residence, taking documents and a large sum of money, as well as the weapons of the police officers who were there. From one o’clock in the morning, he made phone calls to several people, according to RNDDH. Among his interlocutors were Dimitri Hérard, ex-senator and former close friend of President René Préval, John Joël Joseph, now on the run, Divisional Inspector Jude Laurent and Ariel Henry on two occasions, at 4:03 a.m. and 4:20 a.m.
The Prime Minister claims to have forgotten the content of these discussions. According to telephone records, he spoke with Badio at least twelve times, including nearly seven minutes on the morning of the assassination. Commissioners Dimitri Hérard and Jean Laguel Civil have been arrested. They are awaiting the order of the investigating magistrate. Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios, was apprehended on January 3 in Panama and extradited to the United States, where he was charged with “conspiracy to provide material support resulting in death” and “conspiracy to kill or kidnap people outside the United States.” Four days later, a former Haitian drug trafficker named Rodolphe Jaar was arrested in the Dominican Republic. He reportedly admitted to financing part of the plot, which he said was aimed at exfiltrating the president, not killing him.
In Port-au-Prince, calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry have multiplied. The head of the capital’s public prosecutor’s office, Bed-Ford Claude, was dismissed on September 14, just after calling for the indictment of the head of government, who denounced it as “a diversionary tactic.” Around the same time, the investigators who worked on the case were summoned by the PNH General Inspectorate “with the obvious objective of intimidating them,” said Pierre Espérance.
Another troubling fact is that the judicial police investigation has spared so far the banking sector. However, RNDDH reveals that at least “two Haitian banking institutions were used for the transfer and circulation of exorbitant amounts of money from the United States to Haiti.” This information was confirmed by the FBI.
After his October coup, “Barbecue” was again in the news. With the G9, he blocked the capital’s oil terminals for several weeks, creating a gasoline shortage and also demanding the prime minister’s resignation. And then nothing. The blockades were suddenly lifted. Gasoline reappeared without explanation. The probable consequence of one of these occult agreements from which the country has suffered for too long.