It’s 1 AM in the leafy Petion-Ville neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince.
The night has just ticked over to Wednesday, July 7th, as a convoy of white Land Cruisers and a handful of pickup trucks roll quietly through compound-walled streets of the Haitian capital under a moonless sky.
The cars stop for a moment before two dozen heavily armed men dressed in black spill out of the SUVs like ants – guns up, heads down – swarming the non-descript front gates of the President’s private residence.
Then a loud voice begins barking orders over a megaphone in English, piercing the still suburban silence.
“DEA operation! Everybody stay down!”
Locals report hearing a mixture of English and Spanish exchanged between the men – neither of which are local languages of the former French colony. A man thought to be security is forced onto the ground, before seven of the 28-man squad infiltrate the compound. The rest are left to stand guard, primed for a presumably rapid departure.
The group clearly doesn’t plan on staying long.
Inside is the President of Haiti, 53-year-old Jovenel Moïse, who has ruled the troubled Caribbean country by decree since 2019. In bed by his side is his wife, Martine Moïse, and in another room is their adult daughter, Jomarlie, the only of their three children in residence at the time. And now, too, are a band of foreign mercenaries that have seemingly been sent to kill him.
Mr Moïse, like many “democratic” rulers in Latin America, is no stranger to the threat of death. In fact, Haiti is a long-standing member of the textbook coup d’état club.
Back in February, fierce opposition to the president failed in its attempts to kill him and overthrow his government. A swift and harsh hand of justice was dealt to anyone involved. Haiti hasn’t actually had a functioning parliament since October 2019 – nor a definitive constitution, for that matter (we’ll get to that later).
Moïse has a hair-trigger for insurrection. Officials have often boasted about the sometimes 100-person strong presidential guard who share round-the-clock close personal protection duties for the president. He would regularly be seen travelling throughout the country in an aggressive motorcade that would rival most heads of state around the world.
On the night of July 7th, however, there’s not a guard in sight. Reports by Haitian police chief Leon Charles claim that the front lawn between the gatehouse and the residence was “littered with cartridge cases” from what one would assume to be a fierce firefight. But not a single body is found – only two domestic staff tied up for their troubles.
For those playing at home, that’s a casualty-to-cartridge ratio that doesn’t quite add up. There are a lot of discrepancies in the accounts of this assassination that don’t add up. The men aren’t DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) agents either, though I’m sure you’ve gathered that by now.
Incredibly, these two ambiguities could be the least intriguing details of this whole story.
The only bullets that actually hit their target that night were the 12 rounds unloaded into President Moïse, as well as one that clipped his wife in the arm. A dozen shots connected with his forehead and torso – an execution straight from page one of the casual assassin’s handbook. Moïse also suffered broken bones in his arm and ankle, and according to one of the judges conducting the investigation, his left eye had been gouged out. That move was unlikely from the same chapter, and the motives behind those injuries are still unclear.
Moïse was found lying on his back in a pool of his own blood. His wife later claimed that he was unable to even get a word out before the rounds began opening up holes in her husband’s chest. She was later medevacked to a hospital in Miami for treatment and her daughter was found unharmed, bunkered down in the closet of her brother’s bedroom.
It was a swift assassination by a small army of foreigners that, up until this point, seems more or less like a well-executed operation.
The following days and weeks, however, will prove that it was anything but. A spark in a tinderbox fuelled by corruption, deceit, transnational mercenaries, and an unbeknownst puppeteer that triggered a dormant geopolitical faultline that has been on the cusp of self-destruction for centuries.
It’ll also make for a captivating Hollywood thriller someday, but before then, we need to backtrack a bit.
How do you solve a problem like Haiti?
Despite its dramatic springboard into global news headlines last month, Haiti has a storied history of clusterfucks that make the events of July 7th look like nothing more than a grim teaser trailer.
Power struggles have ravaged the country since its slave population launched a revolt against Napolean’s harsh rule in 1804, with various occupations and dictatorships plaguing its development well into the 20th-century. In January 2010, a cataclysmic 7.0 magnitude earthquake with an epicentre just 25km from Port-au-Prince crippled the capital. Over 300,000 people were killed and 1.5 million were left homeless.
Haiti’s population is modest in size with just 11 million people. Data from the CIA World Factbook claims that of this total population, 40% are unemployed, only 60% can read and write, and just over 9% survive past the age of 55.
To make matters worse, those numbers have yet to reflect the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, which landed on the island of Hispaniola (of which Haiti shares a third of its landmass with the Dominican Republic next door), in 2016.
Of course, Haiti lies in the middle of a hurricane belt. And while its human toll of 500 lives was considerably less than the earthquake, Hurricane Matthew’s decimation of what little agricultural and industrial lifeline Haiti clung onto sent it straight back to the dark ages in a matter of days.
Incidentally, Haiti is also the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Gang violence holds its civilian population to ransom. The disparity between the rich and the poor has brought the weak and the powerful to a boiling point.
The list of Haiti’s problems is as long as the list of people who would benefit from the killing of Jovenel Moïse.
Why would someone want him dead?
Under the rules set out by the semi-presidential republic of Haiti, presidents are directly elected by an absolute majority popular vote in two rounds if needed for a single 5-year term. During the first 12 months of Moïse’s term in office, the Haitian government was overhauled due to allegations of fraud, and he was replaced by a stand-in president.
When his power was formally restored, Moïse ruled according to an adjusted timeline which claimed his 5-year term only began once the year-long investigations concluded. But come October 2019, and the majority of Haiti’s legal experts and holders of high office began demanding an election regardless. Protests erupted in the streets. Moïse remained steadfast. This was a year earlier than he was willing to allow, meaning he held effective total rule over the country with an expired parliament for well over a year up until his death in July 2021.
To add to his list of headaches, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned back in April, leaving Moïse to fill his place with Foreign Minister Claude Joseph in an acting role. On July 5th, 2021, two days before his assassination, President Moïse selected Ariel Henry to be the next prime minister. Following his death, it was Claude Joseph who eagerly stepped in to fill the void.
As it stands, a byproduct of the country’s two official languages, French and Creole, Haiti actually has two slightly different constitutions. Regardless of their supposed legitimacies, neither tap the interim prime minister to take over in such a crisis. So one could assume that Joseph’s immediate assumption to power was an opportunistic swoop-in at best; and a malicious strategic move at worst.
The chaotic power vacuum only worsens when you consider the recently-deceased head of the nation’s highest court – a missing element that could have conceivably helped establish order – died from COVID-19 in June. Rough go.
So, we’re all caught up now. And this is where things start to get really wild.
The assassination begins to unravel
Following news of the killing, a “state of siege” was declared by Joseph (as was his ascension to power) and Haiti was plunged into a form of martial law. Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said at a news conference that the killing of the country’s president had been carried out “by well-trained professionals, killers, commandos.”
That much we’ve gathered. Well-trained professionals, indeed… but killers?
Capable of killing, yes, though a variety of reports have started to suggest that high-profile murder was not what the mercenaries had initially signed up for. At least not for this mission.
Of the 28 suspects identified by Haitian police, all sans two of them – a pair of Haitian American translators – were Colombian nationals. Within 24 hours of the assassination, 20 of them would be apprehended, three would be killed, and five currently remain at large.
An investigating judge said the two Haitian Americans revealed they were hired as interpreters on the internet during interrogation. They allegedly did not know they were aiding and abetting a conspiracy to kill the president, rather they were paid to act as translators for his arrest.
Plot twist. The 12 holes in Moïse’s body would suggest otherwise.
The remaining 26 were former members of Colombia’s most elite special forces. Men of this calibre with skillsets such as theirs are clearly no strangers to the murky world of private military contracting. Many Colombian soldiers go on to work for security firms internationally, mainly in the United Arab Emirates, where they are well respected for their ability to fight armed insurgencies.
They had the means and experience to pull off an effortless assassination with surgical precision. They could have been ghosts if they wanted to be, in numbers far fewer than two dozen. Moïse would be dead and they would be out of the country before anyone even noticed. Job done.
As you know, that wasn’t the case. It’s becoming clear that at some point, their contract to assist in the arrest of the president and ensure an optimistic transition of power became a kill order. When exactly that happened, as well as the parties privy to the true objective, is still up for debate. All we know is this crucial, last-minute change of plans would derail the mercenaries’ best efforts to avoid the chaos that followed Moïse’s assassination.
Upon leaving the compound, the scene was suspiciously quiet. The hit squad’s entrance wasn’t exactly covert, so one could probably assume that a concerned neighbour might have dialled it in. Neither resistance nor attention was encountered.
Video footage shows the alleged attackers conveniently driving off unhindered for almost an entire kilometre without a hitch. Almost as if the path had been cleared for them ahead of time. Not a single police car in sight. That was until they were greeted by a wall of military checkpoints much further down the road.
From an outside perspective, it seemed as though they had walked directly into an ambush. Perhaps whoever was calling the shots didn’t dig deep enough into their pockets. Or perhaps wholesale culpability was simply part of an all-inclusive package.
Backed into a corner, a small warzone broke out in the Pelerin 5 neighbourhood between the mercenaries and Haitian authorities. The group eventually found themselves surrounded in an abandoned building with munitions depleting rapidly. Eleven of them escaped the firefight by ducking up a back alley, jumping the walls of the Taiwanese Embassy and taking its two security staff hostage. They knew a complex diplomatic tussle would buy them more time.
The others weren’t so lucky. At least three were killed by police; one of them found dead on a rooftop, bleeding out from his wounds while hiding. The rest were routed out of their defences with tear gas, captured and paraded in front of the media for the entire world to see.
A mess, to say the least. Hardly standard operating procedure for expert special forces.
While these events were unfolding, Haitian opposition politician Steven Benoit told a local radio station that he believed Mr Moïse had been killed “by his security agents”.
At first glance, he might not be wrong. Palace security chief, Dimitri Hérard, reportedly made several stopovers in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, in the months before the assassination. More recent reports confirm he is now in custody. It seems that someone in the military also knew what was going on, and chose not to intervene.
In a game of shadows with stakes this high, however, there’s always a bigger fish.
The real intentions behind who orchestrated the killing and why are even more opaque.
To be expected, Port-au-Prince-Toussaint Louverture International Airport was closed immediately following the “State of Seige” declaration, but that wouldn’t have stopped the fleeing assailants from attempting a land-crossing of Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, or an escape by sea if they were properly prepared for the outcome of July 7th.
Interestingly enough, in the midst of the post-assassination carnage, all eyes quickly turned to a single key phone call that was placed by one of the Colombians to a 63-year-old Haitian national named Christian Emmanuel Sanon.
When the shit hit the fan, it appears that the Colombians immediately confronted the man that allegedly hired them. In the eyes of Police Chief Leon Charles, this was enough to advertise Sanon as public enemy number one.
Charles told reporters that he believes Sanon flew into the country on a private jet from Miami in early June. Not much is known about him thus far; a combination of power lust, as well as a patriotic obligation to become Haiti’s saviour, could both be surface-level grounds for motive.
Regardless, it appears that the mercenaries were duped by Sanon and lured to the country under false pretences. They might have been aware that he desired a regime change, though certainly not the subsequent avenue of achieving that goal.
Representatives of the captured Colombians claim that Sanon hired the assailants through a Miami-based private security firm called CTU Security, run by a Venezuelan national by the name of Antonio ‘Tony’ Intriago.
Colombia’s national police chief, General Jorge Luis Vargas, said that CTU Security used its company credit card to buy 19 plane tickets from Bogota to Santo Domingo for the Colombian suspects. One of the Colombians who was killed, Duberney Capador, had even photographed himself wearing a black CTU Security polo shirt.
Nelson Romero Velasquez, an ex-soldier who is advising the families of some of the Colombians held in Haiti, said that behaviour such as this made it clear they did not go to Haiti to assassinate the president.
“They have the ability to be like shadows,” said Romero Velasquez.
Shadows don’t take happy snaps of themselves gearing up for an international coup/assassination two-for-one.
“The initial mission that was given to these assailants was to protect the individual named Emmanuel Sanon, but afterwards, the mission changed.”
Velasquez did not confirm or deny if any or all of the suspects knew about the changes to the plan.
They say all roads lead to Rome. In the context of Haiti’s never-ending nightmare, the loose ends we have presented so far bring us to Miami.
Its palm-fringed shores scream American beauty. In reality, the city’s geography puts it at the tip of a sword pointed directly towards the troubled Americas.
Throughout history, Miami has been a place where people of exile gathered themselves and their countrymen when political winds didn’t blow their way at home. It’s also been a base for the vengeful and patriotic to plot their return.
According to the Associated Press, CTU Security lists two Miami addresses on its website. One is a shuttered warehouse with no signage. The other is a small office suite under a different name. A receptionist told the AP that CTU’s owner stops by once a week to collect the mail. The company website says it offers, “first-class personalized products and services to law enforcement and military units, as well as industrial customers.”
Richard Noriega, who runs International Security Consulting in Miami, told the AP that while he does not know Intriago personally, he believes that he was, “… lured by the prospect of fast money and did not perform due diligence.”
This contract and the recruiting of Colombian commandos were the results of regular meetings in the lead-up to the assassination that, Haitian police say, took place to discuss rebuilding the troubled nation of Haiti once Moïse was removed from power.
Held in Florida and the Dominican Republic over the last year, the meetings reportedly connect 63-year-old doctor and pastor, Sanon, with Tony Intriago, as well as a final key player who is about to enter the chat fashionably late.
Mr Sanon had presented himself as having the support of both Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States, which would have been necessary, considering he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 2013.
The essential puzzle piece to complete the trio, then, was the money man – financier Walter Veintemilla – the owner of financial services company Worldwide Capital Lending Group. All your favourite buzzwords in one slick company name.
Put him in a room with Intriago and Sanon, and you’ve got the money, the means, and the vision.
It might never become clear when Haiti’s salvation became an iniquitous plot to dispatch Moïse, or who else might have been behind the scenes.
Sanon is now in custody, and the words of Richard Noriega speak for any third-party observer to this geopolitical shambles of Hollywood proportions.
“It is very murky.”
Very murky, indeed.