United States and Colombian officials say they will work with Haiti to understand the origins of a complicated plot that left Haiti’s president dead and the country in chaos even as Haitian investigators confront questions emerging closer to home.
Of the at least 20 people detained so far in the investigation into the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this past week, 18 have been identified as Colombians and two as Haitian Americans. Five suspects are still being sought.
At least 13 men said to be involved in the plot had served in the Colombian military, Colombian officials confirmed on Friday. They said two of the men had been killed in the aftermath of the assassination.
Haitian officials have emphasized foreign involvement in the plot, but U.S. officials and many observers within Haiti are increasingly questioning whether the attack was planned with the cooperation of the nation’s own security apparatus.
The Haitian authorities have summoned four of the president’s chief bodyguards for questioning next week as investigators try to unravel how armed assassins could have breached the heavy security presence outside Mr. Moise’s residence without encountering much resistance.
In Washington, administration officials said that F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security officials would go to Port-au-Prince, the capital, “as soon as possible” to assess how to help. Haiti has also requested military assistance, but a senior administration official said there were no plans to provide that.
Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, the head of Colombia’s national police force, said that officials there were investigating four businesses that they believe recruited Colombians for the operation. Investigators, he said, were using the businesses’ Colombian tax numbers to learn more.
In an interview with a local radio station, a woman who identified herself as the wife of one of the detained Colombians said he had left home one day after telling her that he had “a very good job opportunity.”
Colombian officials said that some of the accused people had left Bogotá as early as May and flown to Panama before traveling to the Dominican Republic and then to Haiti. Others arrived in the Dominican Republican in early June and then traveled to Haiti.
The two detained Haitian Americans said in an interview with a Haitian judge that they had worked only as interpreters for the hit squad, the judge said in an interview.
The judge, Clément Noël, who is involved in the investigation, said the two men had maintained that the plot was planned intensively for a month. He said that they had met with other members of the squad at an upscale hotel in the Pétionville suburb of Port-au-Prince to plan the attack. The goal was not to kill the president, they said, but to bring him to the national palace.
As the investigation has broadened, the crisis over the country’s political succession has deepened. An opposition senator on Friday accused the country’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, of having instigated a coup by claiming national authority after Mr. Moïse’s assassination.
The senator, Patrice Dumont, speaking on a Haitian radio station, said of Mr. Joseph: “He installed himself. We cannot accept this.”
A group of more than 20 political and civil society leaders also demanded that Mr. Joseph step down, to be replaced as prime minister by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and politician whom Mr. Moïse had named as prime minister two days before the assassination. Dr. Henry was supposed to be sworn in this past week.
To take over for the assassinated president, that group is calling for Joseph Lambert, the head of the Senate and one of only 10 sitting lawmakers in the entire country, to take over the nation’s presidency.
Yet another group, one composed of prominent civil society organizations, is planning a meeting with more than 100 people on Saturday to hammer out a consensus on how the country should move forward.
The political chaos has caused large crowds to gather at the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, with many responding to rumors on social media that the United States would be giving out humanitarian and asylum visas.
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 18 Colombians and two Haitian Americans who have been arrested and five others still on the loose.
Mr. Moïse’s chief bodyguards have been called for questioning as part of the investigation into the president’s murder, said Bedford Claude, the chief public prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. He said he had issued summons for the head of presidential guard, Jean Laguel Civil; the security chief for the presidential palace, Dimitri Hérard; and two other top presidential bodyguards to appear for questioning next Wednesday.
One of the main questions surrounding Mr. Moïse’s murder is how the assassins managed to enter the residence of Haiti’s most guarded man without apparently encountering resistance from dozens of bodyguards protecting him.
The authorities have so far offered no clue as to who might have organized the operation or a motive for the attack, but they have pointed to “foreign” involvement.
On Friday, the Taiwanese authorities said that 11 heavily armed people had been arrested a day earlier on the grounds of its embassy in Port-au-Prince, about a mile from where the assassination occurred. Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said the Haitian police were investigating.
In the aftermath of the assassination, at least two people killed in clashes with the police were also identified as Colombians.
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.
On Friday, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, said that he had spoken with Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph. “We expressed our solidarity and support at this time,” Mr. Duque said on Twitter. “We offered full collaboration to find the truth about the material and intellectual authors of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.”
Mr. Joseph said he had 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.
Despite declaring what is essentially martial law and imposing a curfew, Mr. Joseph asked people to return to work on Friday. Airports resumed commercial flights, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
A clearer picture of the group that Haiti accuses of assassinating President Jovenel Moïse has emerged as officials in the Colombian defense ministry identified 13 suspects by name and said that all were former members of the Colombian military.
Two have been killed, the officials said, and the other 11 are in custody. They said some had traveled to Haiti as early as May.
In the past, some former members of the Colombian military, which receives heavy financial support and training from the U.S. military, have acted as hired guns after their service.
Colombians are attractive to those looking for military help, because they often have years of experience fighting left-wing guerrillas and drug traffickers inside their own country — and are often trained by U.S. experts.
Colombian officials condemned the attack and said they were doing everything possible to assist the Haitian government in its search for the truth. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, the head of the national police, said that Colombian officials were investigating four businesses that they believed had recruited people for the operation.
One of the suspects, Francisco Eladio Uribe, was being investigated last year by the country’s special peace court for homicide, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Uribe was accused of being involved in a scandal known in Colombia as “false positives,” in which hundreds of members of the military were accused of killing civilians and saying they were combat casualties in a bid to show success in the country’s long civil war.
In an interview with W Radio, a woman who identified herself as Mr. Uribe’s wife said that the two had been married for 18 years and had three children, and that he had left home one day after telling her that he had “a very good job opportunity.” She said her husband had been investigated but exonerated in the military scandal.
Colombian officials said that some of the accused had left Bogotá as early as May and flown to Panama before traveling to the Dominican Republic and then to Haiti. Others, the officials said, arrived in the Dominican Republic in early June, and then traveled to Haiti. The two countries share a Caribbean island, Hispaniola.
General Luis Fernando Navarro said that the accused people had left the military between about 2002 and 2018 and that they were involved in “mercenary activities” with “purely economic” motives.
It is not clear whether the people recruited for the operation knew the specifics of the task they were being assigned, according to John Marulanda, the head of the association for retired military officials.
Paul Angelo, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies security issues, said that Colombians had a history of being recruited into criminal tasks because they sometimes had limited options once they left the armed forces.
“Colombia is a country that for far too long had military conscription, which fell on the shoulders of the poorest men in the country,” he said. “When an economic underclass is taught how to fight and how to conduct military operations and little else, those skills don’t transfer readily to the civilian sector except in the private security realm.”
A former officer in Colombia’s army, who asked not to be identified, said that a mercenary who traveled abroad could easily be paid about $2,700 a month, compared with a military salary of about $300 a month — even for soldiers with years of combat experience.
“It’s not just Haiti, it’s Kabul, Mexico, Yemen, Emirates,” he said in a telephone interview, listing where former Colombian soldiers have gone.
Sofía Villamil and Edinson Bolaños contributed reporting.
Rony Célestin is one of the few lawmakers left in Haiti, a close ally of the assassinated president who has kept his seat while the country’s democratic institutions have been whittled away.
As one of only 10 remaining members in all of Haiti’s Parliament, Mr. Célestin, a swaggering figure who styles himself as a self-made multimillionaire, belongs to a tiny circle of leaders with the legal authority to steer the nation out of crisis now that the president is dead.
But to many Haitians, Mr. Célestin is also a symbol of one of their biggest grievances: a governing class that enriches itself while so many go hungry.
In recent months, Mr. Célestin has been parrying accusations of corruption from Haitian activists over his purchase of a mansion almost 2,000 miles away in Canada.
The $3.4 million villa, with its 10-car garage, home cinema and swimming pool overlooking a lake, was among the most expensive homes ever sold in one of Quebec’s most affluent neighborhoods, and the purchase set off a corruption investigation into Mr. Célestin by officials in Haiti.
Mr. Célestin vehemently denies any wrongdoing, describing himself as a savvy entrepreneur whose success and donations to the election campaign of the assassinated president, Jovenel Moïse, have afforded him a variety of privileges, including the ability to pay for the villa and get his wife a job at the Haitian consulate in Montreal.
But The New York Times found little or no indication in Haiti of the thriving businesses that Mr. Célestin cites as the source of his great wealth. Some appear to operate on a much smaller scale than he claimed, if at all in some cases.
Haitian government officials took the extraordinary step of requesting that the United States send in troops to protect Haiti’s port, airport, gasoline reserves and other key infrastructure as the country has descended into turmoil in the wake of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse early Wednesday.
Haiti has a history of unwanted American military interventions. But fears have been growing that unrest in the streets and political turmoil after the attack could worsen what is already the country’s worst crisis in years. Haiti is plagued by political intrigue, gang violence, a public health crisis driven by the pandemic and difficulties delivering essential international aid.
The Haitian minister of elections, Mathias Pierre, said the request was made because President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had promised to help Haiti.
A deputy State Department spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, told a news briefing on Friday that she could not confirm such a request. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, did say that the United States would be sending senior F.B.I. and homeland security officials to Port-au-Prince “as soon as possible” to determine how to assist Haiti.
The Haitian authorities have said that the assassination involved “foreign” forces, and the police have identified more than two dozen people involved in the assassination of the president, including 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans.
Colombia’s president asked several of the country’s top intelligence officials and an officer from Interpol’s central office in Colombia to travel to Haiti to assist with the investigation, Colombia’s defense department said.
Mr. Pierre, Haiti’s minister of elections, said the country had already been facing a large problem with “urban terrorists” who might use the opportunity to attack key infrastructure in the country while the police are focused on their manhunt.
“The group that financed the mercenaries want to create chaos in the country,” he said. “Attacking the gas reserves and airport might be part of the plan.”
Robenson Geffrard, a reporter for Le Nouvelliste, one of the country’s leading newspapers, said a “sense of uncertainty” and the “shadow of violence” was looming over the capital, Port-au-Prince, raising fears that the situation would spiral out of control.
“In supermarkets and public markets, people are jostling” to stock up on basic goods such as rice and pasta, Mr. Geffrard said, and there are lines at stations selling propane gas, often used for cooking.
The Haitian government’s extraordinary request for U.S. forces to help stabilize the country in the aftermath of the assassination of its president this past week carries haunting vestiges from American military interventions that happened more than a century ago.
Back then, the United States dispatched forces without an invitation from Haiti. The American government was motivated by Haiti’s internal turmoil and a willingness to meddle in the affairs of neighbors to protect its own interests under the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines into Haiti, calling the invasion a justifiable response to avert anarchy after a mob assassinated Haiti’s president, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The American military stayed for nearly two decades.
But even before that, Mr. Wilson saw fit to take military action in Haiti, worried about what his administration saw as the growing influence of Germany there, according to a historical page about the U.S. interventions on the State Department archive website.
In 1914, his administration sent in Marines who removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank for what the administration called “safekeeping” in New York, giving the United States control of the bank, the website said.
Eighty years later, President Bill Clinton ordered more than 23,000 U.S. troops sent to Haiti in what was termed “Operation Restore Democracy,” aimed at ensuring a transition that would return the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
In 2004, President George W. Bush sent in the Marines as part of an “interim international force” after Mr. Aristide resigned under intense U.S. pressure.
The usually crowded streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, returned to some normalcy on Friday, in the wake of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this past week, according to a local journalist.
“But it’s a precarious, apparent calm, it can go awry at any moment,” said the journalist, Robenson Geffrard, a reporter for Le Nouvelliste, one of the country’s leading newspapers.
Mr. Geffrard said that economic activity had resumed. Street vendors were out, supermarkets, gas stations and banks reopened, and public transportation and public administration tentatively picked up.
So had gang violence, he said, an integral part of Haitians’ daily lives.
“Armed gangs resumed hostilities with a lot of bursts of automatic weapons,” Mr. Geffrard said, adding that there was gang fighting along one of the main roads connecting the south of Port-au-Prince to the surrounding provinces.
A “sense of uncertainty” was looming over the capital, he said.
“In supermarkets and public markets, people are jostling” to stock up on basic goods such as rice and pasta, Mr. Geffrard said. Lines have appeared in front of stations selling propane gas, which is often used for cooking.
Mr. Geffrard said that in the hours after the assassination, the shock and fear were such that people deserted the streets, turning Port-au-Prince into a ghost town.
A video he posted on Twitter on Thursday showed the usually bustling suburb of Pétionville, where the presidential residence is, almost empty of people, with only a few motorcycles venturing out on the roads.
The silence in the capital was broken on Thursday only when crowds of protesters gathered outside a police station to demand justice for suspects whom the police had arrested in the search for the president’s killers. A video from the Agence France-Presse news service showed protesters shouting slogans in front of a police station while cars and tires were being burned in nearby streets.
“There is still this specter of violence, of insecurity that haunts the minds of the population,” Mr. Geffrard said.
During a news conference on Thursday, the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, called on businesses to reopen despite the 15-day “state of siege” he imposed, essentially putting the country under martial law.
“It is true that there is a state of siege, but I want to tell everyone to resume economic activities,” Mr. Joseph said as he also ordered the reopening of Port-au-Prince’s international airport.
The crisis over political succession in Haiti deepened on Friday as an opposition senator accused the country’s interim prime minister of instigating a coup by claiming national authority after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
The senator, Patrice Dumont, speaking on a Haitian radio station, said of the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph: “He installed himself. We cannot accept this.”
A group of more than 20 political and civil society leaders demanded on Friday afternoon that Mr. Joseph step down, to be replaced as prime minister by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and politician whom President Moïse had named as prime minister two days before the assassination. Dr. Henry was supposed to be sworn in this past week.
To take over for the assassinated president, the group is calling for Joseph Lambert, the head of the Senate and one of only 10 sitting lawmakers in the entire country, to take over the nation’s presidency.
Yet another group, this one composed of prominent civil society organizations, is planning a meeting with more than 100 people on Saturday to hammer out a consensus on how the country should move forward.
“A couple of political parties and politicians are making political moves,” said Monique Clesca, a political analyst who is part of this group, which calls itself the “Commission.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Joseph and his fellow ministers insisted that they were leading the government.
“This is part of the chaos certain people are trying to create in the country,” said Mathias Pierre, the country’s minister for elections. “For us, this is a second attempt to assassinate the president. We are doing what we have to do to establish stability and prepare for elections.”
The leadership question is especially murky because the nation’s democratic institutions have been hollowed out, leaving few arbiters to oversee a legal transfer of power.
Haiti is a parliamentary democracy with almost no Parliament. The Senate is at one-third its usual size, and the lower house is entirely vacant because their terms expired last year. Mr. Moïse had governed by decree for about a year.
Beyond that, the judiciary has been virtually nonexistent for the past year, with judges often on strike to protest the political upheaval and rampant violence. And the head of the nation’s highest court, who might have offered guidance, died of Covid-19 in June.
Making matters worse, Haiti appears to have two Constitutions, and the dueling documents say different things about what to do if a president dies in office.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States has formally requested that the Biden administration impose human rights sanctions on the people behind the assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken dated Wednesday, Haiti’s envoy to Washington, Bocchit Edmond, said his government was asking the United States to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act “on all perpetrators who are directly responsible or aided and abetted in the execution of the assassination of the president.”
Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016 to penalize foreign government officials for human rights abuses in any country, after the death of a Russian tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian prison in 2009.
Mr. Edmond and other Haitian officials have said they believe “foreigners” were behind the plot to kill Mr. Moïse, who was gunned down in his residence early Wednesday.
Mr. Edmond’s letter also details his government’s previously known request for American assistance with its investigation into the killing. He said the F.B.I.’s international operations office and the Department of Justice could “play a critical role in rendering justice.”
During a briefing for reporters, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, said the Biden administration was “committed to cooperating with Haitian authorities” but did not provide detail.
Ms. Porter referred questions about the detained Haitian Americans to the Haitian authorities, citing “privacy considerations,” and also referred questions about the detained Colombians to officials of that country.