PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haitian authorities on Thursday escalated their hunt for what one official called the “intellectual authors” behind the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, saying they had detained several suspects – including two U.S. citizens – as they tried to keep the capital from descending into vigilante justice.
Firefights between alleged suspects and police continued Thursday not far from the Pelerin 5 neighborhood in the hills above Port-au-Prince where Moïse was killed and his wife, Martine, was seriously wounded early Wednesday. The assassination of the 53-year-old president has deepened the spiraling political crisis in this impoverished Caribbean nation.
Two U.S. citizens of Haitian descent, identified as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55, are among those arrested, according to Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s minister of elections and interparty relations. At least three suspects had been killed, authorities said, while 17 had been detained and eight others remained on the run. Officials had earlier said that four of the suspects had been killed. Other than the Haitian Americans, officials said all other suspects were believed to be Colombian nationals.
As of Thursday evening, officials had not provided evidence of the detainees’ alleged involvement in the assassination, and questions remained about who launched the attack and why. Authorities showed images on national television of the detained men, bound, brooding and disheveled on the floor of Haiti’s National Police Headquarters in the capital. Displayed on a nearby table was a cache of weapons authorities said they had seized, including assault rifles and machetes, as well as a tableau of the men’s passports.
The mysterious plot against Moïse was reaching beyond Haiti’s borders. Colombian authorities confirmed late Thursday that at least some of the suspects were former members of the Colombian army, saying they had launched an investigation into their alleged involvement.
Defense Minister Diego Molano said that Interpol had formally requested information about six people allegedly responsible for the act, two of whom had died.
“Initially, the information indicates that they are Colombian citizens, retired members of the national army,” he said.
The head of Colombia’s national police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, said that information about their finances, hours and dates of flights will be sent to Port-au-Prince in aid of the investigation.
In a statement, the Embassy of Taiwan in Port-au-Prince said that Haitian police had entered its embassy grounds and seized 11 suspects holed up there.
“The Embassy welcomes the rapid response of the Haitian authorities,” the statement said.
Bed-ford Claude, a Haitian prosecutor, told The Washington Post he had requested the “interrogation” of Dimitri Herard and Laguel Civil, senior figures in the president’s security detail.
Anger in the capital, meanwhile, was growing. Video shared by Pierre showed two bound suspects – one of them shirtless and both appearing in distress – being dragged from a home by a jeering crowd. Mobs burned three of the five vehicles seized by police after the attack. Pierre said an angry group of citizens had surrounded a police station where suspects were being held.
“The special units are trying to protect the police station, because the population is very mad and is trying to get to them, to burn them,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid that.”
Pierre released the names and ages of seven suspects Thursday evening. They include Solages, Vincent and four Colombian nationals.
On Thursday, Haiti Police Chief Leon Charles called for “calm.”
“It is the job of the police to take people to the justice system so the family of the president and the country finds justice,” Charles said.
He added: “We have the physical authors. We are now hunting down the intellectual authors.”
Solages is chief executive of EJS Maintenance & Repair, formed in 2019, according to Florida incorporation records. He launched a nonprofit group in March 2019 focused on humanitarian efforts in Haiti, state records show.
That nonprofit, FWA SA A Jacmel Avan, based at a home in Tamarac, Fla., reported revenue of $11,388 in 2019. A biography on its website describes Solages as a “building engineer specialized in the field of infrastructure development” and a “certified diplomatic agent.”
It says he was the chief commander of bodyguards for the Canadian Embassy in Haiti. The embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
A Facebook profile, since removed, described Solages as a self-employed aspiring actor who studied at Florida Career College. It listed his current city as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and his hometown as Jacmel, Haiti.
Schubert Dorisme, 63, Solages’s uncle, said in an interview that his family was stunned by their nephew’s alleged involvement in the slaying of the Haitian president and only learned of his arrest by seeing a news story on Facebook.
“First of all, I’m sorry for what happened about my president. I am deeply sorry. It feels like my son killed my brother,” Dorisme said outside his home in Tamarac, where relatives of Solages gathered.
“I love my president, and I love James Solages,” he said. “I don’t know how this thing happened. He doesn’t have no military training,” he added.
Dorisme said he was unsure of how long his nephew had been visiting Haiti leading up to the assassination, but added that he traveled back and forth periodically to assist in humanitarian and charity efforts in his hometown of Jacmel, where he once unsuccessfully ran for mayor.
Dorisme said family members had never known Solages to have radical political beliefs, though he offered a caveat.
“I think, for me, I think he went down there just for that,” he said referring to the deadly attack.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday he could not confirm that a captured suspect was American.
“I’m not in a position to confirm that, principally because the Haitian authorities are, of course, leading this investigation,” he said. “It’s still early days. We’re aware of the reports of the arrests that have taken place.”
Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper, citing investigating judges who had interviewed Solages and Vincent, said the men claimed be translators for the assailants. Solages said he had “found the job on the internet.”
“They said they were translators. The mission was to arrest President Jovenel Moïse, within the framework of a mandate from an investigating judge, and not to kill him,” Judge Clément Noël told the paper.
Solages said he had been in Haiti for a month, and was living not far from the late president’s home. Joseph said he has been in Haiti for six months. Solages told authorities that the mercenaries had been in Haiti for about three months, and that some of them had entered through the Dominican Republic.
As authorities hunted for those involved, new details emerged of Moïse’s killing. Authorities say the assault was conducted by a team of “commandos.”
Haitian Judge Carl Henry Destin, who assessed the scene Wednesday morning, told The Post that Moïse was found dead in his bedroom, on his back in a white, bloodstained shirt and blue pants.
“His body was riddled with bullets,” Destin said. “He had 12 holes you can see. Among them, five are big holes.”
The bedroom had been ransacked, he said. “We saw liquid red, probably blood, around the bed where we saw the president,” Destin said. “We found his body on concrete in front of the bed.”
He said the president’s ‘s daughter, Jomarlie Jovenel Moïse, reported seeing her mother with bullet wounds on her right arm. Jomarlie was with her younger brother during the attack. Destin said a maid and another staff member at the home were tied up by the attackers.
Martine Moïse was flown to Florida on Wednesday for care, in critical but stable condition.
After the attack, Haiti closed the Port-au-Prince airport to commercial traffic, and the neighboring Dominican Republic closed the land border. Acting prime minister Claude Joseph said Thursday that authorities anticipated the imminent reopening of airports.
The motive for the killing remained unclear. The country has endured rising violence during a months-long political stalemate. President Moïse, a businessman who took office in 2017, ruled by decree after parliamentary terms expired in January 2020 and no new elections were held. Opponents and protesters demanded that he step down. Armed gangs with unclear allegiances have seized control of growing portions of the country, terrorizing the population with kidnappings, rapes and killings.
“He had obviously many enemies,” said Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia who has written extensively on Haiti. “There might have been some degree of complicity on the part of those protecting the president.”
Compounding the confusion is the question of who’s in charge now. Two men claim to be prime minister. Moïse was due to install Ariel Henry, a neurologist, as prime minister on Wednesday to replace Joseph – the latest appointment in a revolving door of prime ministers.
It was Joseph who announced Moïse’s killing Wednesday morning; he said he was now the head of Haiti’s government. But in an interview with the Haitian news outlet Le Nouvelliste, Henry appeared to contradict Joseph, saying the job was now his.
But he also seemed to recognize the sensitivity of the moment, with Haitians fearing for the rule of law and the nation threatening to tilt toward chaos.
“I don’t want to put oil on the fire,” Henry told the outlet. “We must avoid igniting the country.”
The Supreme Court’s chief justice, who might be expected to help provide stability in a crisis, died recently of covid-19.
The leadership vacuum is a potential powder keg in a nation grappling with deepening economic, political and social woes, with gang violence spiking in the capital, Port-au-Prince, inflation spiraling and food and fuel becoming scarcer in a country where 60 percent of the population makes less than $2 a day.
“The past 30 years have been one calamity after another, and now it is getting more serious,” Fatton said. “We have two individuals vying for the position of prime minister. The economy is in terrible shape. The covid situation is deteriorating. No one is vaccinated. And then you have the security situation. The police are completely fragmented, and some members of gangs are former police officers.”
Moïse ran a banana export company before entering politics. He was handpicked by President Michel Martelly, who resigned in 2016, and came to power a year later, the start of a tenure that was controversial from the beginning. Haitian authorities accused him of money laundering in 2017 through an account he held with his wife. He denied the charges.
Human rights leaders have accused Moïse of maintaining links to violent street gangs, bands of which have been seen by witnesses riding in the armored vehicles used by the national police and special security forces. He denied any ties.
Moïse’s many enemies were both domestic and international. The political opposition, which argued that his term expired in February, was pressuring him to step down. Powerful business interests opposed his move to nationalize parts of the energy sector. And only days before his assassination, he issued a decree that effectively cleared a large number of political actors – including rivals within his own camp – to run for higher office, meaning Moïse potentially stood in the way of ambitious politicians eying the September elections.
He also ran afoul of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro after agreeing, at Washington’s urging, to support U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful head of state.
“He was a very flawed president with authoritarian tendencies,” said Laurent Weil, a Haiti analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “But his enemies aren’t better, and this needs to be emphasized as well.”
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Faiola reported from Miami. Boburg reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Julie Tate, Alex Horton and Dalton Bennett in Washington, Rachel Pannett in Sydney and Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.