Alix Pierre was watching television at his home in Port-au-Prince’s moneyed hillside suburbs when he heard strange voices in the night.
It was about 1am (0600 BST) on Wednesday when the insomnia-stricken salesman noticed the midnight prowlers outside, speaking in a mishmash of Spanish, English and Haitian Creole. Ten minutes later, he heard shots.
But in a gang-plagued city all too used to the crackle of gunfire, Pierre shrugged off the disturbance and returned to his film. “I wasn’t afraid. I live in the same neighbourhood as the president,” the 33-year-old remembered. “I said everything would be under control.”
As the sun rose over Haiti’s seaside capital it became clear everything was not.
While Pierre watched his late-night movie, a brutal and bewildering crime was unfolding just around the corner within the supposedly heavily guarded presidential compound. It would leave Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, dead, his wife fighting for her life, and many of the country’s 11 million citizens fearing their Caribbean homeland was facing yet another traumatic upheaval in a history marred by foreign exploitation, dictatorship and disaster.
“I’m so frightened because I don’t know what might happen next,” said Luckner Meronvil, a 46-year-old taxi driver, tears filling his eyes as he pondered his president’s slaying. “What about tomorrow?”
Mystery still surrounds the precise sequence of events that left Haiti’s 53-year-old leader riddled with bullets – let alone the identities of those who plotted and bankrolled his assassination.
On Thursday night Haitian authorities blamed the attack on a predominantly foreign “commando” of hitmen, including 26 Colombians and two Haitian-Americans, one of whom had once worked as a security guard at Canada’s embassy in Port-au-Prince. “Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” the national police chief, Léon Charles, said as 17 of the alleged assassins – 11 of whom had been caught hiding in the Taiwanese embassy – were paraded before journalists.
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, a Haiti specialist from California State University, said Moïse had made so many enemies during his four-and-a-half years in power that trying to guess who had plotted his assassination was like a particularly complex game of Cluedo. “They were mercenaries for someone. The question is who hired them,” Sepinwall said, identifying Haitian oligarchs, South American drug cartels, and even US agents as groups the Haitian rumour mill had suggested as plausible culprits, although she thought the latter unlikely.
What is certain is that the apparently meticulously planned assault, which reportedly involved several former members of the Colombian military including at least one special forces operative, began at some point after midnight on Wednesday as much of Port-au-Prince dozed.
A local judge, Carl Henry Destin, told Haiti’s main newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, a heavily armed band of raiders had penetrated the compound’s bougainvillaea-decked perimeter at about 1am, pretending to be members of the US Drug Enforcement Administration as they swept inside past a plaque bearing Haiti’s coat of arms and the motto L’Union fait la force (strength through unity).
Two members of the household staff were tied up as the shooters advanced into the property towards their high-profile target: a banana exporter turned politician who critics had accused of dismantling Haiti’s young and already dysfunctional democracy.
What happened next remains murky, but when authorities entered the presidential abode after the intruders’ retreat they saw signs of a frenzied assault and a vicious murder. Rifle cartridges littered the floor. The president’s bedroom and office had been ransacked.
“We found him lying on his back, with blue trousers, a white blood-stained shirt, his mouth open, the left eye gouged out,” Destin told Le Nouvelliste.
The president had been shot at least 12 times in the head, chest and belly: the first such assassination in the Americas since the shooting of John F Kennedy in Dallas almost six decades earlier.
“Lord knows, I’m not a supporter of the man – but it’s shocking,” said Kinsley Jean, an opposition activist who has spent the last year protesting against a president he accused of dragging Haiti back towards dictatorship with his attempts to change the constitution and refusal to relinquish power.
“It’s people from another country who just came and killed the president,” added Jean, a 24-year-old student leader. “They violated our territory and they just killed the most protected man in the country – just like that. That’s crazy.”
The assassination is the latest in a string of calamities to blight Haiti, a former slave colony born in 1804 following a 13-year insurrection against its French rulers. When Napoleon’s troops were evicted by an epochal slave revolt, there was pride and optimism about the future of the world’s first black republic.
But the postcolonial period has been cruel, with Haiti castigated by a seemingly endless onslaught of economic strife, foreign intervention and exploitation, venal dictatorship, coup d’états, corruption and gang violence, as well as a succession of deadly natural disasters. Those tribulations culminated in 2010’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake – a cataclysmic event that levelled much of Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 200,000 people.
More than a decade later, and despite a massive injection of international aid, Haiti has yet to recover, with the outlook deteriorating further in recent months as the country faced an accelerating Covid-19 outbreak, a wave of politically charged violence and repression, and an almost complete breakdown of the political system.
Then came Wednesday’s assassination, which some fear could plunge the already fragile nation into a new phase of humanitarian suffering and insecurity. “If it happened to the president, it can happen to any citizen,” said Pierre.
Jean, a campaigner for the group Mouvement En Avant, said he feared the killing would spark a power struggle that would pile more misery on ordinary Haitians already struggling with a ferocious wave of violence and kidnappings. On a single night in late June, 15 people were killed, including a journalist and a political activist.
“We are at a crossroads right now. We can try to find a stable solution or we can keep going down the path of chaos,” Jean warned, calling for a national dialogue uniting different political forces who could plot a new course. “I hope we will make the right choice.”
Sepinwall said she hoped there would be a silver lining to this week’s rupture, particularly if it lead to an inclusive transitional government and fresh elections. “That is what Haitians have been pushing for.”
But Sepinwall also feared a crackdown on opposition activists or even another foreign intervention, such as the UN stabilisation mission whose troops imported a devastating cholera epidemic in 2010 that killed thousands.
“When foreigners try to intervene in Haiti they often make the situation much worse,” said Sepinwall, the author of Haitian History: New Perspectives. “We’ve seen that story too many times and it has not been happy for the Haitian people.”
Jean said he also opposed international meddling: “The solution to a Haitian problem should be found by Haitians – and I believe we can find a solution.”
“I don’t believe a foreign power should come and treat us like a colony. We fought for our independence and we don’t want that taken away,” he said.