Haitian leader’s assassination remains a mystery: ‘We may never know’

Authorities are still struggling to understand the motives and masterminds behind first killing of a Haitian president since 1915

Giovanna Romero remembers her husband, Mauricio, as a caring father who called home every night when he was out of the country on work. He did so as usual on the night of 6 July – from where, exactly, she isn’t sure – to remind her and their children he loved them and tell them to take care.

“I’ll call again soon,” the retired Colombian soldier promised – a pledge he would be unable to keep.

The next time Romero saw her spouse was in the early hours of 9 July, when a grisly and devastating video was sent to their daughter’s mobile phone.

It showed the 45-year-old’s corpse splayed on a street a thousand miles north in Port-au-Prince: one of three alleged Colombian assassins gunned down after they had supposedly stormed the home of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, and shot him dead.

“That’s when all this started to take over our lives,” said Romero, fighting back tears as she remembered her final phone conversation with a man she insisted had done nothing wrong. “Nobody can imagine how difficult a situation like this is until they go through it themselves.”

Mauricio Romero, in tan military fatigues, receives a framed certificate from another man in military fatigues.
Mauricio Romero, a retired Colombian soldier, was killed after the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse. Photograph: Family handout

Romero is not the only one still struggling to fathom the motives and masterminds behind Moïse’s assassination, which has rattled Haitian society and sent shock waves around the globe. Investigators in Colombia, Haiti and the United States were this week poring over an increasingly perplexing international murder mystery whose perpetrators reputedly included more than 20 hired guns from Colombia; a former Haitian guerrilla; a convicted cocaine smuggler and DEA informer called “Whiskey”; a US-based evangelist with dreams of becoming Haiti’s president; and a Miami security firm which apparently took its name from the television series 24.

In the hours after Moïse was shot dead in his bedroom, in the early hours of 7 July, one of his neighbours compared the saga to an Agatha Christie novel. A week later it owes more to Frederick Forsyth.

“It is a huge enigma,” said Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics professor who has been tracking the whodunnit with growing puzzlement. “The more I listen to the contradictory news, the more I think that we may never know who the heck did this … Your guess is as good as anyone’s. We are in a completely bizarre situation.”

Haitian authorities have claimed the intrigue revolves around Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a 63-year-old Haiti-born pastor from Florida who they say flew into the Caribbean country last month on a private jet.

Police claim Sanon had “political objectives” to achieve and recruited a band of Colombian gunmen from a Florida firm called the Counter Terrorist Unit Federal Academy – an apparent reference to Jack Bauer’s fictional outfit in the television drama 24. On Friday, the Washington Post reported claims that Sanon had hoped to lead a multibillion-dollar reconstruction of his crisis-stricken homeland, whose modern history is a tapestry of manmade and natural disasters, and was rooting for a popular revolt that would force Haiti’s unpopular president from power.

But many are skeptical of the narrative developing around Sanon, who has reportedly denied involvement in the first assassination of a Haitian president since 1915.

Fatton said it was “crazy” to imagine that an anonymous figure like Sanon might have been in a position to become Haiti’s leader. “Why pick this guy, who is completely unknown in the political circles in Haiti?” he asked.

“You have plenty of Haitians in the diaspora who really think they have a mission to save the country – but no one takes them very seriously because they don’t have a political base and they don’t have a political party,” he said.

Fatton said his growing sense was that the murder had been an inside job commissioned by “people within Haiti who had some sort of an interest in disposing of Jovenel Moïse”.

Fulton Armstrong, an American University Haiti expert who headed the CIA’s branch there in the early 1990s, said his gut also told him the crime was the work of what US officials once called Haiti’s MREs: “the morally repugnant elites”.

“I usually think of them as the funders and the winkers and nodders to most conspiracies [in Haiti]. They really do have the ability to move things around … to buy stuff, to do communications, to do weapons,” he said, before admitting: “But it’s a shot in the dark.”

In the absence of hard facts, a profusion of theories have been spreading, including sensational claims – quickly rubbished by the Haitian police – that the architect was in fact one of Haiti’s top politicians.

On Wednesday, the Colombian broadcaster Caracol claimed investigators suspected Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, had ordered the hit and had attended a meeting with Moïse’s alleged killers in the weeks before his death. Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, called the claim “a lie” while his Colombian counterpart, Gen Jorge Luis Vargas, said he had no information suggesting Joseph was involved.

On Friday, Gen Vargas said investigators suspected Joseph Félix Badio, a former official in Haiti’s justice ministry may have ordered the murder, for reasons that remain unclear.

In Haiti, meanwhile, there were reports that Moïse’s former security chief, Dimitri Hérard, was being held in solitary confinement amid bafflement that not a single one of the president’s bodyguards had been injured during the deadly raid.

Romero, 43, is still battling to comprehend the death of her husband, who left their home in south Colombia in early June after receiving what she described as a “totally legal” job offer from a former army colleague called Dubernay Capador.

Romero said Capador, a 40-year-old who was also killed in Haiti, promised her husband work as a bodyguard that “could lead to bigger things”. After packing a bag with Bermuda shorts and T-shirts, Romero set off for the airport and flew to the Dominican Republic, from where he would travel overland to Haiti.

On Friday, Colombia’s police chief said investigators believed Capador and a second Colombian called Germán Rivera had been well aware their mission was to kill Haiti’s president, for reasons that remain unclear.

But Romero was adamant her husband was innocent. “Mauricio – as those that know him will surely tell you – was never capable of knowingly getting involved in all that. He was a good man,” she insisted, calling for an international investigation into a crime that has upended her life and puzzled the world.

“It’s the smears that hurt … but I have no time to cry. I have to keep going. The priority is to get [his] body back on to Colombian territory,” Romero said. “Once he’s here, maybe the lump in my throat will go away.”


Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá and Tom Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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