Questions have been raised over Haiti’s official narrative for the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moïse, who was gunned down at his mansion in Port-au-Prince last Wednesday.
Haitian police and the politicians who stepped into the political vacuum created by Moïse’s killing have claimed he was shot at about 1am by members of a predominantly Colombian hit squad who had stormed the president’s hillside residence. “Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” police chief Léon Charles alleged after the shooting.
However, opposition politicians and media reports in Haiti and Colombia are now casting doubt on that version, as uncertainty grips the Caribbean country and the streets of the capital remain eerily quiet amid fears Haiti is lurching into a new phase of political and social upheaval.
On Friday, Steven Benoit, a prominent opposition politician and former senator, told the local radio station Magik9: “The president was assassinated by his own guards, not by the Colombians.”
A report in the Colombian magazine Semana, citing an anonymous source, suggested the former Colombian soldiers had travelled to Haiti after being hired to protect Moïse, who had reputedly been receiving death threats, rather than kill him.
Further adding to the mystery, the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo claimed a source had told it that security footage from the presidential compound showed the Colombian operatives arriving there at between 2.30 and 2.40am on Wednesday. “That means they arrived one and a half hours after the crime against the president,” the source was quoted as saying.
Earlier on Friday Colombian authorities named 13 of the alleged Colombian mercenaries whom Haitian security officials have captured and claim were involved. They included Manuel Antonio Grosso Guarín, a former member of an elite unit of the Colombian army called the urban counter-terrorism special forces group, which specialises in handling hostage standoffs and the protection of VIPs.
Grosso, 41, is alleged to have arrived in Haiti with 10 former soldiers on 6 June after travelling through the resort town of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. A second group of ex-soldiers arrived in Haiti about a month earlier via Panama.
Haiti’s police chief told journalists 15 Colombians had been arrested in the aftermath of the president’s killing as well as two US citizens of Haitian descent, who have been named as 35-year-old James Solages and 55-year-old Joseph Vincent. Three Colombians were killed while eight suspects remained at large, Charles said, adding: “We urge citizens not to take justice into their own hands.”
The presence of such a large number of foreigners among the Haitian leader’s alleged killers has shocked many, particularly in Haiti itself. But Colombian guns-for-hire have been turning up in war zones around the world, including Yemen, Iraq, Israel and Afghanistan, for years. Many were once trained by US soldiers and, having spent years battling insurgent groups or drug traffickers within Colombia, go on to find work with US-based private military contractors.
“After so many years of warfare, Colombia just has a surplus of people who are trained in lethal tactics,” said Adam Isacson, the director for defence oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a thinktank. “Many of them have been hired by private firms, often in the Middle East, where they make a lot more money than they did in Colombia’s armed forces. Others have ended up being hired guns for narco-traffickers and landowners, as paramilitaries. And now, for whoever planned this operation, in Haiti.”
A headline in El Tiempo on Friday said: “Colombian mercenaries: trained, cheap and available.”
The wife of one of the arrested Colombians told local radio that her husband, Francisco Eladio Uribe, had been hired by an agency to travel to the Dominican Republic to provide security to wealthy families but had not been given specific details of his mission. “He was a very good soldier, husband and partner,” she said, admitting, however, that her spouse had been investigated for his role in the forcible disappearance and murder of civilians, who were later passed off as guerrillas to inflate combat kills and receive bonuses.
Conflicting claims over the president’s assassination and controversial calls from Haiti’s elections minister, Mathias Pierre, for US military intervention to protect key infrastructure have left many of Haiti’s 11 million citizens suspicious and on edge.
Paul Raymond, a 41-year-old schoolteacher from Port-au-Prince, said he was convinced the president had been betrayed by members of his own security team, who have reportedly been summoned to explain why they failed to protect him. “This was planned by…