PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Two men believed to be Haitians – one of them allegedly a former bodyguard of the Canadian embassy in Port au Prince – have been arrested in connection with the assassination of the Haitian president, a senior Haitian official said Thursday.
Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s election minister, told the Associated Press that James Solages, an American from Haiti, was among six people arrested in the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moise by gunmen at his home Wednesday before dawn. He also said that four more are from Colombia. The oldest suspect is 55 and the youngest Solages is 35, he said.
Seven other suspected attackers were killed in a shootout with police, according to Haiti National Police Director Léon Charles.
Pierre did not want to provide additional details about the origins of the Solages, nor the name of another American Haitian. The U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Americans were in Haiti in custody, but could not confirm or comment.
Solages described himself as a “certified diplomatic agent,” a child advocate and budding politician on the website of a charity he founded in 2019 in South Florida to help residents.
On his bio charity page, Solages said he had previously worked as a bodyguard at the Canadian embassy in Haiti. The Canadian embassy did not immediately comment; calls to the foundation and Solages associates for charity either failed or were not answered.
Witnesses said two suspects revealed on Thursday that they were hiding in a bush in Port-au-Prince, some of whom grabbed men by their shirts and pants, pushing them and occasionally slapping them.
Police arrested men who were sweating profusely and wearing clothes that looked like they were smeared with mud, an Associated Press reporter said. Officers placed them in the back of the truck and drove off as the crowd ran after them to a nearby police station.
Once there, some in the crowd chanted, “They killed the president! Give them to us. We will burn them! ”
One man was heard saying it was unacceptable for foreigners to come to Haiti to kill the country’s leader, citing reports by Haitian officials that the perpetrators spoke Spanish or English.
The audience later set fire to several abandoned cars dotted with bullet holes that they believed belonged to the suspects, who were white. The cars did not have license plates, and in one of them was an empty box of bullets and some water.
At a news conference Thursday, Charles, the police chief, urged people to stay calm and let the police do their job, as he warned authorities needed evidence that they were destroying, including burned cars.
Officials did not comment on the motive for the killing, saying only that the attack, condemned by major opposition parties in Haiti and the international community, was carried out by a “highly trained and heavily armed group”.
Not everyone bought a government description of the attack. When Haitian journalist Robenson Geffrard, who writes for a local newspaper and has a radio show, tweeted a report on police chief’s comments, he provoked a flood of responses expressing skepticism. Many wondered how the sophisticated assailants described by police could break into Moïse’s home, security details and panic room and then escape unscathed, but were then caught without planning a successful escape.
Meanwhile, a Haitian judge involved in the investigation said Moïse was shot a dozen times and his office and bedroom were searched, according to Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste. Judge Carl Henry Destin said investigators found 5.56- and 7.62-mm cartridges between the gate and inside the house.
Moïse’s daughter Jomarlie Jovenel hid in her brother’s bedroom during the attack, he said, and the attackers tied up the maid and another worker.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who took over the leadership of Haiti with the support of police and the military, asked people to reopen their business and return to work as he ordered the reopening of the international airport.
On Wednesday, Joseph declared a two-week state of siege following Moïse’s assassination, which stunned a nation struggling with some of the greatest poverty, violence and political instability in the Western Hemisphere.
Inflation and gang violence have risen sharply as food and fuel become less common in a country where 60% of Haitians earn less than $ 2 a day. The situation is becoming increasingly dire as Haiti is still trying to recover from the devastating earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 after a history of dictatorship and political upheavals.
“Now there is this gap and they are afraid of what will happen to their loved ones,” said Marlene Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, a group that helps people in the small community of Little Haiti in Miami.
She called on the Biden administration to take a much more active role in supporting attempts at national dialogue in Haiti with a view to holding free, fair and credible elections.
In other news, the Security Council met Thursday to discuss the situation in Haiti, and UN special envoy Helen La Lime, speaking to reporters at UN headquarters in Port-Au-Prince, said Haiti had asked for additional security help.
Haiti became increasingly unstable during the time of Moïse, who ruled by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to gather more power, while the opposition demanded his resignation.
Moïse has faced major protests in recent months that have become violent as opposition leaders and their supporters have rejected his plans to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.
Under Haiti’s constitution, Moïse should have been replaced by the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but the chief judge has died in recent days from COVID-19, leaving the office with an open question as to who could rightfully succeed.
Joseph, meanwhile, was to be replaced by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon whom Moïse had appointed prime minister the day before the assassination.
Henry told the AP that he is prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation. “I am the prime minister in office,” he said.
On Thursday, public transporters and street vendors remained scarce, an unusual sight for the usually bustling streets of Port-au-Prince.
Marco Destin, 39, was walking to see his family because there were no buses available, known as faucets. He wore a loaf of bread for them because they had not left the house since the president was killed for fear of his life.
“Everyone at home sleeps with one eye open and one eye closed,” he said. “If the head of state is not protected, I have no protection.”
Intermittent gunfire reverberated across the city hours after the killing, a dark reminder of the growing power of gangs that displaced more than 14,700 people just last month as they set fire to and looted homes in the fight for territory.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian policy expert at the University of Virginia, said gangs are a force to be fought and it is not certain that Haiti’s security forces can carry out a state of siege.
“It is a really explosive situation,” he said, adding that foreign intervention was possible with a UN military presence.
“The huge question is whether Claude Joseph will be able to stay in power. This will be very difficult to do if he does not create a government of national unity. “
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Goodman reported from Miami. AP cameraman Pierre-Richard Luxama of Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.