Haiti reels from murder of president as police hunt assassins
An already struggling and chaotic Haiti is reeling from the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse followed by a reported gun battle in which authorities said police killed four of the murder suspects, detained two others and freed three officers being held hostage.
Officials have pledged to find all those responsible for the predawn raid on Moïse’s house early on Wednesday in which he was fatally shot and his wife, Martine Moïse, critically wounded. She was flown to Miami for treatment.
The government has declared a two-week state of emergency to help it hunt the assassins.
The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, said on television: “I am calling for calm. Everything is under control. This barbaric act will not remain unpunished.”
Léon Charles, the director of Haiti’s national police, describing the killing and arrest of suspects said: “We blocked them en route as they left the scene of the crime … Since then, we have been battling with them. They will be killed or apprehended.
“The pursuit of the mercenaries continues. Their fate is fixed. They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested.”
Moïse, a 53-year-old former businessman who took office in 2017, and his wife were shot by heavily armed assassins who stormed their home in the hills above Port-au-Prince at about 1am local time (0600 BST).
According to new details that have emerged in local reports, the attackers tied up staff while one of Moïse’s three children survived by hiding in her brother’s bedroom.
Moïse was shot at least a dozen times and died at the scene, according to Carl Henry Destin, a judicial official, who said the president’s office and bedroom were ransacked and he was found lying on his back, covered in blood.
Many people in Haiti had wanted Moïse to resign. Since taking over in 2017 he had faced calls to leave office and mass protests – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.
On Thursday, Haitians woke up to a country without a head of state, a parliament long suspended, two rival interim prime ministers – one of whom was due to be sworn in during the coming days – and a constitutional legal vacuum after the death from coronavirus of the head of its supreme court.
The country of about 11 million people, where the majority speak French or Haitian Creole, has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier dynastic dictatorship in 1986, and has grappled with a series of coups and foreign interventions.
Residents said streets were largely deserted as Haitians remained glued to radio, television and their phones for information on the latest crisis to hit the impoverished Caribbean country. Theories over who was behind the killing were circulating both in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which share the same island.
Amid claims that some of those involved in the attack were speaking Spanish, the Dominican paper Diario Libre reported that investigators there were examining the possibility that some of the assassins may have used the country to access or flee Haiti.
And in the febrile atmosphere, competing – and so far unverified – theories have continued to emerge, one suggesting that a hit squad of Colombians and Venezuelans contracted to powerful figures in Haiti involved in drug trafficking and other criminality had ordered the killing, or that the killing involved individuals linked to Moïse’s own security staff.
However, senior Haitian officials have also said Haitians were among the suspects.
The reality is that under Moïse’s rule violent criminality and politics had once again become indistinguishable, with tensions escalating amid competition for power and resources that had drawn in armed gangs backed by rival political and business figures.
Although Moïse – who was anointed as successor to Michel Martelly despite being a relative political unknown – had once appeared the malleable and preferred choice of the country’s tiny business elite, nicknamed “Banana Man” for his own export interests, he had increasingly alienated some of his former backers even as the opposition challenged his legitimacy.
Massive corruption – not least the $2bn Petrocaribe scandal in which he was implicated – rampant financial nepotism and the growing suspicion that Moïse, who had ruled by decree for the past year, was becoming ever more dictatorial (a claim he denied) had led to mounting human rights abuses including a spate of extrajudicial killings.
Just over a week ago, the journalist Diego Charles and political activist Antoinette Duclair were among at least five people killed in overnight shootings in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince.
Some critics had accused Moïse’s circle of using the feared G9 alliance of nine Haitian gangs, led by the former police officer Jimmy Cherizier (also known as Barbecue), to target opponents.
“This is a wake-up call for the international community, and for the Haitian authorities who have overseen chronic impunity and ignored the calls of human rights defenders that has paved the way for such a serious crisis,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, the Americas director at Amnesty International.
“The killing of President Jovenel Moïse must be immediately and impartially investigated, alongside the grave human rights violations and chronic impunity that ordinary people have suffered under his watch.”
Reginald Boulos, a businessman and leader of the opposition MTVAyiti party, denied that anyone involved in the country’s opposition wanted Moïse dead or had the resources to carry out the killing.
Speaking to the US-based Haitian diaspora newspaper the Haitian Times, Boulos said: “I don’t think at any point [in] time, the opposition in Haiti ever wished [harm] for President Jovenel Moïse.
“In politics, you can have adversaries, but you don’t have enemies. Therefore, pointing fingers at the opposition is basically covering the steps of whoever did it.
“I don’t feel the opposition today would have the capability to pull out such a well-organised mission.”