Haitian authorities say several of the “presumed assassins” have been apprehended after the midnight assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in his home early Wednesday.
Four suspects were killed by police and two others were arrested, the Associated Press reported, citing Léon Charles, chief of Haiti’s National Police. Charles said three police officers who were taken hostage by the suspected assassins were also released after police swarmed the house where they were holed up.
The news came after a day of immense fear and uncertainty for the country. In the wake of the brutal slaying, the capital city of Port-au-Prince was paralyzed. There was an uneasy silence as Haitian police and swat teams blocked the road leading up to the presidential residence and home to Haiti’s upper class. Who was in control was not clear.
In the span of 24 hours, the few that still held some power in Haiti played a quick game of musical chairs. Dr. Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister who turned in the keys to his office and his official car as he officially left his post on Tuesday, was back at the office Wednesday morning. The recently appointed prime minister, Ariel Henry, was supposed to be sworn in the same day but went into hiding. And in the span of a few hours, the returning prime minister had promoted himself to president.
Speaking on National Haitian Television late Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Claude Joseph declared “a state of siege throughout the whole country.”
“I am appealing to the Haitian people’s intelligence in these difficult times,” he said. “I am appealing to everyone, every sector to come together to condemn what happened.”
“The society we hope for, the country we want to build in the spirit of democracy, we will achieve this,” he told the nation.
By declaring a state of siege with the blessing of the cabinet ministers, Joseph had effectively cleared the path for his new role as president, at least until new elections will be held, or indefinitely.
Under normal circumstances, the President of the Supreme Court would automatically take over the reins of power but René Sylvestre died of COVID-19 two weeks ago.
Joseph ended his televised address by assuring the Haitian population “to keep calm, that the security of the country is under control” and stressing that “the country will not disintegrate into chaos.”
Well-informed sources tell The Daily Beast that Joseph has every intention to install himself as de-facto president indefinitely or until elections are held, a plan the U.S. and the international community are strongly supporting. Whether his surprising overture is accepted within the various opposition groups and the sitting Haitian Senate remains to be seen, however.
The constitutionality of the rapidly changing roles is a quagmire. Joseph sidestepped measures that will no doubt anger political leaders and other members of civil society.
Meanwhile, First Lady Martine Moïse, who was also shot in the attack, was airlifted to a hospital in Miami on Wednesday in critical condition from three gunshot wounds. Earlier in the day, a justice of the peace had arrived at the presidential residence to establish an official death record of President Jovenel Moise. The body was transported to a funeral home, Pax Villa, in downtown Port-au-Prince. A video of a careening cortege, complete with security vehicles, surrounded the jeep carrying the body of the president to its final destination. Neighborhood kids ran behind it.
In the wake of the president’s killing, “the next few days will be crucial” for the country, sources told The Daily Beast. Despite public assurances from Joseph about maintaining calm, there is a potential for further fractioning among civil society sectors and the specter of the heavily armed gangs now surrounding the entire capital or seizing the moment to make an even bolder move and seize the palace.
With tensions high and the days ahead uncertain, the airport was shut down and the Dominican Republic closed its border.
Joanes Rosulme, who works as a private home caretaker, said the streets were empty, not a car or motorbike circulated.
News of President Moïse's assassination spread like wildfire over Haitian social media. Grainy videos purported to show armed men at the Presidential residence's front gate circulated instantly, bouncing back from the Haitian communities in the U.S. Details of the assassination remain unclear, with countless versions circulating on the internet.
Reports of several heavily armed men arriving at the President's residence asking to see him emerged throughout the day. They were reportedly allowed in, though others say they shot the President's security and forced their way in, after which they sprayed the President and the First Lady with gunfire.
Several sources who spoke to The Daily Beast alleged the attack had been conducted by foreign mercenaries and could not have been carried out by Haitians. It is emblematic of what lies at the core of Haiti's political instability, perpetual rivalries settled in the middle of the night.
According to videos from the scene, a man with an American accent was impersonating a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operative ahead of the attack. “DEA operation. Everybody stand down. DEA operation. Everybody back up, stand down,” he said.
TripFoumi Enfo, a popular news website, said it had received information the attackers were DEA agents, but also reported that they had been told these were armed bandits seeking to kill the “first citizen of the nation.”
The site claimed that as of 2:50 a.m., police were unable to break through to the presidential residence’s courtyard, writing: “The whole area was under attack, gunfire everywhere, it was total panic.”
It was an extremely confusing picture early on in the day. Unconfirmed word was spreading that the first lady may have succumbed to gunshot wounds on arriving at a hospital but Frantz Duval, but a well-known journalist at Haiti’s main newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, said she was still alive, but in critical condition after being evacuated to an undisclosed country for treatment.
The president said earlier this year that an assassination plot against him had been foiled, announcing to the press back in February: “I thank my head of security at the palace. The goal of these people was to make an attempt on my life... That plan was aborted.”
For more than a year, President Moïse had been mute on the escalating violence that held the capital of Port-au-Prince in a stage of siege. Warring heavily armed gangs had taken over the capital's slums, terrorizing the population, and cutting off access to the north and south of the country. Indiscriminate killings forced hundreds to flee the capital's downtown area. Kidnappings occurred daily, victims often killed despite paying high ransoms. Haitians were living in daily fear of leaving their homes.
All the while, President Moïse was battling a disparate opposition which resorted to violent protests on a daily basis, asking for his resignation. There were supposed to have been elections held in 2018, but Moïse had declared that there was too much instability to hold free and fair elections. Opposition groups claimed his term ended in February 2021, while the president insisted he was in power for another year. The U.S. and the international community backed him and his call for a constitutional referendum as well as elections in November.
Instead of stepping down, the president had been consolidating his power, ruling by decree and creating a national intelligence security. With gangs increasingly gaining ground, opposition leaders and human rights groups accused him of collaborating with the heavily armed factions to keep his grip on power. Though he strongly denied it, it was clear that he was, in fact, losing his grip.
Last May, the gangs did what few expected. They invaded the upscale hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, setting up bases in a forested area called Laboule 12, not far from President Moïse's residence. One gang set up a base on the roof of the former mayor of Petionville. Firefights erupted every night. Residents said they saw what looked like foreign mercenaries, and a video showing heavily armed fair-skinned men circulated on social media.
Last week, the killing of 16 people, including the assassination of a well-known radio host, Diego Charles, sent shockwaves throughout the capital. Haitians were shaken, many saying “this is Haiti's descent into hell.” It was also a message the international community was finally acknowledging publicly.
In a statement, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the attack on First Lady Martine Moïse of Haiti.”
“We condemn this heinous act, and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery,” the statement continued. “The United States offers condolences to the people of Haiti, and we stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti.”
Days before his death, Moïse had named a new prime minister by decree. That appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back. It was clear that the situation was reaching a boiling point—but no one knew what the tipping point would be. Or so they claimed.