The National Police of Haiti confirmed in a press conference late Wednesday that authorities had identified a group of “commandos” suspected of having assassinated President Jovenel Moïse in his home the night before.
Unidentified gunmen entered Moïse’s home in Port-au-Prince in the early morning hours of Wednesday and shot him dead; Haitian law enforcement officials stated the assailants shot him 12 times and attacked his wife, First Lady Martine Moïse. The president died of his injuries; the first lady arrived in Miami for extended treatment of her injuries Wednesday. The assailants reportedly spoke Spanish — some reports suggested English, as well — indicating they were foreigners. Haitian officials described them as “professional.”
Director-General of the National Police Léon Charles told reporters Wednesday that officials identified some of the suspects involved and confronted them. The suspects allegedly pretended to be members of the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a claim police do not appear to believe to be true, but investigators have not yet offered any further clarity as to the identity of the assassins or their motivations.
Haitian Ambassador to the United States Bocchit Edmond confirmed with Voice of America that he had witnessed surveillance footage showing the suspects identifying themselves as DEA agents.
Charles told reporters that police surrounded a site where the attackers had abducted multiple police officers and engaged them.
“Four of them fell, two were intercepted and are in our custody, and we recovered three policemen who had been taken hostage,” Charles said, according to the news outlet Haiti Libre. Charles referred to the attackers as “mercenaries” and indicated police believe others involved in the assassination remain at large.
Haitian Minister of Communication Pradel Henriquez, at the same press conference, reiterated that the attackers were allegedly “men with big guns who have landed in territory that is not theirs; they are not Haitians … it was foreigners who spoke English and Spanish.” Henriquez conceded that some involved in the conspiracy appeared to be Haitian nationals.
Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who Moïse had just replaced Monday, used his power as the apparent executive of the country to declare a “state of siege” on Wednesday, which greatly expands both his power and that of law enforcement. The legal status of “state of siege” is typically reserved in Haiti for use in the event that a foreign entity invades and tries to conquer the country or in a case of attempted insurrection or a coup d’etat. Haitian officials’ repeated assertions that the assailants in Moïse’s killing were foreign appears to be at the core of Joseph’s claim to having the power to call a state of siege.
“We ask the population to keep calm … Haitian people, keep calm, because the situation is under control,” Joseph insisted, repeatedly using the phrase “under control” during his address Wednesday to describe the situation. Joseph also referred to unspecified “dark forces” attempting to subvert Haitian democracy.
Joseph’s claims echo warnings Moïse himself made in an interview published by the Spanish-language newspaper El País in February, following an attempt by opposition members to install a septuagenarian judge as the “true” president of Haiti. Moïse came to power in 2015 following social unrest that led to the end of predecessor Michel Martelly’s tenure. Moïse insisted as president that his term formally began in 2017 and that he was rightfully the nation’s president through 2022, but opposition leaders claimed his term truly ended in February 2021 and “appointed” Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis the president of the country. At the time, Moïse referred to the attempt to install Jean-Louis as a coup.
“The coup d’etat is not just one specific act, but a sequence of actions. Until now, the governments were puppets of economic groups, but that doesn’t happen today and our decisions are very poorly received by those who feel powerful and untouchable,” Moïse told El País that month. “A small group of oligarchs is behind the coup and they want to take over the country.”
Jean-Louis published a video in February on social media in which he declared himself president but has made no public appearances since, nor has he attempted in any way known to the public to exercise presidential power. He has bizarrely failed to resurface in the aftermath of Moïse’s assassination to assume his claimed position as president, nor has he made any formal statements. The closest to any proof that Jean-Louis is alive and aware of the current state of affairs in Haiti is the appearance of an alleged “statement” from the judge lamenting the assassination on a Twitter account claiming to represent the “Support Committee for the President J. Mécène Jean-Louis, which is not verified and has only 20 followers.
Joseph, the prime minister, is facing his own challenge to his position. Ariel Henry, the man Moïse appointed as his seventh prime minister on Monday in one of his final acts as president, has condemned Joseph for assuming what he insists is his authority. Speaking to the Haitian news outlet The Nouvelliste, Henry said in an interview Wednesday that he did not have any animosity towards Joseph — that Joseph did a “good job” on Wednesday and, in fact, Henry wanted to keep him as Foreign Affairs minister in his administration — but that the two “need to talk,” because Joseph is technically his employee.
“I don’t want to add fuel to the fire. It is necessary to avoid as much as possible any little thing that could ignite the country,” Henry said. He added that declaring a state of siege, in his opinion, was a “rushed” move that he disagreed with.