US charges Colombian man over Haiti president’s assassination

US Justice Department accuses ex-member of Colombia’s military of participating in plot to kill Jovenel Moise in July.

A man prays in front of a picture of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moise
Haitian President Jovenel Moise was killed in the early hours of July 7, 2021, when a crew of armed gunmen stormed his home in the capital, Port-au-Prince [File: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters]

Authorities in the United States have charged a Colombian man with participating in a plot to kidnap or kill Haitian President Jovenel Moise, whose assassination in early July sent the Caribbean nation into political chaos.

In a statement on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice said Mario Antonio Palacios, 43, was charged with “conspiracy to commit murder or kidnapping outside the US”.

He was also charged with “providing material support resulting in death, knowing or intending that such material support would be used to prepare for or carry out the conspiracy to kill or kidnap”.

The department has alleged Palacios and others – including approximately 20 other Colombian nationals and a group of Haitian-American citizens based in Haiti – participated in the plot to kill Moise.

Haitian authorities have said that Palacios, a former member of the Colombian military, was part of a mercenary group that killed Moise in July.

“While the plot initially focused on conducting a kidnapping of the president as part of a purported arrest operation, it ultimately resulted in a plot to kill the Haitian President,” the US Department of Justice said.

Moise was killed in the early hours of July 7, 2021, when a crew of armed gunmen stormed his home in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Then-Prime Minister Claude Joseph said at the time that the assassination was “a highly coordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group”.

The US Justice Department on Tuesday said “Palacios and others entered the president’s residence in Haiti with the intent and purpose of killing President Moise, and in fact, the president was killed”.

The department added that if convicted, Palacios faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The Miami Herald newspaper and McClatchy first reported earlier on Tuesday that Palacios – also known as “Floro” – was detained by US authorities and was expected to appear in US federal court.

Palacios made an initial appearance in US District Court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon, dressed in civilian clothing with handcuffs on his wrists that were linked to a chain around his waist.

Speaking in Spanish, he told the court via an interpreter that he does not know anyone in the US and that his only income is a Colombian military pension worth the equivalent of around $375 a month.

A man sits on a sidewalk in Port-au-Prince after Jovenel Moise's assassination
A man sits on a sidewalk looks on following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, in Port-au-Prince, July 10, 2021 [Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters]

The assassination

Moise’s killing thrust Haiti, which was already struggling with a political crisis and widespread gang violence during Moise’s years in office, into deeper instability and raised fears among residents of further attacks.

Haitian authorities have arrested dozens of people, including 18 Colombians and two Americans of Haitian descent, in connection with the assassination. But their investigation has produced few concrete answers so far as to why Moise, 53, was killed.

Critics in Haiti also have complained of slow progress, intimidation and witness tampering in the investigation.

Palacios, 43, was arrested in Panama on Monday as he was being deported from Jamaica to Colombia, two people familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency.

Interpol notified Palacios during the stopover in Panama that the US government was extraditing him, said General Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s police. Vargas said that Colombia, Jamaica and the US were in touch to coordinate the suspect’s deportation and extradition.

Interpol had issued a red alert for Palacios on charges including attempted murder, armed robbery and conspiracy based on a request from the Haitian government.

Joseph, Haiti’s former prime minister, tweeted on Tuesday that Palacios’s arrest was “a step in the right direction” and urged the authorities to extradite him to Haiti.

“I call on the Haitian authorities to collaborate with the American authorities so that, in line with the extradition treaty of August 9, 1904, this main suspect in the assassination of President Jovenel is extradited to Haiti to answer questions from the authorities,” Joseph wrote in French.

The Caribbean nation has faced a surge in gang violence and kidnappings for ransom since Moise’s assassination. Haiti has also struggled to rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in August, while residents have faced crippling fuel shortages and soaring prices.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry said he was forced to cancel a speech on the country’s independence day on Saturday after gunfire erupted in the northern city of Gonaives, about 150km (90 miles) from Port-au-Prince.

Local media reported that one person died and two were injured in the gunfire that forced Henry and others to duck and seek shelter as they walked out of a cathedral, where Henry was attending a mass.

“We cannot let bandits from any background, driven by the lowest financial interests, blackmail the state,” said Henry, who took up the prime minister’s post less than two weeks after Moise was killed.

Asked on Tuesday about Palacios’ arrest, a spokesman for Henry’s office said the prime minister “wants justice to prevail in the villainous assassination of Jovenel Moise”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies