Anatomy of an assassination: the final hours of President Jovenel Moïse

Through the voices of the Haitian leader’s staff, witnesses and official sources, EL PAÍS reconstructs a crime perpetrated by a group of hitmen in the dead of night

Citizens take part in a protest near the police station of Petion Ville after Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was murdered on July 8.
Citizens take part in a protest near the police station of Petion Ville after Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was murdered on July 8.Getty Images (Getty Images)

It is Wednesday, July 7, and Eli Pledami is tossing and turning in his narrow bed in Port-au-Prince, unable to sleep. Pledami, 22, has just watched the Copa America semi-final between Colombia and Argentina and he keeps replaying the penalties over and over in his head. Also not helping are the mosquitoes buzzing around after days of rain, and his rumbling stomach. While he tries to sleep, a group of 28 armed men, most of them believed to be Colombian, is advancing down Pelerin 5, a narrow paved street in the Petion Ville neighborhood of the hilly city.

Pledami hears only the barking of dogs until a voice shouts through a megaphone: “This is a DEA operation, do not leave the house. I repeat, we are DEA agents and if you leave the house you will be shot!” A few brave neighbors take out their cell phones and record the commandos advancing. The shaky images show five vehicles: two dark vans and three pickup trucks. The unit moves slowly, exchanging instructions in English and Spanish. They all sport fake US Drug Enforcement Administration tactical vests with the initials painted in yellow, and they carry heavy weapons.

By now it is one o’clock in the morning, and the group walks past street graffiti reading “Team Jovenel.” They stop at the house where Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse lives. It is a simple one-story building with an entrance for vehicles and pedestrians, a former member of his team familiar with the residence told EL PAÍS. The president’s security detail is made up of about 10 men who at that time of night are usually dozing off or playing with their phones. “The opposite of professional bodyguards,” according to this source.

Once at the door, the group of hitmen splits up. Some stay outside to watch the guards – who are these days being interrogated for possible collusion in the murder – and 10 more break down the front door. They enter the house, pass down the hall and walk through a room decorated with Haitian handicrafts. They continue down the corridor. On the way they discover a maid, gag her and lock her in one of the rooms. The men continue to the main bedroom where Moïse and his wife are sleeping, and open fire.

A police officer standing guard outside the presidential residence after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse on July 7.
A police officer standing guard outside the presidential residence after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse on July 7.VALERIE BAERISWYL (AFP)

“We began to hear non-stop gunfire, a lot of it. It was like being in a war zone. I was so scared that I tried to get under the bed,” the frightened neighbor told this newspaper. Once the execution was complete, the group began looting, frantically opening drawers, closets and cupboards to look for jewelry and money. By then the president’s daughter, Jomarlie Moïse, had managed to hide in her brother’s bedroom, after hearing everything. By 1:30 am, the assassins were gone.

Some time later, Judge Carl Henry Destin arrived at the scene of the crime and found the president dead on the floor, fully dressed, with several bones broken. He may have tried to fight back during the attack or maybe the kidnapping went wrong. “He was lying in blue pants and a blood-stained white T-shirt. His mouth was open and his left eye was out,” the judge later described. President Jovenel Moïse had received “one bullet to the forehead, two in the chest, three in the hip, one in the abdomen,” he said. In total, there were 12 bullets from two different weapons left inside his body, believed to have been fired from a 9-millimeter pistol and a large caliber pistol.

When the judge entered the room, Haiti’s first lady, Martine Moïse, was also lying there with gunshots to her arms, hand and abdomen, but she was alive. By 2:30 am she was in a helicopter and evacuated to Miami, where she was admitted to hospital. On Saturday, she tweeted: “I am alive thanks to God, but I lost my husband Jovenel Moïse” in an audio message. At the door of the residence lay a pile of 5.56 and 7.62 millimeter shells, the judge noted. As dawn beckoned, news of the president’s murder spread quickly through the city, and on Wednesday the streets were totally deserted.

The story does not become any less strange: the killing was followed by a senseless escape. Eight of the assassins headed to the embassy of Taiwan in Port-au-Prince, as Haiti is one of just 15 countries in the world that recognize Taiwan over China for diplomatic purposes (in return for plentiful aid). The embassy is two kilometers away from the president’s house and empty, but a security guard discovered the men and called for reinforcements. They were arrested.

Eleven others barricaded themselves in a nearby house and exchanged fire with the police for hours until the officers attacked from the rear, killing four of them and arresting seven others, according to witnesses.That house was found burnt and with two charred vehicles in front of it on Thursday, evidence that what the authorities claim were “highly trained professional hitmen” either did not prepare their escape or the authorities are not telling the whole truth. Two more Colombians were nearly lynched by a mob crying: “They killed our president!” A three-day manhunt ended with seven mercenaries killed by police, 15 arrested and six others still on the run. The police paraded the detainees and showed the weapons they had found, along with their passports, a hard drive of footage from the residence’s cameras, and President Moïse’s checkbook.

The Colombian authorities later confirmed that the detainees are ex-military personnel of varying ranks. The wife of one of those captured, who identified herself as Yuli, said that her husband Francisco Uribe was recruited by a security company to travel to Dominican Republic last month. Uribe was hired for $2,700 a month, she told W radio, by a company in charge of protecting powerful families there. The last time she spoke to him, on Wednesday at 10 pm, he said he was guarding a house where he and others were staying. “The next day he wrote me a message that sounded like a goodbye,” the wife said. “They were running, they’d been attacked.... That was the last contact I had.” Two Haitian-Americans who were also captured stated that they were just translators for the group, and believed they were kidnapping, not killing, the president.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti seems on the verge of a power vacuum which may be filled only too soon. An editorial by Le Nouvelliste, the oldest newspaper in the country, captured the mood: “With this extremely serious news, a blanket of shock has wrapped itself around everything: people, animals and objects. There is not a sound. No weeping. No tears. The mood isn’t of strong feelings or visible pain. It is that of a country holding its breath.”

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