The plot to kill Haiti’s President allegedly spanned multiple countries and involved highly experienced former military officers and months of planning, according to local officials. Yet the primary suspects in the case appear to have been unprepared for their fierce pursuit by Haitian security forces.
CNN has obtained exclusive information about the hunt for the killers of Jovenel Moise, a banana exporter-turned-politician who was killed in a hail of gunfire in the bedroom of his private residence in the leafy Port-au-Prince district of Petion-Ville at around 1 a.m. last Wednesday, according to government statements.
The Haitian President’s body was found riddled with bullet holes, according to a local official tasked with documenting the crime scene, who also said Moise had suffered a broken leg and serious facial injuries. Multiple government officials described the injuries to CNN as signs of torture. Moise’s wife, Martine, was wounded. She is being treated in a Miami hospital.
“In the blink of an eye, the mercenaries ran into my house and killed my husband,” Haiti’s first lady said in an audio recording released over the weekend. CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the recording.
But despite the abundance of bullet holes documented inside the President’s home, not one member of the President’s security detail or residential staff was hurt, according to authorities.
Exactly what happened inside the president’s home and who masterminded the attack remain the key unsolved questions at the heart of multiple investigations involving senior agents from the United States and Colombia, in addition to local authorities. Top foreign officials, including members of the US National Security Council and Colombia’s chief of national intelligence, have visited Haiti in the wake of Moise’s death.
In a country bitterly divided over its political direction, unease over the mystery surrounding the president’s murder has become a rare unifying sentiment. No one – whether members of the deceased president’s cabinet, his most outspoken critics, or ordinary residents of capital city Port-au-Prince – is satisfied with the limited explanations available so far.
“Where did (the attackers) get the cars that they were driving? How did they get in the country?” Haitian Elections Minister Mathias Pierre asked CNN, adding that he would expect his own security to take a bullet for him.
CNN can now shed light on a small piece of the puzzle: How Haitian security forces first responded to the assassination.
A source with knowledge of the operation has described to CNN a bloody siege and the multi-day pursuit through the President’s affluent neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, the impoverished quartier populaire next door, an abandoned roadside storefront, and the Taiwanese Embassy.
Setting a trap
Social media footage from the night of Moise’s murder showed unidentified men shooting into the air and shouting “DEA operation! Everybody back up!” in English as they marched down the street near the presidential mansion. Haitian security forces who had learned of the attack raced to the house not long after that. But they were too late.
According to a source familiar with the operation, law enforcement teams arriving on the scene in the dark hours of the morning observed a suspicious five-car convoy near the President’s home. Fearing that Moise or others may be being held hostage inside, they avoided a confrontation and allowed the convoy to leave. But there was a trap down the road.
At a sharp bend in Route de Kenscoff, the main road leading downtown, the convoy suddenly encountered a police blockade, where hundreds of security personnel had been mustered in the darkness.
Unable to turn their cars around in the narrow road between a walled-off ravine and a steep green hillside, the convoy’s occupants fled, abandoning firearms inside their vehicles. Desperate for cover, some leaped into the polluted muck of a deep roadside drainage canal; others scattered the surrounding buildings on foot, according to the source.
The majority found shelter in an empty two-story storefront, where a banner quoting Psalm 27:1 still proclaims: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
The store – and its location – offered a refuge of sorts. The overgrown hillside behind the store would slow any possible attacks from the rear. And the storefront’s thick concrete walls could serve as a shield from gunfire. Still, some would not make it out alive.
Before the sun rose on Wednesday in the Caribbean nation, Haitian security forces learned that the President was dead, and that the suspects trapped by their roadblock had at least two hostages with them, both members of the President’s guard, the National Palace General Security Unit (USGPN).
They were also growing certain that they were facing foreign adversaries – perhaps hired mercenaries. “We could hear them talking and shouting in Spanish,” the source said. “They were talking, and they knew exactly what they were facing.”
Haitian security forces opted to wait the fugitives out, knowing that the night’s intense humidity, windless summer heat, and a lack of drinking water would weaken their defenses. Supplies of water bottles had been found in their abandoned cars.
A little later, around 7 a.m. (8 a.m. in Haiti), a woman in rural Colombia received a phone call from her brother, a man she describes as a “hero.”
Jenny Capador told CNN that her brother Duberney called from Haiti, where he had been working in a private security role; she said he told her that something had gone wrong and he was “under siege and under fire, fighting.”
“But he told me not to worry, and not to tell our mother, that everything was going to be alright,” she said. Capador said her brother was hired to protect, not to kill; she does not believe he was responsible for the assassination of President Moise.
Hours went by and the temperature rose, with no movement from either side, CNN’s source said. Finally, at 3 p.m., Haitian forces threw three tear gas canisters into the road in front of the shop, allowing plumes of the acrid gas to spread inside. Negotiating began via one of the USGPN hostages’ phones soon after that.
The first of the suspected attackers to emerge from the building were Haitian-Americans – one man, followed by another. The pair identified themselves as translators, according to the source. Next down the hill came the two USGPN hostages, who told Haitian security forces that dozens of people – armed with 5.56 mm assault rifles – were still inside the concrete building.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know how many people there were until the hostages were released. Then the hostages said there were about 25, and I said, ‘Oh, OK, we’re dealing with a platoon,’” the source said.
A small vanguard of Haitian forces began an assault to seize the occupied storefront. According to CNN’s source, the alleged mercenaries were well-armed, and even threw a grenade at the Haitian security forces, though it did not detonate.
“They were shooting at us from the second floor,” the source said. “And they had a grenade, but it didn’t work. Can you imagine, the grenade just rolling like a ball – tak, tak, tak – down the hill?” they added, miming the imaginary grenade’s path.
At least three suspected mercenaries died in the battle. Traces of the two-hour shootout are clearly visible in the building itself, which remains littered with bullet casings and broken glass. In one narrow open-air passageway at the back of the building, a pool of blood and a dense constellation of bullet holes in the wall reveal the spot where someone died.
But most of the group that Haitian security forces had expected to apprehend had already vanished.
Escape to the Taiwan Embassy
Security forces now know the suspects had been quietly escaping up the hill, according to CNN’s source.
Just how a group of foreigners knew that the embassy of Taiwan was a short distance away is unclear, but a number of fugitives climbed the hill and crossed two stone alleyways to breach its high white walls. They could not do it unseen – at least one of the onlookers notified law enforcement.
To shelter in the embassy was either a clever choice or an extremely lucky one, since diplomatic spaces cannot simply be accessed by law enforcement. It remains unknown if the group was being advised by someone local who knew the area well.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou told CNN security guards reported that “a group of armed suspects” entered the embassy grounds without permission. Embassy staffers had been working from home “for safety reasons” that day, following the President’s assassination the previous day, she also said.
“After our embassy in Haiti received a request from Haiti authorities, we immediately agreed to let Haiti police enter our embassy to cooperate in the hunt for the suspects, so that justice can prevail, and the truth can come to light,” Ou said.
On Thursday, 11 of the suspected mercenaries were found and arrested without incident inside the embassy. More were eventually found in the surrounding area; social media video shows at least two suspects being escorted by a crowd of Haitians in the impoverished neighborhood of Jalousie.
But some suspects remain on the run, and Haitian police have called on residents to remain vigilant.
The hunt for answers continues
At least 28 people are now suspected in the killing, according to Haitian police, of which 26 have been identified as Colombian. Twenty have been detained, including the two US citizens who said they were translators.
Several of the men believed to be involved in the operation previously worked as informants for the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, according to people briefed on the matter.
“At times, one of the suspects in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise was a confidential source to the DEA,” the DEA said in a statement.
“Following the assassination of President Moise, the suspect reached out to his contacts at the DEA. A DEA official assigned to Haiti urged the suspect to surrender to local authorities and, along with a US State Department official, provided information to the Haitian government that assisted in the surrender and arrest of the suspect and one other individual.”
The FBI said in response to CNN’s reporting that it doesn’t comment on informants, except to say that it uses “lawful sources to collect intelligence” as part of its investigations.
No comment from the detainees has been released to the public.
Jenny Capador learned that her brother had been killed on Thursday. By Friday, Duberney Capador’s mugshot had been shown at a press conference by the Colombian National Police where he was named as one of the alleged assassins, according to preliminary investigations by the Colombian and Haitian police.
At a press conference on Sunday, Haitian authorities added a new name to their investigation, announcing that they arrested a Haitian-born man, Christian Emmanuel Sanon, whom they suspected of helping to orchestrate the assassination. They said he used a Florida-based Venezuelan security firm to recruit the group. CNN has not been able to reach Sanon or his representatives for comment since his arrest.
But as the intrigue around the Haitian President’s assassination widens across the region, there are still more questions than answers, including – most crucially – the mystery of what went on in the moments before Moise’s death.
The answer to that should be right here in Port-au-Prince, in surveillance footage from the residence and in the testimony of security personnel and residential staff, who by multiple accounts were there when it happened.
Reporting contributed by Etant Dupain in Port-au-Prince, Stefano Pozzebon in Bogota, Evan Perez in Washington and Eric Cheung in Hong Kong.
Development by Sean O’Key. Graphics by Sarah-Grace Mankarious. Video production by Matthew Gannon, Jeffrey Hsu and Nick Scott.