After the arrest of dozens of foreigners, including two Americans, who the Haitian authorities said were part of a hit squad that assassinated President Jovenel Moïse this week, questions are swirling about who might have ordered the brazen attack. A power struggle to control the government also threatens to inflame an already volatile situation.
Political intrigue, gang violence, general lawlessness, a public health crisis driven by the pandemic and difficulties delivering essential international aid have conspired to create the worst crisis in the Caribbean nation in years.
Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, says he has taken command of the police and the army. But two days before Mr. Moïse’s death, the president had appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to take up the role this week. Mr. Henry told a local newspaper after the assassination that he was the rightful prime minister.
The constitutional crisis has been complicated by the pandemic. While there are many legal uncertainties, in the past the country’s top justice has been the one expected to fill any void in the political leadership. But that justice, René Sylvestre, died of Covid-19 in June.
Haiti, the only country in the Americas with no active Covid-19 inoculation campaign, has virtually no vaccine doses, and public health experts say that the coronavirus is far more widely spread there than publicly reported.
With the prospect of greater turmoil looming, international observers worry that a growing humanitarian crisis could lead to the kind of exodus that has in the past followed natural disasters, coups or other periods of deep instability.
The Pan American Health Organization said in a statement that the crisis was “creating a perfect storm, because the population has lowered its guard, the infrastructure of Covid-19 beds has been reduced, the security situation could deteriorate even further and hurricane season has started.”
Briefing reporters on Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that Mr. Joseph was “the incumbent” at the time of the assassination and that the United States would continue to work with him. But the spokesman, Ned Price, added that the United States had been in contact with Mr. Henry and urged all Haitian officials to work together “to refrain from violence.”
The top United Nations official in Haiti also backed Mr. Joseph’s claim as the rightful prime minister.
After a day filled with intense standoffs and gun battles, the police said they had arrested more than two dozen people, including 26 Columbians and two Americans of Haitian descent.
On Friday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Haitian police had arrested 11 armed people on the grounds of the Taiwanese Embassy in Port-au-Prince the previous day.
It was not immediately clear whether those detained at the embassy had been involved in the president’s death or were counted among the arrested assassination suspects. But in a statement the embassy called them “mercenaries.”
More than a dozen of the men — some with physical injuries — were paraded before the cameras at a late-night news conference on Thursday. The authorities also displayed several Colombian passports, assault rifles, machetes, walkie-talkies and other items that they said had been used in the attack, including bolt cutters and hammers.
At least eight more suspects are on the run, the authorities said.
“We are pursuing them. We are asking the public to help us,” said Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, before a phalanx of politicians and police officers.
Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, said the government was cooperating with an official request from Interpol, the global police agency, for information about the detained suspects. He added that initial information suggested that they were retired members of the Colombian military.
The American men were identified by the authorities as Joseph Vincent and James Solages.
But the authorities offered no clue as to who might have organized the operation or a motive for the attack.
A tense calm held in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which was devoid of the usual bustle and buzz that fills the streets. In Pétionville — usually a bustling suburb near the president’s home — businesses, markets and gas stations were shuttered.
Still, there were signs that public anger was growing as civilians joined in the hunt for people they believed to be part of the hit squad — capturing some people thought to be suspects and setting afire vehicles thought to have been used in the attack.
Despite declaring what is essentially martial law and imposing a curfew, Mr. Joseph asked people to return to work on Friday and said he planned to reopen the country’s main airport.
The political storm in Haiti intensified on Thursday as two competing prime ministers claimed the right to run the country, setting up an extraordinary power struggle over who has the legal authority to govern after the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his home the day before.
Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, says he has taken command of the police and the army. He has also declared a “state of siege” that essentially put the country under martial law, although constitutional experts questioned his right to impose it, and a rival quickly challenged his claim to power.
Two days before his death, Mr. Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as a new prime minister. Mr. Henry, who was supposed to take up the role this week, told a local newspaper after the presidential assassination that he was the rightful prime minister.
The dueling claims created a volatile political crisis that left constitutional experts confused and diplomats worried about a broad societal collapse that could ignite violence or prompt Haitians to flee the country en masse.
“No one understands” what is happening right now, said Lilas Desquiron, a Haitian writer who was culture minister from 2001 to 2004, leaving the nation’s 11 million people in a “wait-and-see and powerless position.”
Alarmed that Haiti may be approaching a breaking point reminiscent of the surge of Haitian refugees fleeing on boats to Florida after a 1991 coup, American officials have sided with the interim prime minister, Mr. Joseph.
The Taiwanese authorities said on Friday that 11 heavily armed people had been arrested on Thursday on the grounds of its embassy in Port-au-Prince, about a mile from where President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti was assassinated.
It was not immediately clear whether the people arrested at the embassy were involved in the assassination. Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said the Haitian police were still looking into the matter.
In a separate statement posted on Friday, Taiwan’s Embassy in Haiti condemned the assassination as “cruel and barbaric” and referred to those arrested on its grounds as “mercenaries.”
Ms. Ou, the spokeswoman, said that on Thursday morning, security personnel had discovered a group of “fully armed, suspicious-looking individuals” breaking through the embassy’s security perimeter and had immediately notified the police and embassy staff.
She said that no embassy personnel were on the grounds when the intruders were discovered, because they had been instructed to work from home shortly after the assassination in the early hours of Wednesday.
Ms. Ou said embassy officials had immediately agreed to allow the Haitian police to enter the grounds to conduct a search and make arrests.
By 4 p.m. on Thursday, the police had arrested the suspects, she said, adding that no one was harmed and that an initial inspection indicated only minimal property damage.
It was not immediately clear whether the 11 people detained at the embassy were included in the group of 17 suspects who the Haitian authorities say have been arrested in connection with the assassination.
Haiti is one of only 15 nations to have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by China. Taiwan’s embassy in Port-au-Prince is in Pétion-Ville, the suburb where Mr. Moïse was killed.
“At this difficult time,” Ms. Ou said, “the government of Taiwan reiterates its support for interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph in leading Haiti to overcome this crisis and restore democratic order.”
Two videos filmed at the same time from separate buildings near Haiti’s presidential compound suggest that the group who killed President Jovenel Moïse claimed to be agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
The videos appear to show the assailants arriving near Mr. Moïse’s residence. A witness on one video claims to see the assailants disarming some of Mr. Moïse’s guards stationed nearby.
In the videos, about a dozen armed men can be seen walking slowly up a main street, Pèlerin 5, alongside at least eight vehicles — a mix of sport utility vehicles and trucks. They appear calm and do not encounter resistance or try to hide.
Over a loudspeaker, a male voice shouts multiple times in English: “This is a D.E.A. operation! Everybody, don’t shoot!”
He repeats the command in Creole.
The D.E.A. has an office in Port-au-Prince to help Haiti’s government “develop and strengthen its counternarcotics law enforcement program,” according to the U.S. Embassy. But Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told Reuters that the gunmen had falsely identified themselves as D.E.A. agents. “No way they were D.E.A. agents,” he said.
The attack “was carried out by foreign mercenaries and professional killers,” Mr. Edmond said in Washington.
In one of the two videos, the man holding the camera comments on what is unfolding, saying that the armed men are coming to the president’s home.
“They’ve taken Jovenel. Jovenel is gone,” he says, referring to Mr. Moïse by his first name, as shouting can be heard in the distance. “Don’t you see the guys disarming the Jovenel guys?”
The international airport in Port-au-Prince is resuming commercial flights on Friday, two days after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti led to its closure and a series of canceled flights.
Christopher D. Johnson, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, confirmed in a statement that flights would resume on Friday. The facility, Toussaint Louverture International Airport, first closed early Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said.
Among the U.S. airlines that operate flights between the United States and Haiti are American Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit. JetBlue, which averages five flights per day between the United States and Haiti, has suspended flights until at least Saturday, a spokesman said, and is evaluating the situation.
“If and when we add flights before Sunday, we will reach out to customers to inform them,” said the spokesman, Derek Dombrowski. The Haiti-based Sunrise Airways, which flies within the Caribbean, grounded all flights until further notice.
American Airlines operates two daily flights from Miami and one daily flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The airline said it planned to operate both flights out of Miami but was still evaluating Fort Lauderdale flights because of “early timing.”
On Thursday, a day after declaring a “state of siege” and a curfew, Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, asked people to return to work and ordered the airport reopened.
The Dominican Republic’s president, Luís Abinader, had closed the country’s border with Haiti and also increased security, causing dozens of trucks to back up along the crucial passageway, according to The Associated Press.
Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press
Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press
Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press
Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press
Valerie Baeriswyl/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Valerie Baeriswyl/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press
The Haitian security forces are engaged in what the authorities described as a sweeping manhunt for suspects in the killing of President Jovenel Moïse. Four people were killed, and two more taken into custody after a shootout late Wednesday.
The presidential house peppered with holes and littered with bullet casings. The front doors badly damaged. The president’s body lying on the floor at the foot of his bed, “bathed in blood.”
The Haitian justice of the peace who arrived at the home of President Jovenel Moïse in the hours after his assassination on Wednesday described a haunting scene.
“There were 12 holes visible in the body of the president that I could see,” the justice, Carl Henri Destin, told The New York Times. “He was riddled with bullets.”
In the days after the assassination, the Caribbean country was still reeling, and as details of the assassination emerged, they seemed to offer more questions than answers.
Forty to 50 people were involved in the assault, and they appeared to have been well-trained, State Department officials told members of Congress on Thursday, according to three people familiar with the briefing who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That report was in keeping with earlier comments by the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, who described the attackers as “professionals, killers, commandos” in a call with reporters.
The assailants made it past two police checkpoints before reaching the president’s gate, the State Department said, according to people familiar with the briefing, adding that the security personnel guarding the president’s residence had suffered no injuries.
There were also said to be no reports of an exchange of gunfire between the guards and the attackers — which raised some eyebrows.
“It’s weird that there was no one was fighting back,” said Laurent Lamothe, a former prime minister of Haiti, noting that the presidential guard usually had a detachment of about 100 officers. “There was a lot of shooting, but no deaths. The only death was the president.”
One American lawmaker, Representative Andy Levin, a co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the circumstances of the attack, and particularly the apparent lack of fighting, raised questions about whether the assassination could have been “an inside job.”
Mr. Destin, the justice of the peace, said the president’s house had been ransacked. “Drawers were pulled out, papers were all over the ground, bags were open,” he said. “They were looking for something apparently.”
And the attack, he said, had been very violent.
President Moïse had been dressed in a white shirt and jeans, he said, both of which were torn and covered in blood. Bullet holes perforated his arms, hip, backside and left ear.
Mr. Destin said two of the president’s children had been present during the attack. He took a statement from the president’s 24-year-old daughter, who had returned to the house from the hospital to collect clothing for her wounded mother.
She told him that she and her younger brother had hid together in his bathroom, Mr. Destin said.
The official manhunt for the assassins who burst into the home of Haiti’s president continued on Thursday, but as some ordinary Haitians set out to capture suspects themselves, setting afire vehicles believed to have been used in the attack, the interim prime minister appealed for people to be calm and refrain from violence.
“I’m asking everyone to go to their homes,” Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon. “The police have the situation under control.”
The goal, Mr. Joseph said, is to maintain security in the country and get justice for President Jovenel Moïse and his family.
The Haitian authorities say that they have arrested more than two dozen suspects, including two American citizens, and that three foreign nationals have been killed, adding to Haitian assertions that “foreigners” were involved in the assassination.
Little was known about them, but officials identified the Americans as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55, Florida residents of Haitian descent. Another 15 suspects were described as Colombian.
Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said that 11 people had been arrested after breaking into the Taiwanese Embassy on Thursday.
The arrests took place inside the embassy, she said, adding that the Haitian authorities were still investigating whether any of the 11 had links to the presidential assassination.
Several of the vehicles that the police suspect were used in the attack have since been burned by citizens, said Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, making it impossible for the police to gather evidence.
“We can’t have vigilante justice,” Mr. Charles said. “Let us do our work. Help us do our work.”
But passions were high on the streets of Pétionville, an affluent suburb of the capital close to where the president lived. A large crowd gathered in front of the police station there, demanding to hear from the police chief about the assassins — some of whom were believed to be inside.
Some demanded street justice.
“Burn them,” they cried.
Later, drifting away from the police station, some took their anger into nearby streets, at one point attacking a car dealership. Two protesters were arrested.
A video shared widely on social media shows a crowd of more than 30 Haitians pulling light-skinned men through the footpaths of a dense neighborhood. One of the men was shirtless and had his arms tied with a rope behind his back. The people in the crowd, who appeared to be unarmed, brought the men to the police station, sources told The New York Times.
The police also surrounded two buildings in which suspects in the assassination had holed up, Helen La Lime, the top U.N. official in Haiti, said at a news conference.
One of the suspects arrested in Haiti is an American citizen of Haitian descent from South Florida, said Haiti’s minister of elections, Mathias Pierre.
Andre Paulte and Harold Isaac contributed reporting.
Haiti has been thwarted by outside interests from its very foundation as a country.
For decades, European powers, and later the United States, refused to recognize it as an independent republic.
The Caribbean nation became the world’s first Black-led republic when it declared its independence from France on New Year’s Day 1804. That day, Saint-Domingue, once France’s richest colony, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” became Haiti.
It was a land long coveted for its riches of sugar, coffee and cotton, brought to market by enslaved people. Its declaration of independence meant that, for the first time, a brutally enslaved people had wrenched their freedom from colonial masters. But it came only after decades of bloody war.
In 1825, more than two decades after independence, the king of France, Charles X, sent warships to the capital, Port-au-Prince, and forced Haiti to compensate former French colonists for their lost property.
Haiti, unable to pay the hefty sum, was forced into a debt that it had to shoulder for nearly a century. Throughout the 19th century, a period marked by political and economic instability, the country invested little in its infrastructure or education.
In 1915, U.S. troops invaded after a mob killed the Haitian president.
The United States later justified its occupation as an attempt to restore order and prevent what it said was a looming invasion by French or German forces. But U.S. troops reintroduced forced labor on road-construction projects and were later accused of extrajudicial killings.
The widely unpopular occupation ended in 1934, but U.S. control over Haiti’s finances lasted until 1947.
After a series of midcentury coups, the Duvalier family, father-and-son dictators, reigned over Haiti with brute force until the 1980s. Their regime plunged Haiti deeper into debt, and introduced the so-called Tontons Macoutes, an infamous secret police force that terrorized the country.
In the early 1990s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, was elected president. He was then ousted twice from power over the next 15 years.
Haiti, with a population of 11 million, is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2010, it suffered a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people. The country never really recovered, and it has remained mired in economic underdevelopment and insecurity. A cholera outbreak in 2016, linked to U.N. peacekeepers, killed at least 10,000 Haitians and sickened another 800,000.
Then early Wednesday, Jovenel Moïse, who became president in 2017, was assassinated at his residence.