Power vacuum created by president's killing rattles Haiti

Dánica Coto
Associated Press

Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Haitians are not only wondering who killed their president, but who’s running the country: At least three men claim to be the legitimate head of government, complicating the investigation into the assassination and fueling a race to fill the political power vacuum.

Challenges are mounting against interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who is ruling Haiti with the backing of lean police and military forces that have long lacked resources. He has pledged to work with the opposition and allies of President Jovenel Moïse, who was killed Wednesday at his private residence during an attack in which his wife, Martine, was wounded and airlifted to Miami, where she remains hospitalized.

But few are waiting for Joseph's next steps.

A coalition of main opposition parties called the Democratic and Popular Sector said Tuesday that Haiti lacks a leader: “This is autopilot. This situation must not continue. The country is unfortunately witnessing a proliferation of proposals for exiting the crisis, which further complicates the task.”

Police stand guard under an overpass in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday.

The coalition presented its own proposal for the creation of what it called the Independent Moral Authority, which would be made up of human rights activists, religious leaders, academics and others who would be charged with reviewing and merging all proposals.

Also on Tuesday, members of Haiti’s civil society are expected to unveil their own findings “for a Haitian solution to the serious multidimensional crisis that is rocking our country.”

Meanwhile, Ariel Henry, whom Moïse designated as prime minister a day before he was killed, has said he is the rightful prime minister but has been left out of discussions with top government officials. He has the support of a group of well-known politicians considered Moïse's allies who recently chose Joseph Lambert, the head of Haiti's dismantled Senate, as provisional president.

Lambert was supposed to be sworn in Sunday as a symbolic act, but the event was canceled at the last minute because he said not all his supporters could be present.

Joseph, Henry and Lambert met Sunday with a U.S. delegation that included representatives from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security who flew to Haiti to encourage dialogue "to reach a political accord that can enable the country to hold free and fair elections,” the White House's National Security Council said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the delegation received a request for additional assistance, but she did not provide details. She added that Haiti's request for U.S. military assistance remains “under review" as she suggested that political uncertainty on the ground was a complicating factor as the administration weighs how to help.

“What was clear from their trip is that there is a lack of clarity about the future of political leadership,” Psaki said.

Haiti is also seeking security assistance from the United Nations, a request that deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said is being examined. The U.N. has been involved in Haiti on and off since 1990, but the last U.N. military peacekeepers left the country in 2017.

Few details of the meeting between the U.S. delegation and the three men have emerged, although Lambert said he was urged to work together with other actors whom he did not identify.

“I am not looking for personal glory. We have the country first in mind,” he told Radio Télévision Caraïbes. “The time has come to come together, discuss and jointly find lasting solutions to the country’s problems. We have to move forward. It is an imperative necessity."

The deepening political instability comes as Haitian authorities continue to probe the assassinations with help from Colombia's government. Twenty-six former Colombian soldiers are suspected in the killing, and 23 have been arrested, along with three Haitians. Léon Charles, head of Haiti's National Police, said five suspects are still at large and at least three have been killed.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official told The Associated Press that one of the suspects was at times a confidential source to the agency, and that the suspect reached out to his contacts at the DEA after the killing and was urged to surrender. The official said the DEA and a U.S. State Department official provided information to Haiti’s government that led to the surrender and arrest of one suspect and one other individual, whom it did not identify.

Haitian police also have arrested a man considered a key suspect: Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 62, a Haitian physician, church pastor and Florida businessman who once expressed a desire to lead his country in a YouTube video and has denounced the country's leaders as corrupt.

Charles said Sanon was working with those who plotted the assassination and that Moïse’s killers were protecting him. He said officers who raided Sanon's house in Haiti found a hat with a DEA logo, 20 boxes of bullets, gun parts, four license plates from the Dominican Republic, two cars and correspondence.

But a business associate and a pastor in Florida who knew Sanon told the AP that he was religious and that they do not believe he was involved in violence. The associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said he believes Sanon was duped and described him as "completely gullible.”

Sanon told him he was approached by people claiming to represent the U.S. State and Justice departments who wanted to install him as president. He said the plan was only for Moïse to be arrested, and Sanon would not have participated if he knew Moïse would be killed.

“I guarantee you that,” the associate said. “This was supposed to be a mission to save Haiti from hell, with support from the U.S. government.”

Colombia’s government has said that a Florida-based enterprise, CTU Security, bought 19 plane tickets from Bogota to Santo Domingo for the Colombian suspects, who soon moved into Haiti. It also said that Dimitri Hérard, head of general security at Haiti’s National Palace, flew to Colombia, Ecuador and Panama in the months before the assassination, and the government is investigating whether he had any role in recruiting the mercenaries.

Charles said that Sanon was in touch with CTU Security and flew to Haiti in June on a private jet accompanied by several of the alleged gunmen who were initially told their job was to protect him but were later ordered to arrest the president.

Charles said one suspect called Sanon after Moïse was killed, and that Sanon got in touch with two people believed to be masterminds of the plot. He did not identify the masterminds or say if police know who they are.

Associated Press writers Terry Spencer in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Ben Fox in Washington; Manuel Rueda in Bogotá, Colombia; and Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.