PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The Colombians implicated in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse were recruited by four companies and traveled to the Caribbean nation in two groups via the Dominican Republic, the head of Colombia’s police said Friday, while the U.S. said it would send senior FBI and Homeland Security officials to help in the investigation.
Haitian National Police Chief Léon Charles said 17 suspects have been detained in the brazen killing of Moïse that stunned a nation already reeling from poverty, widespread violence and political instability.
As the investigation moved forward, the killing took on the air of a complicated international conspiracy. Besides the Colombians, among those detained by police were two Haitian-Americans, who have been described as translators for the attackers. Some of the suspects were seized in a raid on Taiwan’s Embassy where they are believed to have sought refuge
At a news conference in Colombia’s capital of Bogota, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia said four companies had been involved in the “recruitment, the gathering of these people” implicated in the assassination, although he did not identify the companies because their names were still being verified.
Two of the suspects traveled to Haiti via Panama and the Dominican Republic, Vargas said, while the second group of 11 arrived in Haiti on July 4 from the Dominican Republic.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said senior FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials will be sent to Haiti “as soon as possible to assess the situation and how we may be able to assist.”
“The United States remains engaged and in close consultations with our Haitian and international partners to support the Haitian people in the aftermath of the assassination of the president,” Psaki said.
Another eight suspects are still at large, said Haitian National Police Chief Léon Charles.
“We are going to bring them to justice,” the police chief said, as the 17 handcuffed suspects sat on the floor during a news conference Thursday.
Investigative Judge Clément Noël told the French-language newspaper Le Nouvelliste that the Haitian-Americans arrested, James Solages and Joseph Vincent, said the attackers originally planned only to arrest Moïse, not kill him. Noël said Solages and Vincent were acting as translators for the attackers, the newspaper reported Friday.
The attack, which took place at Moïse's home before dawn Wednesday also seriously wounded his wife, who was flown to Miami for treatment.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadership with the backing of police and the military and declared a two-week “state of siege.” Port-au-Prince already has been on edge amid the growing power of gangs that displaced more than 14,700 people last month alone as they torched and ransacked homes in a fight over territory.
The killing brought the usually bustling capital to a standstill, but Joseph urged the public to return to work. Street markets, supermarkets, banks and gas stations reopened Friday, and people lined up to buy fuel again.
Vargas has pledged Colombia's full cooperation after Haiti said about six of the suspects, including two of the three killed, were retired members of Colombia's army. U.S.-trained Colombian soldiers are heavily recruited by private security firms in global conflict zones because of their experience in fighting leftist rebels and powerful drug cartels.
The wife of one former Colombian soldier in custody said he was recruited by a security firm to travel to the Dominican Republic last month.
The woman, who identified herself only as “Yuli,” told Colombia’s W Radio that her husband, Francisco Uribe, was hired for $2,700 a month by a company named CTU to travel to the Dominican Republic, where he was told he would provide protection to some powerful families. She says she last spoke to him at 10 p.m. Wednesday — almost a day after Moise’s killing— and said he was on guard duty at a house where he and others were staying.
“The next day he wrote me a message that sounded like a farewell,” the woman said. “They were running, they had been attacked. ... That was the last contact I had.”
The woman said she knew little about her husband’s activities and was unaware he had even traveled to Haiti.
Uribe is under investigation for his alleged role in extrajudicial killings by Colombia’s U.S.-trained army more than a decade ago. Colombian court records show that he and another soldier were accused of killing a civilian in 2008 who they later tried to present as a criminal slain in combat.
The U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Haitian-Americans were in custody but would not comment.
Solages, 35, described himself as a “certified diplomatic agent,” an advocate for children and budding politician on a now-removed website for a charity he started in 2019 in south Florida to assist resident of his home town of Jacmel, on Haiti's southern coast.
Solages also said he had worked as a bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti, and on his Facebook page, which was also taken down after news of his arrest, he showcased photos of armored military vehicles and a shot of himself standing in front of an American flag.
Canada's foreign relation department released a statement that did not refer to Solages by name but said one of the men detained for his alleged role in the killing had been “briefly employed as a reserve bodyguard” at its embassy by a private contractor.
Calls to the charity and Solages’ associates went unanswered. However, a relative in south Florida said Solages doesn't have any military training and doesn't believe he was involved in the killing.
“I feel like my son killed my brother because I love my president and I love James Solages,” Schubert Dorisme, whose wife is Solages' aunt, told WPLG in Miami.
Taiwan's Embassy in Port-au-Prince said police arrested 11 individuals who tried to break into the compound early Thursday. It gave no details of their identities or a reason for the break-in but in a statement referred to the men as “mercenaries” and strongly condemned the “cruel and barbaric assassination” of Moïse.
“As for whether the suspects were involved in the assassination of the president of Haiti, that will need to be investigated by the Haitian police," Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou told The Associated Press in Taipei.
Police were alerted by embassy security while Taiwanese diplomats were working from home. Haiti is one of a handful of countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Officials have disclosed little about the killing, other than to say the attack was carried out by “a highly trained and heavily armed group.”
Not everyone believed government’s account. When Haitian journalist Robenson Geffrard tweeted a report on comments by the police chief, he drew a flood of skeptical responses. Many wondered how what the authorities had called sophisticated attackers could be caught so easily.
Haiti had grown increasingly unstable under Moïse, who had been ruling by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to amass more power while the opposition demanded he step down.
After the U.N. Security Council met privately Thursday on Haiti, U.N. special envoy Helen La Lime said Haitian officials had asked for additional security assistance.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Goodman reported from Miami. AP videographer Pierre-Richard Luxama in Port-au-Prince and Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed.
Evens Sanon, Dánica Coto And Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press