Colombian played a ‘minor role’ in plot to kill Haiti’s leader, but still gets life sentence

A former Colombian soldier was found to have played a “minor role” in the plot to kill Haiti’s president, but on Friday he still ended up getting a life sentence like four other defendants directly involved in the final decision to assassinate Jovenel Moïse.

Colombian Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios was given the maximum sentence by a federal judge in Miami, even though a prosecutor said he did not participate in operational discussions at key meetings before the July 7, 2021, assassination.

Palacios, 45, who pleaded guilty in December to the murder conspiracy spanning South Florida, Haiti and Colombia, became the fifth defendant in the U.S. case in Miami federal court to be sentenced to life.

MADE IN MIAMI: Read the Miami Herald investigation into the assassination of Jovenal Moïse

Palacios’ defense attorney argued he was a “foot soldier” who only learned at the 11th hour about the change in plans from carrying out the arrest of Haiti’s leader to killing him, and that he was not in the room where the president was fatally shot by other Colombian commandos at his home outside Port-au-Prince.

“He had no idea what was going on” like the other defendants in the U.S. case until the day before the deadly assault, attorney Alfredo Izaguirre told the judge, urging him to give Palacios 30 years in prison. “He was in another room. He never fired his weapon.”

U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez expressed “sympathy” for Palacios’ circumstances, but said he felt restricted by the law because the conspiracy to which the defendant pleaded guilty involved the assassination of a foreign leader.

“I don’t think I can go below a life sentence,” Martinez said.

Depending on his cooperation, Palacios could end up receiving a sentence reduction from prosecutors Andrea Goldbarg, Monica Castro and Frank Russo in the coming months.

Of the 11 defendants charged in the U.S. case, five have pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to kidnap or kill Haiti’s leader and related charges. A sixth defendant has pleaded guilty to other conspiracy charges involving the smuggling of bulletproof vests to the Colombians that carry up to 10 years. Meanwhile, five other defendants, including a Miami-area man who headed a security firm, face trial in May.

Fled to Jamaica

More than two months after the assassination, Palacios fled to Jamaica and became the first suspect to surrender to FBI agents in January 2022. After initially confessing to FBI agents at a Kingston hotel — a confession that he and his lawyers later claimed was given under duress — Palacios chose to accept responsibility for his supporting role in the deadly conspiracy targeting Moïse.

According to the FBI, Palacios admitted during a nearly six-hour video-recorded interview with federal agents in October 2021 that he took a necklace, two watches, $2,060 cash and other personal items belonging to Moïse, and his wife, Martine, when he was killed and she was injured in the assault at their hillside home.

However, unlike four other defendants who have pleaded guilty in the murder conspiracy so far, Palacios played a “minor role,” Goldbarg said, because he was not involved in making strategic decisions about the assassination plot. That factor, along with his cooperation, might help the father of three children ultimately receive less than a life sentence in the future.

Colombian military man

A factual statement filed with his plea agreement said Palacios retired from the Colombian military in June 2021 after 20 years of service and was recruited by the Miami-area security company, CTU, to provide protection for an aspiring politician who wanted to replace Moïse as Haiti’s president.

Palacios was recruited along with more than 20 former Colombian soldiers by CTU and met with its president Antonio Intriago in Haiti in the weeks before the assassination plot was carried out. Intriago, who is being held at a federal lockup, has pleaded not guilty to the conspiracy and other charges in the high-profile case.

Initially, Palacios understood that the goal was to capture Haiti’s president and arrest him. Palacios and the other Colombians conducted training sessions while CTU provided them with security equipment, including armored vests.

Palacios was led in the mission by a retired Colombian army officer, Germán Alejandro Rivera Garcia, aka “Colonel Mike,” who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced in October to life in prison.

According to the factual statement, Palacios was a “line security soldier” who took orders from Rivera and other Colombian commando leaders. Palacios “did not have the authority to make decisions nor did he take part in planning of any operation.”

“By at least July 6, 2021,” Palacios “had been informed that the Colombian contractors would be conducting an operation at the presidential residence,” the factual statement says. “Before the beginning of the operation, the defendant was also told that the president was going to die.”

Prosecutors said the Colombian commandos took money and jewelry from the president’s home, and that Palacios kept some of the cash and jewels.

In the aftermath of the assault, three Colombians died during a shootout with Haitian national police outside the president’s residence.

The U.S. government’s prosecution of the 11 original defendants has moved quickly with successive plea deals and sentencings — in contrast to Haiti’s investigation, which finally resulted in an indictment filed by a Haitian judge last week.

In the U.S. case, a former senator in Haiti’s parliament was sentenced to life in prison after he had previously pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill his country’s leader. The former senator, Joseph Joël John, 52, also is known as John Joël Joseph to his countrymen.

John was also present at meetings in Haiti where the operation to kill the country’s leader was discussed, including one gathering at the home of a Haitian businessman the day before the assassination. Among those attending that critical meeting: Rodolphe Jaar, who hosted the gathering; Rivera, the Colombian commando leader; James Solages, a Haitian American; and Joseph Vincent, a Haitian American who previously worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Palacios, the ex-Colombian soldier, was also there but prosecutors admitted at his sentencing Friday that he was not part of the discussions to kill Haiti’s president.

Vincent, 58, pleaded guilty to the murder conspiracy and related charges. He was sentenced last month to life in prison.

Jaar, 51, admitted to providing weapons, lodging and money in the conspiracy to assassinate Haiti’s president. A dual Haitian and Chilean citizen, Jaar was sentenced in June to life in prison. Previously, he was also convicted of drug trafficking in the United States.

Miami Herald Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this story.