U.S. seeks life in prison for Haiti gang leader ‘Yonyon’ for role in weapons smuggling

Federal prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for the leader of a notorious Haitian gang who has pleaded guilty to facilitating the purchase and smuggling of high-powered weapons from Florida to Haiti. The firearms, the U.S. government said, were bought with the ransom proceeds of U.S. citizens taken hostage in Haiti.

Germine Joly, known as “Yonyon,” the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, pleaded guilty earlier this year to gun-smuggling charges in U.S. federal court after he and three Florida accomplices were indicted by a grand jury on charges of violating U.S. export laws and money laundering, among other crimes. The accomplices, all Haitian nationals, received at least $28,000 in wire transfers to purchase dozens of semi-automatic weapons to help fuel the gangs’ deadly grip on Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

In April 2021, 400 Mawozo gang members kidnapped a group of Catholic nuns and priests, among them French nationals. Six months later, the group then abducted 17 missionaries, including five children, with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries as their van rode through the gang’s territory after visiting a nearby orphanage. All but one were U.S. citizens and most of the missionaries were held for 62 days.

While a report from the federal probation office is recommending that Joly, 32, be sentenced to 20 years in prison followed by 36 months of supervised probation, federal prosecutors disagree. They are seeking a life sentence, which they say is appropriate because Joly “is responsible for specified unlawful activity that underpins his money laundering convictions: multiple hostage takings of U.S. citizens.”

At the center of their case is not the abduction of the missionaries — Joly faces a separate trial on those charges — but the kidnapping of three U.S. citizens between June and August 2021. During that time, prosecutors say, Joly was involved in facilitating a weapons conspiracy scheme, deciding which firearms needed to be procured for his gang to carry out its violent operations on the eastern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, and also was responsible for “managing and controlling the gang’s hostage taking activities” and commanding the disposition of its ransom payments.

“These offenses show a complete disregard not just for U.S. law and security, but a complete disregard for the fate of the country of Haiti and its people,” federal prosecutors said in recently filed court documents ahead of Joly’s June 24 sentencing.

Joly’s lawyers have challenged the prosecutors’ assessment of the evidence and their recommendation of a life sentence, saying he should be sent to prison for no more than 17.5 years.

Prosecutors’ tough stance toward Joly, who was considered one of Haiti’s more ruthless gang leaders before his May 2022 extradition to the U.S. to stand trial in Washington, comes amid mounting pressure on U.S. authorities to do more to stem the illegal flow of weapons and ammunition into Haiti. Haitian gangs, armed with U.S. guns shipped mainly from Florida seaports, are responsible for thousands of deaths and injuries just this year and are pushing the country to the brink of disaster.

After uniting in late February in an effort to topple the government, armed criminal groups in Haiti have overtaken and looted police stations, burned schools and hospitals and freed more than 4,000 prisoners, including gang leaders, after raiding the country’s two largest prisons. The chaos helped lead to the forced ouster of the country’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, and ushered in a new political transition at the behest of the Biden administration and Caribbean leaders.

Though the daily attacks have somewhat subsided, the terror continues as millions continue to struggle to find food to eat and the United Nations reports that nearly 580,000 Haitians — a 60% increase between March and June— are now displaced because of the violence and kidnappings.

“A sentence that is too lenient would convey the wrong message, including to other gang leaders who remain in Haiti and continue to wreak havoc on security in the country and commit crimes against U.S. nationals,” federal prosecutors said. “Instead, the Court should send a message to Haiti’s gang leaders—and those who would support their brutal criminal schemes—that violations of U.S. law will be punished seriously.”

In separate memos to U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, both Joly and his lawyers argue that he should be given a reduced sentence. His prison term shoud be no longer than 17.5 years, his lawyers, Allen H. Orenberg and Elita Amato, said, arguing that the federal guidelines should range from 78 to 97 months. They argue that the government “did not prove at trial beyond a reasonable doubt that” Joly participated in the kidnappings of U.S. citizens or can be held accountable for the kidnappings based on relevant conduct.

Both lawyers said a reduction in Joly’s sentence “does nothing to undermine the deterrent effect of sentencing” and to give him a lengthier sentence than Eliande Tunis, one of the accomplices who was also charged alongside him in a 48-count indictment, “would be manifestly unjust and a miscarriage of justice.”

Earlier this month Tunis, of Pompano Beach, was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison. In March, co-defendant Walder St. Louis, a cousin of Joly’s, was given 36 months; Jocelyn Dor, another accomplice, was sentenced to 60 months.

Joly is also asking if he can serve his sentence in the South Florida area.

“My greatest fear is the prospect of my mother passing away while I am incarcerated,” Joly wrote to the judge, describing his mother’s tears over his imprisonment as “a daily torment.” “I humbly ask you for forgiveness, and I solemnly pledge that I will never again involve myself in such misdeeds. All I yearn for is the opportunity to reunite with my family.”

During Joly’s bench trial, victims testified about being taken at gunpoint while traveling through the gang’s territory not far from the U.S. Embassy in Tabarre, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, and held for days while gang leaders demanded ransom payments.

Those payment, prosecutors say, were used to purchase high-powered weapons and ammunition in South Florida by Joly’s accomplices, who received their orders from him over WhatsApp. At the time Joly was imprisoned in Haiti’s National Penitentiary. Among the purchases in Florida he directed were at least 24 semi-automatic firearms to be shipped to 400 Mawozo between March and November 2021, U.S. authorities established during the trial.

Joly’s own statements to federal agents as he was being flown to the U.S., along with his communications with his co-conspirators and other gang leaders in 400 Mawozo, show that he wasn’t just the leader of the gang, but its “king” and in charge of its hostage-taking operations, prosecutors said.

Two other high-profile 400 Mawozo gang leaders — Lanmou Sanjou and Gaspiyay — took orders from Joly and agreed with another gang leader, Vitel’homme Innocent, to carry out kidnappings and to split the ransom profits from at least June 2021 through the time Joly was extradited to the U.S., the federal prosecutors said.

Citing testimony from a former gang member, prosecutors said that it was Joly who sent a gang member to kidnap the missionaries. He was alerted about the group’s visit, they said, by Innocent, who is currently the subject of a $2 million FBI bounty for his arrest.

Joly saw the missionaries as “the ticket for him to be released from jail,” prosecutors said, quoting Jean Pelice, the former 400 Mawozo member.

As part of their evidence, prosecutors presented WhatsApp exchanges in which Joly spoke about the missionaries’ fate with one of his accomplices, Tunis. In one of the more startling revelations, the two messaged about the gang’s October 2021 abduction of the director of the Haitian government’s Office of Vehicle Insurance.

“We found 600,000 dollars on him. There is only 400 left to make it 1,000,000 dollars,” Joly told Tunis. “This guy is full of cash. He has an official car, his car is tinted, with flashing lights, he has a microphone. He drives a police car. He has 600,000 dollars on him, so you already know. We held him hostage right away. He said not to kill him, he has lots of money at home, he has plenty of money at home, so we just need to go get money at his house.”

Prosecutors said Joly “carried out all of these acts knowing that they would contribute to perpetuating the widespread violence and instability in Haiti, and in order to further the same to benefit his gang’s control and his own profit.”

The goal of Joly’s criminal activities, prosecutors argue, was to not only increase his own wealth and his gang’s wealth and its control over the capital, “but also to achieve his political goals, negotiate with political leaders, and secure his own release from a Haitian prison. While celebrating the bounty of his riches, including luxury clothing items and multiple phones in jail, defendant [Joly’s] actions actively exacerbated the political instability in Haiti.”

Miami Herald federal courts reporter Jay Weaver contributed to this report.