Key suspect arrested in Haitian president’s assassination. Nation’s police chief resigns

·6 min read

A key suspect in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has been arrested in Jamaica.

Mario Palacios Palacios, a former Colombian military officer, was arrested in Kingston earlier this month after surrendering. The arrest had remained secret. Palacios’ arrest was confirmed by multiple Haitian and Jamaica sources speaking to the Miami Herald on the condition of anonymity.

“The Jamaica Constabulary Force can confirm that an individual alleging to be a Colombian national has been arrested in Jamaica on immigration breaches,” the JCF said in a statement. “He has subsequently become the subject of an INTERPOL Red Notice as of today, October 21, 2021. We are working with our international partners in line with our established treaties and protocols.”

A red notice is issued for fugitives wanted either for prosecution or to serve a sentence. It is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action.

The individual in question was identified as Palacios by multiple sources. U.S. authorities in South Florida and Washington, D.C., are discussing what they plan to do about Palacios, who has not been charged with any crime in the United States in connection with the assassination of Haiti’s president. U.S. authorities have been assisting Haiti with the probe into Moïse’s death, but they are also conducting a U.S. investigation of suspected financial and security support mounted in South Florida to remove the president from office and replace him with a Haitian physician with ties to this region.

The arrest became public on the same day that Haiti National Police Chief Léon Charles submitted his resignation to Interim Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

“He will go back to Washington to the Organization of American States,” Henry told the Herald about Charles. The chief was Haiti’s representative to the Organization of American States and its chargé d’affaires in its Washington embassy when he was asked by Moïse to return to Haiti to head the police force after he’d been forced out 15 years earlier.

Henry confirmed he named Frantz Elbé to replace Charles.

Charles’ resignation comes amid an alarming spike in violence and kidnappings by criminal armed gangs, including the Saturday abduction of 16 Americans and a Canadian missionary on the eastern outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Haiti gang threatens to ‘put a bullet’ in all 17 hostages, including 16 Americans

While the United Nations said in its recent report that homicides increased by 5% compared to its previous reporting period, a local human rights group said the number of kidnappings had increased by 300% from July to September. The increased level of criminal gang activities this week led to a two-day nationwide shutdown of the country by businesses and public transportation drivers.

On Thursday, protests continued with angry motorcyclists setting up flaming roadblocks throughout metropolitan Port-au-Prince. The barricades were meant to protest a lack of fuel, which has been blamed on government supply shortages and an ongoing strike by fed-up fuel truck drivers who have seen their vehicles hijacked by gangs and have themselves been victims of recent kidnappings.

While Charles had shied away from making any public statements, his office has said that it has stepped up efforts to go after gangs. Between Sept. 7 and Oct. 7, police say they made 600 arrests and killed 37 bandits. They have also seized 51 arms and 139 vehicles.

The effort, however, barely made a dent in Haiti’s spiraling gang problem. In the face of surging insecurity, Henry endured pressure from supporters and critics alike to fire Charles, who faced no shortage of challenges leading the beleaguered force.

As of Sept. 3, the Haiti National Police roster stood at 14,881 officers — or 1.25 officers per 1,000 inhabitants, which is way below the requirement for the country of 11.5 million citizens, according to the United Nations, which has been trying to help with the department’s professional development. In addition to its small size, the force has struggled with issues of low morale, poor pay and substandard work conditions and corruption.

Among those arrested in the probe of Moïse’s shocking assassination were 20 police officers, including the head of the General Security Unit of the National Police and the president’s security chief.

In their probe of the president’s murder, Haitian police investigators concluded that during the attack on Moïse and his wife, the police officers assigned to their protection “showed such passivity that they showed no intention of defending the head of state, let alone the presidential family.

“By their attitude,” the report continued, “they facilitated the access of the attackers to the residence of the President.“

Haiti police have said that former Colombian soldiers made up the hit squad that stormed Moïse’s private residence in the middle of the night on July 7. Yelling that their presence was part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation, they gained access to the home. Moïse was tortured and shot multiple times, while his wife, Martine, was seriously injured, according to a 124-page Haitian police investigative report. No members of the president’s security detail were killed or injured.

In total, 44 people have been arrested in connection with the crime, including 18 Colombians and three Haitian Americans who lived in South Florida. Arrest warrants, including Interpol red notices authorizing an individual to be detained internationally, were issued for a number of suspects, including Palacios, known as “Floro.” Palacios is accused of being one of the main executors of the plan leading to the president’s assassination, according to the Haitian police report obtained by the Herald.

Palacios entered Haiti on June 4, 2021, according to the police investigation, and was part of the four-member Delta team that allegedly penetrated the president’s bedroom. Two of the team members were killed by Haitian police.

The police report lays out the alleged roles of many of the individuals in custody, including the Colombian mercenaries who had moved out of a boutique hotel and into the home of another key suspect, a convicted drug trafficker, four days before the killing. What the report doesn’t do is resolve many of the core mysteries surrounding the attack, including who financed it and why.

The arrest warrant for Palacios was issued almost immediately after police confirmed that they had killed two Colombian mercenaries. Haiti police in their investigative report surmised that being “the only black Colombian on the team” enabled Palacios to easily blend in with the population, allowing him to escape.

Palacios and the other Colombian commandos had been recruited to provide security in Haiti by a Miami-area security firm, Counter Terrorism Unit, or CTU.

Among those who remain on the run are a former Haitian government official in the anti-corruption unit, Joseph Felix Badio; a former diplomat, Ashkard Pierre; and Rodolphe Jaar, a convicted drug trafficker.

Miami Herald reporter Jay Weaver and McClatchy Washington Bureau Senior National Security Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.

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