Five days before a South Florida woman was arrested in Miami for shipping high-caliber weapons to one of Haiti’s largest and most violent gangs, she got an ominous warning: “They will catch you.”
The October 2021 warning came from inside Haiti’s National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, where Germine Joly, a notorious gang leader more commonly known by the nickname “Yonyon” was an inmate. Joly had just received a text with photos of weapons buried underneath clothes inside a blue barrel from Eliande Tunis, a Pompano Beach resident who had been managing the gang’s arms and ammunition purchases from gun dealers in Florida.
The text was among 3,415 messages Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Seifert highlighted Thursday in opening statements at the start of Joly’s trial in federal court in Washington, D.C. Joly and Tunis, according to the prosecutor, also held 32 hours of phone conversations between them while Joly was incarcerated. Their conversations also occurred while 17 missionaries from an Ohio-based charity, Christian Aid Ministries, were being held captive by Joly’s 400 Mawozo gang on the eastern outskirts of the capital.
Although Joly is not on trial for the kidnapping of the missionaries in Haiti in October 2021, his role coordinating the brazen abduction is featured prominently in his weapons-smuggling conspiracy trial. As the first gang leader connected to the kidnapping to be extradited to the U.S., Joly is charged with 48 counts relating to violating U.S. export laws, weapons purchases and international money laundering. The most serious of the charges, violating U.S. export laws, carries up to 20 years in prison.
On Wednesday, co-defendant Tunis pleaded guilty to the entire 48-count indictment rather than go to trial. Though her attorney sked for a sentence between 51 and 63 months, the government is pushing for life imprisonment with a fine between $50,000 and $500,000. Two other defendants, Jocelyn Dor and Walder St. Louis, will also avoid trials. Dor pleaded guilty to six charges, including violating weapons export laws, as part of a plea agreement, and St. Louis will testify on behalf of the government against Joly. It remains unclear what charges he is pleading guilty to.
In laying out their weapons-smuggling case against Joly, who has waived his right for a jury and will be tried by the judge, Seifert described 400 Mawozo’s criminal business as a cycle of taking hostages for ransom, transferring the money to the U.S. to buy guns and having them smuggled into Haiti. Those guns, often powerful enough to pierce walls and police vehicles, were then used to grab more hostages and take control of more territory inside the impoverished country.
As part of the government’s case, prosecutors showed a video of Joly’s birthday celebration inside the Haiti prison. He was wearing designer Fendi clothes, and during the clip, he said, his designer outfit was “worth thousands of dollars and bought in the U.S.”
The image, which went viral in Haiti at the time and during the missionaries’ 10th day in captivity, is far different from the portrait Joly’s defense presented during its presentation before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates.
Just a farmer
Attorney Elita Amato said Joly, 30, was just a farmer from Haiti’s rural countryside and not the dangerous gangster who directed arms purchases from behind prison walls. He was raised by “a nurturing family” of aunts and uncles in Haiti, she said, and given land to grow corn, peas and beans when he was old enough.
He was also a commodities trader, Amato asserted, describing him as someone who gave back to his country by providing land for farmers to work. He owned tracts of land across Haiti and had relatives in the 400 Mawozo gang.
Amato said Joly had “limited access” to the outside from prison and did not direct gun purchases. As she spoke, Joly, wearing a black suit and tie, listened in with the help of interpreters.
But Seifert said Joly was very much in control of 400 Mawozo’s criminal operations despite his imprisonment. He had access to multiple unmonitored cell phones while in the National Penitentiary, which he used to direct operations outside, including how much ransom to demand from families of kidnapped victims, where to transfer the money and what guns and ammunition to purchase from Florida gun dealers, she said.
He was able to do so, the prosecutor said, because he had help from the likes of Tunis, a member of the gang living in South Florida who managed the arms purchases using two straw buyers, Jocelyn Dor and Walder St. Louis, who falsified purchase documents and shipped the weapons to Haiti. The guns were sometimes dismantled and hidden underneath clothing, shoes and Gatorade. Once, a shipment was marked “seafood.”
Those guns, the prosecution asserts, were purchased under orders from Joly with part of ransom money from kidnapped Americans. During one five-month period in which 400 Mawozo abducted several U.S. citizens at gunpoint as they traveled in its Croix-des-Bouquets territory, there were at least 21 wire transfers meant for gun purchases, prosecutors said. The money was sent from Haiti to the U.S., between May and October 2021, and totaled $37,500.
The money was sometimes broken up into smaller amounts to avoid suspicion, and Joly, prosecutors said, kept track of all the transactions. Some of the money was transferred within hours of Joly issuing directions about the weapons.
The money went to Tunis as well as Dor and St. Louis in the U.S., the prosecution said.
Among the guns Joly told Tunis to buy was a Barrett M82A1, .50-cal. sniper rifle, powerful enough to pierce walls. Joly, in one of his exchanges with Tunis, said he could use the high-powered rifle “to do bad things.”
“These are big guns. You only need bullets to wipe out the whole country,” he said.
In their correspondence, Joly and Tunis didn’t just decide on weapons purchases and wire transfers, the prosecution said, Joly also boasted about kidnappings carried out by his gang.
In one instance, he told her, “We held him hostage right away.... We already cashed in.”
‘I’m the king of kings’
Among the government’s witnesses, some of whom will have their identities shielded, are experts on weapons and the U.S. gun control export laws. The government will also put on the witness stand a Floridian who was the shipper of the guns into Haiti. Prosecutors said he will testify that he picked up barrels from Tunis’ house and put them on boats bound for Haiti. When he called her to complain about the weight of one of the barrels, Tunis said, “It’s rice.”
Sources in Haiti have long contended that Joly has relatives inside the gang who kept his No. 2, Lanmò Sanjou, also known as Joseph Wilson, in check as he received ransom payments and extortion payoffs.
While the gang was temporarily weakened after Joly’s May 2022 extradition to the United States, it has regained strength, raiding businesses in the Croix-des-Bouquets area and clashing with rival gangs. The violence led to the deaths of two children on Christmas Day when they were killed along with two adults when the gang carried out a deadly attack.
The day the missionaries were stopped at gunpoint as they returned from visiting a nearby orphanage in Ganthier, Joly was in prison. Still, he and Lanmò Sanjou spoke on the phone 10 times that day, Seifert said during her opening statement.
Lanmò Sanjou, whose name translates in English to “Death doesn’t know when it’s coming,” conducted the ransom negotiations. During at least one instance of a kidnapping, he told the victim, “Look me in the eyes. I am the one holding you,” Seifert said.
Seifert played a clip showing Lanmò Sanjou saying, “If I don’t get what I need, you see these Americans? I’d rather kill them. As I was coming here, I left a big weapon pointed at each of their heads.”
Lanmò Sanjou eventually demanded $1 million each for the hostages, which included five children. He didn’t get the full $17 million, but a ransom was paid, sources told the Miami Herald. The missionaries were freed after spending 61 days in captivity and their release was made to look like an escape.
Lanmò Sanjou is among seven leaders of five Haiti-based gangs who is wanted by the FBI’s Miami field office for the kidnappings of U.S. citizens in Haiti since 2021. Seifert said he ran the hostage-taking for 400 Mawozo and also directed what guns to buy. “Whenever we have to buy guns, Lanmò would come up with the money,” Joly said in a communication.
But in another call and text message, Seifert said, Joly also made his role clear: He boasted “I’m king now. I’m the king of kings.”