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Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated and his wife wounded during an armed attack in the early hours Wednesday at their private residence above the hills of Port-au-Prince, plunging the Caribbean nation, already in the throes of a political crisis, into fresh uncertainty about its leadership.
Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who first told his fellow Haitians about the president’s assassination, said he is in charge and that the country is now under martial law.
He also sought to reassure the international community that he’s in control, meeting with their representatives in Port-au-Prince as the U.S. appealed for calm and Washington said it still hopes to see long overdue elections held this year for parliament, local offices and the presidency.
Late Wednesday, Leon Charles, the interim Haiti national police chief, announced that police had encircled the killers and were currently engaged in a gun battle. He said police killed four of the suspected assailants, whom he referred to as “mercenaries” and “assassins,” and arrested two others.
“At the moment I am speaking to you now the police is engaged in a battle,” he said, adding that the national police are “determined to do their job” of protecting the population.
In a statement earlier in the day, Joseph said the attack occurred around 1 a.m. Wednesday, and some of the unidentified assailants spoke Spanish. The head of state, the statement said, was “fatally injured.”
First lady Martine Moïse was flown out of the country Wednesday afternoon to Miami and taken to Jackson Health System’s Ryder Trauma Center.
Hours after the assassination, Joseph declared martial law throughout Haiti, issuing an executive order.
In a press conference, Joseph said that as head of the government “who is still in function,” he and other members of the government held a special meeting of Haiti’s security apparatus and decided to “declare a state of siege throughout the entire country.”
The assailants apparently claimed to be agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to videos taken by people in the area of the president’s home. Moïse, 53, lived in Pelerin 5, a neighborhood just above the hills in the capital.
On the videos, someone with an American accent is heard yelling in English over a megaphone, “DEA operation. Everybody stand down. DEA operation. Everybody back up, stand down.”
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Sources told the Miami Herald that the assailants were not with the DEA.
“These were mercenaries,” a high-ranking Haitian government official said.
Biden administration officials denied DEA involvement. A State Department official called the claim “absolutely false.”
Moïse was being protected by his own personal guards, who are part of a specialized unit of the Haitian National Police assigned to the presidential palace. But sources say there have always been concerns about his security being inadequate. Last August the head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, Monferrier Dorval, was gunned down not far from the president’s private residence. No one has been charged with the killing.
During Wednesday morning’s assault, Pelerin residents reported hearing high-powered rounds fired with precision, and seeing men dressed in black running through the neighborhoods. There were also reports of a grenade going off and drones being used.
The president’s death will throw Haiti into further disarray. Since coming into office in 2017, Moïse had faced mounting protests over his governance amid a deepening political and constitutional crisis, questions about his legitimacy and accusations that he used armed gangs to remain in power. He also was accused of corruption as part of a far-reaching report into how multiple Haitian governments spent nearly $2 billion in aid from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program.
The amended constitution of Haiti says in the case where there is a presidential vacancy in the fourth year of the term, the National Assembly has to meet within 60 days to elect a new provisional president for the remainder of the term.
But there is no parliament in Haiti to form a National Assembly.
“There is no constitutional answer to this situation,” said Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister and legal expert.
There are only 10 elected officials in the country, all senators. Joseph, the current interim prime minister, has not been ratified by the country’s parliament and has resigned. The new prime minister Moïse appointed this week, Ariel Henry, has yet to be sworn in. There isn’t even a president of the Supreme Court: René Sylvestre, the president, died last week from COVID-19 and the oldest member of the court currently heads a shadow government put in place earlier this year by the opposition.
In a possible power play, some Haitian government critics are discussing installing Joseph Lambert, the head of the 10-member Senate, as provisional president.
This is not the first time a president of Haiti has been assassinated in office. In 1915, President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, was murdered. Although this is a different era, Haiti, the first free republic founded by former slaves, is in the midst of several crises: violent armed gangs, rising hunger and child malnutrition, and economic disarray.
“The future is totally uncertain,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born longtime political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Without a local solution involving a government of national unity there is a real danger that the country could descend into chaos.
“The question is whether the opposition and the government are prepared to compromise,” Fatton added. “Without this compromise the door to a possible U.N. intervention will open.”
Haitians awoke to the news Wednesday morning in shock. Streets in the capital, normally teeming with vehicles and public buses, were empty and void of traffic. The country’s main airport, Toussaint Louverture International Airport, was closed except for diplomatic and humanitarian flights, airport director general Irving Mehu said.
The road leading to the entrance of the neighborhood of Pelerin, where the president’s residence is located, was blocked off.
In his statement, Joseph condemned what he described as an “odious, inhuman and barbaric act,” and has called a special security meeting. He called on the population to remain calm.
“The security situation in the country is under the control of the Haitian National Police and the Haitian Armed Forces,” the statement said.
Moïse’s assassination comes exactly three years to the date that his government, under then Prime Minister Guy Lafontant, announced a controversial hike on fuel prices.
Less than 24 hours after the increases went into effect violent demonstrations engulfed Port-au-Prince, forcing U.S. airlines to cancel flights. It was the start of what’s been referred to as “peyi locke” or country on lockdown, a paralyzing economic blockade that went on for months, and forced schools and businesses to close.
The attack happened a day after Moïse named a new prime minister, Henry, to take charge as head of the government and prepare the country for general elections and a controversial referendum to adopt a new constitution that was widely considered illegal.
Henry’s whereabouts were unknown Wednesday as politicians on all sides began positioning themselves to prepare to challenge Joseph’s claim to leadership.
Moïse had been ruling by decree since January 2020, and had been under pressure by the Biden administration to hold presidential and long-overdue legislative elections before the end of the year.
The U.S., which has supported Moïse, had increasingly criticized some of his decisions, such as the creation of a secret intelligence agency and a decree redefining common protest practices like burning tires as terrorism. He was also criticized for firing three Supreme Court justices, whom the opposition had singled out as possible leaders of a transition, and designating three replacements outside of the law.
Hours after the assassination, President Joe Biden condemned what he called a “heinous” act and offered U.S. assistance.
“We are shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the attack on First Lady Martine Moïse of Haiti,” Biden said in a statement. “We condemn this heinous act, and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing Wednesday afternoon that the U.S. is ready to offer the Haitian government any help with the investigation into the assassination.
We have been in regular contact with the acting prime minister, Claude Joseph. We are prepared to respond to requests for assistance,” Price said. “Our ambassador to Haiti, [Michele] Sison, has been in regular contact with a range of Haitian officials. She has spoken to the acting Director General of the Haitian National Police.”
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti said it would close on Wednesday, citing an “ongoing” security situation.
The assassination was immediately condemned by some U.S. lawmakers and regional leaders, including President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic and Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who is the new chair of the 15-member Caribbean Community regional group known as CARICOM.
“We regret and condemn the assassination of the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse and the first lady, Martine Moïse,” Abinader said in a tweet. “This crime undermines the democratic order of Haiti and the region. Our condolences to his family and the Haitian people.”
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, activated a plan to close off its border with its neighbor and increase naval patrols on the waters near Haiti.
Dominican Foreign Minister Roberto Alvarez called on “all Haitians to come together and, based on the rule of law, work toward a peaceful solution to this traumatic ordeal.
“The international community must stand by Haiti’s side indefinitely and dedicate all efforts necessary to bring about a broad, concerted and sustained dialogue, involving all Haitian sectors, including its diaspora, leading to a social and political pact, as well as free, fair and transparent elections,” he told the Herald. “The Dominican government is ready to play its part in bringing about a stable, democratic and prosperous Haiti. It should be emphatically clear, however, that the Dominican Republic will never be the solution to Haiti’s misfortune.”
Browne noted that it was just Tuesday evening that leaders of CARICOM expressed concerns about Haiti, where a new wave of armed gang violence has forced the displacement of more than 16,000 Haitians from poor, working-class neighborhoods since June 1 and provoking a growing humanitarian crisis.
“It is regrettable that President Moïse fell prey to the violence and paid the ultimate price,” Browne said. “We hope that his assassination does not fuel heightened violence and instability, but it would serve as a sober reflection for the Haitian people to pursue a sustainable path to peace and prosperity.”
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres condemned the assassination in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“The Secretary-General condemns in the strongest terms the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of the Republic of Haiti. The perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice,”’ the statement said. “The Secretary-General extends his deepest condolences to the people and Government of Haiti and the family of the late President.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, the Michigan Democrat who co-chairs the House Haiti Caucus and is member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, offered his condolences to Moïse’s family and said he was praying for the swift recovery of Martine Moïse following the “heinous act.”
He called on the Biden administration to pursue a new policy toward Haiti “that puts the will and well-being of the Haitian people first.”
“The murder of Jovenel Moïse is a devastating if not shocking example of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled. For months, violent actors have terrorized the Haitian people with impunity while the international community — the United States included, I fear — has failed to heed their cries to change course and support a Haitian-led democratic transition,” Levin said.
The congressman added that Joseph’s “claim that the Haitian national police and armed forces have the country’s security in hand strikes one as absurd in the immediate aftermath of the brazen murder of the de facto president and just two days after Moïse had announced Joseph’s own replacement as prime minister with no consultation or political support.”
“It is essential to bringing about true peace and security and preventing more atrocities like that which occurred this morning,” Levin added.
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for a full investigation of the killing, and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida urged the Biden administration to help in the local probe.
“I urge President Biden to direct the Department of State to support the Haitian National police and help bring the murderers to justice,” Rubio said. “We cannot allow this cowardly, evil attack to bring even more hardship to the people of Haiti and further destabilize their country.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Michael Wilner, Francesca Chambers and Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story.