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Mystery surrounds suspected mastermind of Haiti presidential assassination plot

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/12/2021 Widlore Merancourt, Samantha Schmidt, Rachel Pannett
Haitian authorities say that a man with long-standing ties to Florida played a major role in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, pictured. © Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg Haitian authorities say that a man with long-standing ties to Florida played a major role in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, pictured.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A Haitian man who has been arrested on suspicion of playing a leading role in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse appears to have presented himself as a potential leader of the impoverished Caribbean nation for as long as a decade.

A YouTube video posted in 2011 suggests Christian Sanon can provide “Leadership for Haiti,” and a now-defunct website called “Haiti Lives Matter” lists him among a coalition that’s “chosen to lead” the country. A friend in Florida says he was planning to run for president this year.

Authorities here now say Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63, a Haitian man with long-standing ties to Florida, was aiming to assume the country’s presidency. They say he recruited some of the alleged assailants accused of killing Moïse last week through a Venezuelan security firm based in the United States by telling them they would be his bodyguards. Moïse was killed inside his home early on the morning of July 7.

Police say suspect in killing of Haiti’s Moïse planned to assume presidency

Sanon couldn’t be reached for comment, and it wasn’t clear whether he had an attorney. Haitian authorities haven’t presented evidence against him, and many questions remain about the alleged plot. Chief among them: How a man who filed for bankruptcy in Florida in 2013, listing himself as a church pastor, could be behind what authorities have described as a commando operation in which more than 20 people have now been arrested.

Further complicating the aftermath of the assassination, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration confirmed Monday that one of the suspects arrested by Haiti last week was a non-active informant.

Haitians have expressed doubts about their government’s claims — and are wondering aloud whether presidential guards played a role in the assassination. It’s unclear whether the assailants at the palace faced any resistance.

Haitian officials have not said there was a link between the guards and the attack. But Colombian authorities said Monday that a senior figure in Moïse’s security detail took several trips through Bogotá in recent months. Dimitri Hérard, head of security at the presidential palace, traveled through the Colombian capital to Ecuador, Panama and the Dominican Republic between January and late May, they said.

Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s national police, said authorities are investigating what those trips entailed and are asking police in the other countries to do the same.

One of the men arrested by Haitian authorities in connection with the assassination plot previously worked as an informant for the DEA. The U.S. federal agency didn’t name the individual, saying only in a statement that the person had “at times” been a confidential source. The organization stressed that the informant was not actively working with the DEA at the time of the assassination.

The DEA said that the informant reached out to the organization after the assassination and was urged to surrender to local authorities. The person "provided information to the Haitian government that assisted in the surrender and arrest of the suspect and one other individual,” the DEA said. "DEA is aware of reports that President Moïse’s assassins yelled ‘DEA’ at the time of their attack. These individuals were not acting on behalf of DEA.”

Police last week arrested two Haitian Americans who surrendered to the police; they allegedly worked as interpreters for the commando team.

Senior FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials arrived in Haiti on Sunday to discuss how the United States might assist after the killing.

Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said Monday that the department would continue to support the Haitian government in its investigation of the assassination. The United States “will also investigate whether there were any violations of U.S. criminal law in connection with this matter," he said.

Rachèle Magloire, a well-known filmmaker in Haiti, called the focus on Sanon a “red herring.”

“Police are trying to make people look away from the real questions about how these people entered the residency of the president without any of the guards being wounded,” she said.

Former senator and presidential candidate Steven Irvenson Benoit, a Moïse critic, accused the president’s guards of a role in the assassination in a radio interview last week. Called for questioning Monday by prosecutors, he was accompanied by about a dozen activists and politicians. Alongside a rara band playing drums, a crowd outside the prosecutor’s office chanted “Arrest Dimitri Hérard!” and criticized the “politicization” of the investigation.

Hérard declined to comment Monday.

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Authorities say a raid of Sanon’s home uncovered a cache of ammunition, including about 20 boxes of 9mm and 12mm bullets, six pistol holsters, two cars and license plates from the Dominican Republic. They said Sunday that investigators also found a DEA cap. In videos alleged to be from the morning of the assassination, the assailants claimed the attack was a “DEA operation.”

Sanon describes himself as a physician and director of a philanthropic foundation that operated in Haiti and the Dominican Republican in a 2013 U.S. bankruptcy filing in Florida, records show. He said his income was $5,000 a month.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Health said the department could not find any evidence that anyone with Sanon’s name was ever licensed to practice medicine in Florida. Sanon reported that he was part owner of a humanitarian foundation called the Organisation Rome Haiti, as well as an evangelical church and telecommunications company based in Tabarre, Haiti.


Video: 17 suspects detained in Haiti assassination (Associated Press)

Economist Parnell Duverger, a retired professor at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he has known Sanon since 2016, when a mutual friend introduced them because they shared an interest in economic development in Haiti. Duverger, a Haitian American, had crafted a 30-year-plan to transform Haiti into a developed economy.

“He fell in love with the project, so he wanted me to continue advising him on that plan, and I did,” Duverger said. “From time to time he would call me and ask me questions about the financial problems of Haiti … how to solve this, how to solve that.”

They stayed in touch over the years, and in late 2020, Sanon told him he had plans to run for political office in Haiti. Initially, his goal was to become prime minister. But about five months ago, he told Duverger he wanted to run for president in the next elections — and he wanted Duverger’s help as an economic adviser.

“I thought honestly that he had a lack of understanding of how Haitian society operates,” Duverger said. But “as a person I believe that he was sincere about transforming Haiti into a better economy and a better society.”

When Duverger learned of Sanon’s arrest, he wrote and circulated a letter defending him as “a good doctor who also doubles up as a pastor and leader of a vast network of about 300 Christian churches throughout the United States.”

He said he doesn’t believe the government’s allegations. “Politics has become a brutal sport in that country, and you’d be surprised how fast you can be a victim of character assassination.”

The 2011 YouTube video presents Sanon as a potential leader of Haiti. The speaker denounces the country’s leaders as corrupt plunderers of the country’s resources.

“With me in power, you are going to have to tell me: ‘What are you doing with my uranium?'” the speaker says. “What are you going to do with the oil that we have in the country? What are you going to do with the gold?”

Haiti has only limited natural resources. The Washington Post was unable to verify the authenticity of the video. Its speaker matches an image of Sanon released by Haitian authorities.

Assassination of Haitian president becomes complex international web

An archived page of the “Haiti Lives Matter” website lists several members of Sanon’s “transitional government,” including academics, a business executive and a senior member of Haiti’s permanent mission to the United Nations.

One of the individuals named on the site, reached by The Post for comment, said they had never heard of Sanon and suggested their details appeared to have been clipped from an old résumé. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid repeating details of what they said was a falsified account of their involvement in any plot to install a new government.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Haitian citizens hold up passports as they gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti on July 10 asking for asylum after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. © Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images Haitian citizens hold up passports as they gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti on July 10 asking for asylum after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

“The whole thing is stupid. You’re not going to become president like this,” the person said.

Haiti’s U.N. delegation didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Visual timeline: The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse

Haitian police say two other people have been implicated in the alleged scheme as “intellectual authors” of the assassination, but they have not named them.

Colombian police said Monday that 18 Colombians have been taken into custody by Haitian authorities in connection with the assassination. Three other Colombians suspected of involvement are dead.

One of the Colombians killed in Haiti was Mauricio Javier Romero, a 21-year veteran of the Colombian military.

Romero’s wife of more than two decades, Giovanna Romero Dussán, said she was next to her husband in early June when he received a call from a fellow former soldier, Duberney Capador Giraldo, inviting him to work on a long-term “project.”

“What we knew was very little,” Romero said. “It was a good job, an honest job … an opportunity to save up money and pay off some debts.”

She said the 45-year-old father of two left Colombia a few days later and flew to the Dominican Republic, where Romero expected him to stay for about six months. After those six months, he planned to decide whether it was worth staying longer.

In WhatsApp calls, he described work that sounded similar to that of a bodyguard. “There were lots of important people coming and going, and he had to make sure they were okay,” she said. “I never knew of any names.”

When she learned of the assassination in Haiti, Romero didn’t think much of it. Then she heard that Colombians had been captured. Her husband wasn’t responding to her messages, and she began to worry.

On Friday, Colombia’s defense ministry identified both her husband and Capador Giraldo as Colombians killed in the attack.

Giovanna Romero is hoping to bring his body to Colombia. She described him as an honest man, a rule follower, a “perfectionist.”

“What has hurt me the most about the whole situation is the image that has been created of him,” she said. “My husband was not an assassin.”

Pannett reported from Sydney. Schmidt reported from Washington. Shawn Boburg, Devlin Barrett and Dalton Bennett in Washington and Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.

Read more:

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse assassinated at his home by unidentified gunmen

What to know about Haiti

‘Nothing is working’: Haiti’s chaos seen from behind the locked gates of one man’s home

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