PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The arrest of 15 Colombians in the death of Haitian President Jovenel Moise has shocked many Haitians, already in shock at the midnight assassination of the country’s leader. Less surprising, even as police released photos of the detained foreigners and the panoply of weapons allegedly used in the attack on the president’s home, is the presence in Haiti of heavily armed former foreign soldiers and military personnel. private security contractors.
Over the past four years, Haiti has faced waves of anti-government protests against Moise’s leadership and the dismay of its weak national police force. He has seen a growing number of private security contractors and soldiers for hire from among his own forces.
The growing presence of these makeshift soldiers coincided with the election of Moise in 2016 after a tumultuous presidential ballot that had to be renewed due to allegations of fraud. They also coincided with the end of a long UN peacekeeping mission, as business owners and Moise could no longer rely on so-called UN peacekeepers for protection and lacked confidence. in Haiti’s own police force.
This trend worried Haitian observers and the UN, which had made strengthening the police a key objective of its 15-year presence in the country in the wake of increasing gang violence and political instability. .
“With the disintegration of the (Haitian National Police), which had its own internal divisions, until the explosion of gangs, which I now call ‘armed militias’, … the next logical step is the escalation in an arms race to secure even more firepower and expertise than what can be found in the local market: foreign mercenaries, ”said William O’Neill, a Haitian security expert and international lawyer for the rights that helped rebuild the country’s police force.
The first recent sighting of foreign security contractors took place in May 2018, during a Haitian Flag Day celebration in the city of Arcahaie. Three unidentified and heavily armed foreign security officers were seen in the president’s security service. They were not members of the Haitian National Police, a former senior Haitian police official told the Miami Herald, recalling the incident.
Three months later, as businesses were looted in what has come to be known as ‘peyi lòk’ – or country in lockdown – business owners in Port-au-Prince began to consider private entrepreneurs from abroad to protect their assets and investments.
Six months later, anti-government protesters clashed with police in protests and people took to social media to share photos of rebranded police vehicles belonging to presidential palace guards with M-60 machine guns and guns photos of individuals who appeared to be foreigners standing in the midst of Haitian agents. Among them was a former member of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, hired under a Haitian government contract.
The then chief of police, Michel-Ange Gédéon, then went on the radio to denounce the presence of military equipment, saying that no new specialized unit within the Haitian National Police had been created and that it was the first time he had seen the new equipment.
Three months later, Gedeon’s forces arrested five Americans and two other foreign nationals claiming to be on a “government mission” after they were found with a cache of automatic rifles and pistols on the streets of Port-au-Prince.
The men did not say which government hired them. But at one point, they told the agents that “their boss would call our boss.” One of the arrested men, Christopher Osman, was a former Navy SEAL.
It was later revealed that one of the arrested men had previously worked in Haiti as a private security contractor.
Facing charges of illegal possession of weapons and other crimes in Haiti, the group was promptly taken out of the country with the assistance of the United States Embassy and the Department of State, with approval. of the Minister of Justice of Haiti.
At a press conference a few months later, Moise was publicly asked to respond to reports that he had hired private military contractors to bolster his security amid escalating violent protests and demands for resignation. Moise replied that they were there to conduct a security assessment.
Moise had ruled by decree since January 2020, when he issued a decree in March declaring a state of emergency, allowing the Haitian government to contract with foreign entities if needed to help deal with insecurity. growing in the country. The move follows the deaths of five police officers in a botched anti-gang raid on a seaside slum in the capital, and fellow police officers who angrily took to the streets to protest the killings.
Now, retired Colombian soldiers are suspected of having participated in the assassination of Moise. Of 28 people suspected of having committed the murder, 26 of them are Colombian nationals and two are naturalized Americans of Haitian origin, Haiti’s acting director of police, Léon Charles, said Thursday evening.
Colombian authorities said Thursday that at least two of the Colombians involved in the assassination of the Haitian president are former members of the country’s military.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano said the South American nation had received an official request from Interpol, the international police agency, for information on Colombian suspects.
Molano said he called on the Colombian police and army to work with the Haitian authorities “in the face of the alleged participation of Colombians in this heinous act”.
He added that Colombia had created a team of experts to help with the investigation.
The Colombian army chief also declared that he had “received a clear order from the President of the Republic Ivan Duque Marquez that we are prepared to provide the Colombian National Police with all information regarding the events and where these two former members of the public force were involved, in this case the national army.
On Friday, Duque announced that he was sending a team from Colombia to Haiti to help the authorities. The White House also announced that a team from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security was traveling to Port-au-Prince to provide assistance.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the Haitian government, currently headed by interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, has asked for help with investigations and security.
“We will send senior FBI and DHS officials to Port-au-Prince as soon as possible to assess the situation and how we may be able to help,” she said.
Haitian Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond said the government has asked the United States to freeze the American assets of anyone who participated in or planned the murder.
The use of private security forces in Haiti dates back to the mid to late 1990s, when there was an explosive growth in national private security companies, owned and operated by Haitians, O’Neill said.
O’Neill said such forces have always been of concern to the UN
“A few were legitimate and fulfilled useful services, but many were not,” he said. “They indeed became private police forces, which worried us a lot at the UN at the time because the government, with the help of the UN, was trying to create for the first time in history Haiti was a professional police service that was not politicized. or under anyone’s control.
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