The assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse plunged the Caribbean country into upheaval Wednesday — a nation that was already in crisis over alarmingly high violence, poverty and political instability.
Haiti’s security forces Thursday continued battling a group of gunmen suspected of killing the president in his home overnight and leaving him and his wife, Martine Moïse, critically wounded. So far security forces have killed four of the “mercenaries” linked to the assassination, Haiti officials said.
“The pursuit of the mercenaries continues,” said Léon Charles, director of Haiti’s National Police, on Wednesday night. “Their fate is fixed: They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested.”
Moïse’s death comes against the backdrop of worsening political instability, gang violence, inflation and high coronavirus infection rates in Haiti. These troubles also come as the nation tries to recover from the devastation of a 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016.
Early Wednesday, a group of “unidentified” assault-weapon-wielding gunmen entered Moïse’s private home on the outskirts of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and fatally wounded the president, according to Haiti’s now acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph.
Carl Henry Destin, a Haitian judge, told Haitian newspaper, the Le Nouvelliste, that a maid and another member of the household staff had been tied up by the attackers as they made their way to the president’s bedroom.
The president was shot at least 12 times with both large-calibre guns and smaller nine-millimetre weapons, he said.
Moïse’s daughter was also at home during the attack but hid in a bedroom and escaped unharmed, Destin added.
There is still no information about who might have carried out the assassination, but the gunmen spoke English and Spanish, Joseph said. The majority of the Haitian population speaks French or Haitian Creole.
After the attack, the first lady was airlifted to Miami, Fla., for treatment where she was in a stable condition, Joseph added.
The assassination was carried out by “well-trained professional commandos'” and “foreign mercenaries” who were masquerading as U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, according to Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the U.S.
The DEA has an office in the Haitian capital to assist the government in counternarcotics programs, according to the U.S. Embassy.
A resident who lives near the president’s home told the Associated Press she heard the attack.
“I thought there was an earthquake, there was so much shooting,” the woman said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears for her life. “The president had problems with many people, but this is not how we expected him to die. This is something I wouldn’t wish on any Haitian.”
Haiti’s police and army managed to track down the presumed assassins and were engaged in a fierce battle with them late on Wednesday night, officials said.
Four people suspected of being involved in the assassination were killed by police and two others were arrested, Haiti’s police chief said.
Charles added that three police officers who had been held hostage were freed.
Moïse’s death has generated confusion about who is now the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.
Though Moïse is dead, his party retains power. Joseph, appointed by Moïse on an interim basis as prime minister in April after the previous prime minister resigned, controls Haiti for now.
The 1987 constitution says the head of the supreme court should take over. Meanwhile, amendments that are not unanimously recognized say it should it be the prime minister, or the Parliament should elect a president.
But complicating matters further, the head of the supreme court died last month due to COVID-19 amid a surge in infections in one of the few countries worldwide yet to start a vaccination campaign.
There is no sitting Parliament as Haiti failed to hold legislative elections in late 2019 amid political unrest.
And Moïse had just this week appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to take over from interim prime minister Joseph, though he had yet to be sworn in when the president was killed.
Henry, however, told Le Nouvelliste that he did not consider Joseph the legitimate prime minister anymore and he should revert to the role of foreign minister.
“I think we need to speak. Claude was supposed to stay in the government I was going to have,” Henry was quoted as saying.
The Dominican Republic said on Wednesday it was closing its border with Haiti and bolstering security amid fears of a breakdown in order in the country.
The United Nations Security Council was due to hold a closed-door meeting on the situation in Haiti on Thursday.
Since taking over, Joseph has also declared Haiti in a “state of siege” for 15 days. During this time, security forces have increased rights to conduct searches and seizures and to detain persons of interest. Some civil rights have also been suspended, including the right to protest and to hold large gatherings.
Why was Moïse so controversial?
Moïse had been in office for four-and-a-half years before he was killed.
When he first took office, he pledged to strengthen institutions, fight corruption and bring more investment and jobs to the nation. However, critics accused him of growing increasingly authoritarian.
He said his five-year term was supposed to end in 2022. But his critics, including human rights groups and clergy members, insisted that his term was up this past February.
When he refused to vacate the presidency, protests swelled as many demanded his resignation. Moïse said he planned to modify the Haitian constitution to allow him to stay in office even longer.
Earlier this year, he dissolved the Parliament, saying most lawmakers’ terms had ended. He also forced three supreme court justices into early retirement.
Moise pursued sweeping constitutional changes that would increase presidential power. He planned a vote on a referendum, as well as his replacement, in September.
Moïse lost the trust of the Haitian people early, said Tamanisha John, a Caribbean studies scholar at Florida International University, in an interview with Reuters.
What has Canada, international community said?
The assassination drew shock and condemnation from leaders in Latin America, Europe and the U.S., along with calls for calm and unity in the troubled Caribbean nation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined world leaders on Wednesday in condemning the assassination of Moïse.
In a statement, Trudeau said he was shocked and saddened to learn of the assassination.
“We wish a full recovery to first lady Martine Moïse who was injured in the attack, and our thoughts are with her as she mourns the loss of her husband,” the statement read.
“Canada stands with the people of Haiti during these difficult and uncertain times. Our two countries are united by a strong friendship, built on enduring people-to-people ties. Canada has a deep and longstanding commitment to Haiti, and we are ready to offer any assistance it needs.
Canada also released an advisory against travel to Haiti on Wednesday calling the situation in the country “volatile” and warning it could “worsen quickly.”
Members of Canada’s Haitian community, largely based in French-speaking Quebec, said they are now becoming increasingly concerned for the future of the Caribbean country.
“It was a real shock because we didn’t expect that, and well, it was horrible because it’s not a very democratic way to get rid of a president,” said Marjorie Villefranche, the executive director of La Maison d’Haiti — a Haitian community group based in Montreal.
According to Villefranche, Moise’s assassination now leaves an even deeper vacuum in power and politics in a country already wracked by political and economic instability.
— with files from Global News’ David Lao, the Associated Press and Reuters