Situation Update - Assassination of president deepens Haiti’s political crisis Anvil News & Updates
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SITUATION UPDATE 13 July, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Assassination of Haiti’s president

Leanne Self

Assassination of Haiti's president

Summary

  • On 7 July, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his residence in a suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince by gunmen alleged to be "mercenaries", mainly from Colombia.
  • The country is under a "state of siege" until at least 22 July while the authorities attempt to locate five suspects that are still at large. At least 20 others have been arrested, including a Haitian national they believe is a "key suspect", and three have been killed.
  • Colombia and the US have responded to Haiti's calls for assistance by sending police officers and senior agents to assist with an investigation into Moïse's death and general security. The authorities are yet to confirm a motivation for the assassination.
  • While major unrest has not yet materialised following the assassination, powerful gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier has warned that his members would “mobilise” to protest against the attack.
  • Three individuals — Claude Joseph, Ariel Henry and Joseph Lambert — are vying to lead Haiti amid a power vacuum with no working parliament. The US, the UN and Haiti’s elections minister believe Claude Joseph should retain his role as interim prime minister until the scheduled 26 September general elections.
  • Due to a recent surge in gang violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis, civil society organisations warn that free and fair elections later this year would be impossible.

Situation

During the early morning hours of Wednesday, 7 July, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was shot and killed by gunmen at his private residence in Pétion-Ville, a suburb located in the hills south-east of the capital Port-au-Prince. First Lady Martine Moïse was critically injured in the attack but is said to be in a stable condition at a hospital in the US state of Florida. Hours after Moïse’s death, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph declared 15 days of national mourning and a "state of siege", the second of three levels of national emergency, until at least 22 July. The measure gives authorities the power to enter homes, ban gatherings deemed a threat to order and take all measures considered necessary to locate and arrest the attackers.

Claude Joseph described the assassination as “a highly coordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group” of “mercenaries”, adding that the attackers spoke in both Spanish and English. The Haitian authorities have accused 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans of being behind the assassination and according to Haiti's ambassador to the US, Bocchit Edmond, the assailants falsely claimed to be members of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as they stormed the president’s home.

In the hours that followed the attack, authorities launched operations in the capital to locate the suspected assailants and as of 12 July, 20 of the suspects had been apprehended and three had been killed, with the remaining five still at large. General Luis Fernando Navarro Jiménez of Colombia’s military forces identified 17 of the Colombian assailants as former soldiers and the two Haitian Americans said that they were only acting as translators in a plan that originally intended to "arrest", not kill, the president. On 11 July, the Haitian authorities announced that they had arrested Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian national usually based in Florida, who they suspect is the mastermind behind the president's assassination. Haiti’s police chief, Léon Charles, claimed that Sanon had contacted a private Venezuelan company called CTU Security to recruit the 28 suspects and a search of his house reportedly uncovered evidence that could connect him to the attack.

The assassination has caused further political instability in the long-troubled country, prompting the government to call for US and UN assistance. A special unit from the Colombian police force and senior US agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have so far been deployed as the investigation into Moïse's death continues. The US is also analysing a request to deploy military troops to the island which Haiti believes is necessary to protect key infrastructure and establish security so that it may hold elections as scheduled in September.

Haiti's constitution states Moïse should have been replaced by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, René Sylvestre; however, he died of COVID-19 on 23 June. On 9 July, Joseph Lambert announced that he was voted provisional president by the 10 remaining senators, joining two other men vying to lead Haiti amid a power vacuum with no working parliament. Claude Joseph claims he is the legitimate prime minister; however, he was due to be replaced by newly appointed Ariel Henry who has yet to be sworn in.

The Haitian authorities have not confirmed a motive for the assassination and a number of questions remain unanswered, including how the alleged assassins were able to enter the property, who was involved in the killing and what comes next in Haiti’s largely defunct political system.

Analysis 

The assassination of Moïse has triggered further uncertainty regarding the Caribbean nation’s already precarious political and security situation, which has long been susceptible to coups, political assassinations and surging gang violence. The country has grown increasingly unstable ever since Moïse took office in 2017 and his presidency had been met with mass demonstrations, first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power. The opposition and many civil society organisations have accused Moïse of dictatorial tendencies, citing his decision to revive the national army two decades after it was disbanded following a coup and the creation of a domestic intelligence agency.

Since January 2020, Moïse had been ruling by decree after the country failed to hold elections in 2019. He did however plan to hold a general election on 26 September, with a second round in November. The presidential election was to be held alongside legislative elections and a constitutional referendum, which has been met with mounting criticism. Moïse believed the referendum was necessary to establish political stability; however, opposition leaders have denounced it as a means to establish a dictatorship by overstaying his mandate and becoming more authoritarian.

For months before his assassination, Haitian’s had been demanding Moïse’s resignation as gang violence in the country surged and criticism surrounding the legitimacy of his tenure’s last year mounted. While opposition groups, civil society organisations and leading jurists said his presidential term expired in February 2021, Moïse and his supporters insisted that his five-year term began when he officially assumed power in 2017 and therefore would expire in February 2022. The president declared the controversy an “attempted coup”, triggering a fresh wave of unrest that continued throughout the first half of 2021.

Instead of resolving the political crisis, the recent appointment of Joseph Lambert as provisional president has prompted further confusion over who is the legitimate leader of Haiti. While the senate believes Lambert should govern the country with Ariel Henry as prime minister, the US, the UN and Haiti’s Elections Minister Mathias Pierre say Claude Joseph should retain his role as interim prime minister until the scheduled 26 September vote.

With no clear line of succession amid the power struggle, political uncertainty has deepened and the potential for further democratic regression has increased. The coming weeks and months will therefore be critical for mapping Haiti’s future. Although general elections are scheduled for September, Haitian civil society organisations note that food insecurity, political violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic ensure that free and fair voting would be impossible. Nevertheless, the US and the UN are urging the legislative and presidential elections to go ahead despite the deepening political instability.

Implications

As the country remains under a “state of siege”, a heightened security presence will almost certainly persist in and around Port-au-Prince in the coming weeks with concerns of escalating violence amid the uncertain political situation. Several sporadic protests were reported in Port-au-Prince on 7 July; however, since 8 July most streets in the capital have remained deserted amid the prevailing heightened security presence. While major unrest has not yet materialised, violent protests and clashes between demonstrators and security forces are possible in the capital, and potentially nationwide.

Several hours after Moïse’s death, Claude Joseph ordered the temporary closure of the country’s borders, as well as Cap-Haïtien International Airport (CAP) and Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture International Airport (PAP) to all but diplomatic and humanitarian flights in a bid to prevent any of the assailants from leaving the country. Although the airports were reopened on 9 July, flights to and from the country will likely remain significantly limited in the short term, probably only resuming gradually as the security situation in Haiti becomes more certain.

In recent months, Haiti has witnessed a further rise in violence, murders and kidnappings for ransom with many districts of Port-au-Prince being classed as “no-go zones”, highlighting the growing influence of armed groups in the nation. The violence has displaced more than 15,000 people since early June and in the past two weeks alone the country has not only seen the killing of Moïse, but the murder of 16 others including an activist, a journalist and a nurse. Homes and businesses have been set alight and destroyed, and the main road that connects Port-au-Prince to the southern peninsula has been blocked by armed groups.

After already announcing that he was launching a “revolution” against the country’s business and political elites, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a powerful leader of the so-called “G9 Family and Allies” gang in Haiti, warned on 10 July that his members would “mobilise” to protest last week’s assassination. Should Cherizier and the G9 persist with their so-called “revolution”, insecurity is certain to deteriorate further, threatening to push the impoverished country into deeper chaos.

Haiti’s political crisis takes place against a backdrop of significant economic hardship and a growing humanitarian crisis. Over a decade after a powerful earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the nation is still struggling to recover after it destroyed much of its infrastructure, killed more than 250,000 people and rendered more than one million others homeless. As a result of chronic poverty, recurrent natural disasters, as well as the recent violence, the country faces shortages of basic commodities, triggering fears of further widespread disorder. There is also an increased likelihood of mass emigration, particularly to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where authorities already responded by closing the air, maritime and land borders until further notice.

Furthermore, on 7 July the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) expressed concern that the recent violence could also impede efforts to fight COVID-19 in the country, which has so far recorded 19,295 confirmed infections and 482 associated deaths. Haiti is the only country in the western hemisphere that is yet to administer a COVID-19 vaccine to its population, and this combined with the absence of political stability will likely cause the COVID-19 epidemiological situation to worsen.