MIAMI – The United States has indicted a retired Colombian commando group for participating in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti – the first suspect to face US prosecution for the crime.
Mario Palacios was arrested Monday at an airport in Panama and transported from there to Miami, after previously agreeing to cooperate with US law enforcement, federal prosecutors said. He appeared before a federal judge on Tuesday and was charged with conspiracy to kidnap or kill outside the United States. He was held without bail.
Alfredo Izaguirre, a lawyer who has been appointed to represent Mr Palacios, has said he will most likely plead not guilty in a preliminary hearing scheduled for later this month.
The US attorney’s office has said he faces a life sentence.
Mr Palacios, 43, was among two dozen retired members of the Colombian military special forces who traveled to Haiti between May and June as private security contractors hired by a Miami-based company called CTU Security, according to interviews with their families and the Haitian police. Once in Haiti, their mission gradually shifted from protecting local dignitaries to storming the presidential residence in an operation that resulted in the death of Mr. Moïse, according to Haitian police, the US Department of Colombian Justice and Intelligence.
Mr. Moïse was shot dead on July 7 in his bedroom by assassins who spoke Spanish, according to his wife, Martine Moïse, who was injured in the attack. However, the exact identity of the killers, details of Mr. Moses’ death, and the ultimate sponsor of the plot remain unknown, although it appears to have been partly planned in the United States.
Mr. Palacios could help shed some light on some of these issues. He was one of five former Colombian soldiers who were part of the “Delta Team”, which entered his residence during the attack, according to the preliminary investigation report of the Haitian police.
After the assault, he was the only one of his companions to escape the Haitian authorities. He eventually fled to Jamaica, where he was detained for breaking immigration laws. It was in Jamaica that Palacios decided to cooperate with US law enforcement, providing several written statements, according to an affidavit unsealed in Miami on Tuesday.
When Jamaican authorities deported Palacios to Colombia on Monday, US agents responded to a layover in Panama.
Three Colombian soldiers who allegedly participated in the operation against Mr. Moïse were killed by Haitian police, and the other 18 were captured and imprisoned in the capital, Port-au-Prince. They have not yet been formally charged.
Some of the detained soldiers confessed to participating in the killing during their initial statements, according to police reports. Since then, however, they have reconsidered their confession, claiming that it was obtained under torture and that they were accused of a crime they did not commit.
“I don’t know who killed him. I tell you from the bottom of my heart, I swear on my family, my sons, ”Palacios told Colombian magazine Semana while he was in hiding in Port-au-Prince in August. He said that when he got to Mr. Moïse’s room, the president was already dead.
Mr Palacios told a U.S. federal judge at a hearing on Tuesday that he was unemployed, owned a house in Cali, Colombia, and was living off his military pension.
Although the circumstances of Mr. Moïse’s death remain unclear, Haitian investigators say Colombian soldiers knew they would overthrow the president and replace him with a former Supreme Court justice Windelle Coq-Thelot. Some had attended a meeting with Ms Coq-Thelot in her home shortly before the operation, according to the police report and a person who attended the meeting.
“Palacios and others entered the presidential residence in Haiti with the intention and purpose of killing President Moïse, and in fact the president was killed,” said an FBI agent investigating the case in affidavit unsealed Tuesday.
Like many others involved in the crime, most of the former Colombian soldiers appear to have been led to believe that the operation had the full support of the United States. No evidence has emerged that the US government supported or was aware of the plot.
Shortly after Mr. Moïse’s assassination, which plunged an already fragile nation into chaos, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security sent agents to Port-au-Prince to help with the investigation, invitation from the Haitian government.
But as of this week, U.S. prosecutors had not charged anyone in the murder, although at least six U.S. citizens and residents were involved in the plot.
In particular, the FBI has not commented on the legal status of two Miami-based directors of CTU Security, Antonio Intriago and Arcangel Pretelt. According to Haitian police and Colombian intelligence officers, both were aware of the coup plot.
Mr. Intriago had visited Haiti in the weeks leading up to the assassination and had met some of the main Haitian suspects, according to lawyers for the detained men and Haitian police.
Another U.S. citizen, a South Florida-based financier named Walter Veintemilla, helped fund the recruitment of Colombian soldiers, Haitian police say. In Haiti, CTU told Colombian soldiers that Mr. Veintemilla’s company, Worldwide Capital, had secured billions in investments that would flow into the country under a new government. Colombian soldiers have been promised years of lucrative work overseeing the country’s security.
There is no indication that Worldwide Capital or its subsidiaries, which sell retail financial products such as mortgages and auto insurance, ever had access to such capital.
Lawyers for Mr. Intriago and Mr. Veintemilla said in late July and August that their clients were innocent and were cooperating with US authorities. They did not respond to requests for comment on the current legal status of their clients.
Even less is known about Mr Pretelt, a retired Colombian special forces officer who recruited his former colleagues, some of whom he knew personally from his days of service.
Participants in the conspiracy say Mr Pretelt claimed to have worked for US law enforcement and assured them the US was fully behind. There is no evidence that Mr. Pretelt, who had previously been a witness in a drug trafficking case, ever worked for the federal government.
After Haitian police units still loyal to Mr. Moïse immobilized Colombian soldiers on a road leading from the presidential residence shortly after the murder, Mr. Pretelt appears to have tried to save the plan to install Ms. Coq-Thelot in the Presidency.
“It seems there is poor communication with the local police, and that can cause problems for all of you,” Mr. Pretelt wrote to a suspect in Haiti hours after the murder, according to a text message seen by the New York Times. “The new president should be sworn in.
Mr. Pretelt’s location is unknown and he was not available for comment. The FBI and the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on his legal status.