Two U.S.-Haitian citizens are believed to be among 17 people detained in an investigation into the assassination of Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse, according to local authorities.
Léon Charles, chief of Haiti's National Police, said on Thursday that the 15 others are believed to be Colombian - at least six of whom Colombia's government says are likely ex-army.
We are going to bring them to justice,” the police chief said during the press conference, as the 17 handcuffed suspects sat on the floor nearby.
He added that three other people had been killed and that police were still searching for eight more subjects.
Colombia's government has not released the identities of the suspects it believes to be former Colombian soldiers, but has ordered the high command of the army and national police to cooperate in Haiti's investigation.
“A team was formed with the best investigators ... they are going to send dates, flight times, financial information that is already being collected to be sent to Port-au-Prince,” said Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia, the head of Colombia's national police.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Haitian Americans were in custody but could not confirm or comment.
The Haitian Americans were identified by Haitian officials as James Solages and Joseph Vincent. Solages, at age 35, is the youngest of the suspects and the oldest is 55, according to a document shared by Haiti’s minister of elections, Mathias Pierre. He would not provide further information on those in custody.
Solages described himself as a “certified diplomatic agent,” an advocate for children and budding politician on a website for a charity he started in 2019 in south Florida to assist people in the Haitian coastal town of Jacmel. On his bio page for the charity, Solages said he previously worked as a bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti.
Canada's foreign relation department released a statement that did not refer to Solages by name but said one of the men detained for his alleged role in the killing had been “briefly employed as a reserve bodyguard” at its embassy by a private contractor. He gave no other details.
Wednesday's attack saw gunmen shoot Moïse dead inside his private residence. His wife was seriously injured and is currently being treated in hospital.
As a result, interim prime minister Claude Joseph declared a state of siege in the country.
"In line with article 149 of the Constitution, I have just chaired an extraordinary council of ministers and we have decided to declare a state of siege throughout the country," Joseph said during a speech broadcast on social media.
"They shot and killed the president and injured his wife," he went on, assuring that their deaths "would not go unpunished."
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has enduring gang violence and had recent protests against authoritarian rule.
Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year after failing to hold elections, and the opposition demanded he step down in recent months, saying he was leading it toward yet another grim period of authoritarianism.
The prime minister told the Associated Press that elections scheduled for this year should still be held.
“We need every single one to move the country forward,” Joseph said.
Despite his assurances that order would prevail, there was confusion about who should take control and widespread anxiety among Haitians.
The normally bustling streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, were empty on Wednesday. Sporadic gunshots were heard in the distance, public transportation was scarce, and some people searched for businesses that were open for food and water, the AP reported.
Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, said the attack on the 53-year-old Moïse "was carried out by foreign mercenaries and professional killers — well-orchestrated,” and that they were masquerading as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA has an office in the Haitian capital to assist the government in counternarcotics programs, according to the US Embassy.
Moïse's wife, Martine, was in stable but critical condition and was being moved to Miami for treatment, Edmond said in Washington.
The Dominican Republic said it was closing the border and reinforcing security in the area, describing the frontier as ″completely calm.″
It was a testament to Haiti’s fragile political situation that Joseph, a protege of Moïse who was only supposed to be prime minster temporarily, found himself in charge.
But Haiti appears to have few other options. The Supreme Court’s chief justice, who might be expected to help provide stability in a crisis, died recently of COVID-19.
Joseph is likely to lead Haiti for the time being, though that could change in a nation where constitutional provisions have been erratically observed, said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
The best scenario would be for the acting prime minister and opposition parties to come together and hold elections, Dupuy said.
“But, in Haiti, nothing can be taken for granted. It depends how the current balance of forces in Haiti plays out,” he said, describing the situation as dangerous and volatile.
Haiti's police force is already grappling with a recent spike in violence in Port-au-Prince that has displaced more than 14,700 people, he said.
Former President Michel Martelly, whom Moïse succeeded, called the assassination “a hard blow for our country and for Haitian democracy, which is struggling to find its way.”
US President Joe Biden said he was “shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination,” and condemned “this heinous act.”
“The United States offers condolences to the people of Haiti, and we stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti,” Biden said in a statement.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the assassination and stressed that “the perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice,” according to spokesman Stephane Dujarric. The Security Council scheduled an emergency closed meeting on Haiti for Thursday.
Moïse was killed a day after he nominated Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as the new prime minister. Joseph took over the job of interim prime minister in April following the resignation of the previous premier, Joseph Jouthe — the latest in a revolving door of prime ministers.
In the AP interview, Joseph said he had spoken three times with Henry and that there was agreement he was in charge for now.
“He was actually designated but never took office,” Joseph said of Henry. “I was the one who was a prime minister, who was in office. This is what the law and the constitution says.”
However, in a separate AP interview, Henry appeared to contradict Joseph. “It’s an exceptional situation. There is a bit of confusion,” he said. “I am the prime minister in office.”
Haiti's economic, political and social woes have deepened recently, with gang violence spiking in Port-au-Prince, inflation spiralling, and food and fuel becoming scarcer in a country where 60% of the population makes less than $2 a day.
These troubles come as Haiti is still trying to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.