‘My life is in danger. Come save my life.’ Haitian president’s desperate final pleas – Miami Herald

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The call came at 1:34 a.m. Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who was on the other line, was in difficulty, and he needed reinforcement.

“They are shooting by the house,” he told the Haitian National Police commissioner. “Mobilize people.”

The non-stop automatic gunfire in Pelerin 5 where Moïse, his wife Martine and two children lived, started at about 1:30 a.m., according to a resident in the area, who said she ducked underneath her bed to escape the sound as she looked at her phone to see what time it was.

While neighbors in the area weren’t sure what was happening, unknown assailants who would later claim to be part of the Drug Enforcement Administration (a claim denied by the DEA) were advancing and making their way to the president’s private residence in the foothills of Haiti’s capital. Inside the president’s bedroom, they would open fire. He was shot in the forehead, chest, hip and stomach, and his left eye was gouged, according to Charles Henry Destin, a justice of the peace who later documented the crime scene.

The deadly assault followed 10 minutes of frantic pleas. With no sign of his security forces, Moïse, 53, would make another call, this time to a tactically trained officer with the Haiti National Police.

“Where are you?” Moïse said, calling the officer by name after he answered, “Mr. President.”

“I need your assistance, now!” Moïse said. “My life is in danger. Come quick; come save my life.”

Before the phone call ended, there was silence. Then, the sound of an assault rifle. Refusing to accept what was inevitable, the officer — who asked to remain anonymous in an interview with the Herald, yelled to his fellow officers, “Everyone get back in your cars. We need to leave now.”

The three-car convoy was headed to Pelerin 5, the hilltop neighborhood of modest homes, unpaved roads and million-dollar mansions where Moïse lived.

What ensued in the next hours would be a police manhunt for former Colombian special forces and two Haitian Americans from South Florida, using high-beam lights and specialized units of Haiti’s national police along a well-traveled road. The fierce pursuit started on the main road leading to Moïse’s residence. It would subsequently involve nearby impoverished neighborhoods, an abandoned building behind a police station and the Taiwanese Embassy, on whose premises 11 of the alleged commandos were apprehended.

More than a week after the murder, 18 Colombians and two Haitian Americans are in custody, while three Colombians are dead and five remain-at-large. Haitian security forces have also made other arrests, including that of a South Florida-based Haitian doctor, Christian Emmanuel Sanon. The owner of a Doral-based firm, CTU Security, run by a Venezuelan émigré, has been named as a person of interest.

Still questions linger. The Miami Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau have spoken to at least three people who received calls from inside the president’s house on the morning of July 7. All agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing probe, which has led to 24 security agents being sanctioned and five high-ranking members of the president’s security team being relieved of administrative duties and placed in isolation.

All have recounted the final moments of Moïse, who was killed in the brazen middle-of-the night assassination as his alleged assailants ransacked his house and bedroom, according to multiple sources, and then shot him after positively identifying him with a caller on the other line.

“They came inside, went straight to the room and kept talking to someone on the phone to identify the president,” the officer said, confirming the report of another person familiar with the investigation. “They turned the house upside down.’ ”

When the shooter described the president’s profile to the other person on the line, “he turned to face the president and shot him without any conversation.”

‘When I send you to protect a president, I don’t send you to live’

How foreign mercenaries got past at least three police checkpoints on the road to Moïse’s house and past presumably dozens of security agents inside his walled-off compound to gain access to his second-floor bedroom remains one of the key questions more than a week after his shocking death.

The ongoing multi-national investigation involves at least four countries and four law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and has so far led to the arrest of several Haitians with ties to South Florida.

What happened to the president’s security team, none of whom were killed or reportedly shot, is another unsolved mystery — one that one of several Haitian national police officers who arrived at the scene shortly after 2 a.m. say they are also asking themselves.

The scene outside residence of President Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Johnny Fils-Aimé For the Herald

“When I send you to protect a president, I don’t send you to live, I send you to die protecting him,” said a member of the president’s security team, who was contacted by Moïse shortly after 1:30 a.m. and is among those relieved of administrative duties pending the administrative probe.

Although the government initially reported that Moïse’s death occurred at 1 a.m. July 7, Haitian police have now said it occurred sometime between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Interviews by the Herald/McClatchy show that he was still alive as late as 1:45 a.m.

After getting the president’s frantic call for help at 1:34 a.m., the Haitian police commissioner said he made four phone calls in a span of 14 minutes, seeking backup as he got out of bed, got dressed and headed in the direction of the president’s house. He said he arrived at the residence at 2:22 a.m. after encountering some of the armed Colombian commandos on the road.

The first call, at 1:35 a.m., was to the man in charge of palace security for Moïse, Dimitri Hérard. He said he was deploying help. At 1:38 a.m., the police commissioner said he called the supervisor of the security team working that evening and received no answer.

At 1:47 a.m., the police commissioner said he called the commander of the Counter Assault Team, or CAT, a specialized tactical unit similar to the U.S. Secret Service. The unit provides tactical support to the president and reacts when there is an attack. Then at 1:50 a.m., the police commander said he called Léon Charles, the interim police chief, requesting backup.

By then, Charles was already aware there was trouble, according to an officer contacted by the police director. He had deployed at least one convoy.

As the police convoy dispatched by Charles made its way to Petionville, a specialized police unit was ending the day. The phone rang. It was the president pleading for help.

Turning the key in the ignition of his unmarked vehicle, and accompanied by a squad of police officers, the officer turned out of the Haiti National Police headquarters onto Delmas 33 Road and raced across Port-au-Prince, through ramshackle neighborhoods and potholed streets in the dark.

In the time the officers took to arrive, acting prime minister Claude Joseph would be alerted by the police chief of shots being fired in the vicinity of the president’s house and police were en route.

When the police officer, called by Moïse, finally arrived in Petionville, the hilly suburb that leads to the president’s affluent neighborhood, the officer would momentarily stop in front of the police substation to speak to a supervisor.

Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home on July 7. Getty Images

“I stopped to talk for 10 seconds,” he said, emphasizing how little time was wasted.

Security checkpoints

There are at least three police checkpoints along Route de Kenscoff, also referred to as Laboule Road, which begins at the corner of the Petionville police substation and the Kinam Hotel and leads to the cul-de-sac where Moïse’s private residence is located.

There are three layers of security on the road to Pelerin 5 before a motorist gets to the president’s front door.

Among them is the General Security Unit of the National Palace, or USGPN, which Hérard heads and is on the perimeter and the first line against an attack. If that unit is taken out, there is the Counter Assault Team, or CAT, which functions much like a SWAT unit. And then, finally, there are the president’s bodyguards, known as the USP or Presidential Security Unit. They are the closest to the president.

Charles, the police chief, has said there were 24 officers assigned to the president’s security detail, but he has refused to say how many were on duty. Two sources have confirmed to the Herald that seven of the security agents working on July 7 were USP bodyguards assigned to personally protect the president.

As the police officer arrived in Petionville with a team of special forces, two pickup trucks with a group of camouflaged palace guards advanced and drove up the Laboule Road.

The officer said he immediately motioned to his convoy to follow.

As he approached the corner of Pelerin 5 and Laboule Road, he said, he saw several palace guards and two cars in the middle of the road.

Hérard, the head of that unit, was standing in the middle of the road. Seeing an unknown car approach, he and his palace guards, pulled out their weapons. It was normal, said the police officer, pointing out that it was pitch-black and Hérard had no idea who was advancing toward the corner leading to the entrance of the president’s neighborhood.

Hérard soon recognized the officers in the car and lowered his weapon.

Several officers involved in the rush to get to the president and to trap the Colombian commandos were in touch with Hérard that night. What Hérard said — and what exactly he did — remain unanswered questions.

Back in the middle of the road, Hérard, now joined by a convoy of 12 specialized officers, would once again get on his phone, reportedly to call for reinforcement.

The officer interviewed by the Herald/McClatchy, thinking more agents were on their way, said fellow officers blocked access on the road from the president’s house while a vehicle then drove up the hill toward the residence.

But before they vehicle could get far, a group of men, he said, pointed guns at the vehicle. Several Haitian national police officers were inside.

“I didn’t know who they were,” he said. “I didn’t really hear them speak.”

After a few moments, he saw several sunburned men, wearing white T-shirts, carrying assault rifles, big military backpacks and boots.

He couldn’t tell how many there were, but knew “there were many.”

“I saw that they were well armed and I could not identify if it was a grenade launcher they had in their hand or a rocket launcher,” he said. “At this point, I could not identify what kind or what type of weapons they were carrying.”

Then he finally heard someone speak, over a megaphone. “DEA operation, get back.”

At that point, Charles, the police chief, had arrived in Petionville. He was calling officers to get a status report on what was happening.

By now several palace security agents had gathered at the back of the unmarked police vehicle, now inside Pelerin 5, unable to advance toward the president’s residence. They were preparing to attack, but then suddenly the commandos began advancing. Hérard, walking up, saw the the commandos and warned his men to get back, the officer said.

Everyone heard the commandos say in English, Spanish and Creole, “Police National we are not your enemy. Drop your weapons.”

No shots were fired. But it was time for another approach.

“We were running to get to the president’s house without any strategy,” said the officer interviewed by the Herald/McClatchy.

Unable to advance, the officers put their vehicle in reverse and went back to the corner of Pelerin 5 and the Laboule Road to come up with another plan. The strategy would involve police tactics and high-beam lights to move the alleged assassins away from the entrance of Pelerin 5 in order to gain access to the road leading to Moïse’s residence.

That break finally came after the Colombians were forced to retreat, allowing one of the first officers contacted by the president to finally arrive at his front door without confrontation.

Several presidential bodyguards who by then were on the scene were asked to escort the officer inside the house.

The officer took the flight of stairs to the second floor, where the first couple’s bedroom was located. Before arriving inside the bedroom, he found Martine Moïse lying on her back on the floor in a hallway in front of the bedroom door.

Her right arm was bleeding. Bone fragments and muscles were showing. She had been shot in her side.

Holding up the injured arm was her daughter, Jormarlie, who would later report hiding in her brother’s bathroom. Tending to the first lady’s wounds was her son, Jovenel Jr.

When Martine Moïse looked up and saw the familiar faces of the officers who had come to her rescue, “she turned to the children and said ‘We are free now,’ “ the officer said.

She was given a phone. Charles, the interim police chief, was on the other line.

“While she was talking to the [chief], I couldn’t bring myself to ask, ‘Where is the president,’ ” said the officer.

Deciding that she could not wait for an ambulance, Jovenel Junior went into the bedroom to grab a pair of sandals for his mom. That’s when the discovery of the president’s body was made. Moïse was curled up and his body turned sideways.

They decided they could not wait for an ambulance. Martine Moïse was told she had no other choice but to bear the pain, in order to live.

With her son and daughter each supporting her side, she managed to get up off the ground and walk down the stairs.

She was placed into her vehicle and driven to a doctor under police escort.

Martine Moïse would later relay that the president did not suffer. Though a justice of the peace said he was hit with as many as 12 gunshot wounds, she relayed he was killed almost immediately.

“This never should have happened with the presidential guard,” said the officer, noting he’s always been concerned about weaknesses in the president’s security detail.

Like many, he’s still asking himself who is responsible for the president’s death.

Profile Image of Jacqueline Charles

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.