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Top suspect in Haiti assassination probe in US custody in Miami

Haitian President Jovenel Moise, seen here in 2020, was assassinated on July 7, 2021. (Pierre Michel Jean/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A key suspect in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse appeared in Miami federal court Tuesday afternoon after being arrested in the morning by federal agents upon arrival from Panama.

Mario Antonio Palacios, 43, also known by the double last name Palacios Palacios and the nickname “Floro,” is the first person allegedly involved in the assassination of the Haitian president on July 7, 2021, to be formally charged with a crime.

Palacios had been in custody in Jamaica, which moved to deport him to his homeland of Colombia on Monday. But during a layover in Panama, he agreed to travel to the United States, according to federal authorities.

A criminal complaint, drafted by the FBI, charges Palacios with conspiracy to commit murder or kidnapping outside the United States and providing material support resulting in death, knowing that such support would be used to carry out a plot to kill the Haitian president.

Palacios was appointed a private attorney by U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes because he did not have enough money to hire his own lawyer. His next appearance in federal court is scheduled for Jan. 31, when a hearing on the legal basis for the criminal complaint is planned.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter Norkin accused Palacios of committing a “serious crime” and said he potentially faces up to life in prison if convicted. He argued the defendant should be detained before trial, but that issue will be addressed later in court. In the meantime, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Palacios will remain in isolation at the Federal Detention Center in Miami for at least two weeks.

The charges against Palacios relate to the assassination of Moïse at his residence in Port-au-Prince. According to the FBI criminal complaint, a group of about 20 Colombians and another group of Haiti-based dual Haitian Americans participated in the plot to kidnap or kill the Haitian president. One co-conspirator, a dual Haitian American citizen, traveled to the United States on June 28, 2021, to provide other individuals with a written request for assistance to advance the plot targeting the Haitian president, the complaint says.

“As alleged in the complaint, while the plot initially focused on conducting a kidnapping of the president as part of a purported arrest operation, it ultimately resulted in a plot to kill the Haitian president,” according to a news release issued by the Justice Department after Palacios’ federal court appearance in Miami.

The complaint alleges that Palacios and others “entered the president’s residence in Haiti with the intent and purpose of killing President Moïse, and in fact the president was killed.”

The Haitian American who traveled to the United States on June 28 is identified only as “co-conspirator No. 1.” The Miami Herald has learned that the co-conspirator is James Solages, who was subsequently arrested by Haitian authorities and remains in custody in Haiti. Solages has claimed he was working as a translator.

Palacios eluded arrest and traveled to Jamaica, where he was held on an immigration violation until his deportation via Panama to Colombia on Monday night.

According to a Haiti National Police investigation report obtained by the Miami Herald, a hit squad of ex-Colombian military soldiers, accompanied by two Haitian Americans and Haitian police officers, swarmed the Haitian presidential compound in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince with military precision. Claiming to be part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation, team leaders carried a Samsung Galaxy smartphone — to photograph the president’s corpse and assure the masterminds of his death, according to police.

Palacios, police investigators said, was one of the Colombians who allegedly entered the president’s room, where he was tortured and shot multiple times, and his wife, Martine, was seriously injured.

Haiti initially arrested 44 suspects in the slaying. One has since died of COVID-related illnesses, and four others were recently released by the investigative judge conducting the probe in advance of bringing charges. None of those individuals has been charged, however.

Haiti police investigators have arrested and interrogated 18 Colombians, as well as two Haitian Americans, Solages and Joseph Vincent, the latter of whom also claimed he was working as a translator. Investigators also questioned and imprisoned Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian American pastor and doctor considered by police to be one of the planners. They have linked Sanon to the owner of a Miami-area security firm, Counter Terrorism Unit, or CTU, and one of the owner’s associates. CTU is suspected of recruiting the Colombians and obtaining two loans from a Weston, Florida, financier that Haitian police say provided money for the assassination.

U.S. lawyers for the South Florida business owners, whose homes and offices have been the subject of search warrants, have said that while they were involved in a plan to replace Moïse with an interim leader in a peaceful transition of power, they have no knowledge of a plot to kill or violently overthrow him. Solages, Vincent and Sanon have also professed their innocence. After turning themselves in, Sanon and Vincent, a former DEA informant, told Haitian authorities that their mission was not to kill Moïse but to arrest him and install Sanon as interim president.

Both the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations are conducting their own investigations, looking at the involvement of the two companies, their owners and the three jailed Haitian Americans who lived in South Florida before traveling to Port-au-Prince early last year ahead of the slaying. The question is to what extent does Palacios’ arrest connect to the ongoing U.S. probe and whether it might help FBI and Homeland Security agents build a strong case.

How Palacios was transferred from Panama to Miami remains unclear, though the way in which he arrived in the United States is typical of law enforcement agencies seeking to avoid the lengthy process of extradition with cooperation of a foreign government while a suspect is in transit. Haiti’s government had filed an INTERPOL Red Notice, an international alert, on Oct. 21, 2021, after Palacios’ Jamaica arrest.

Palacios had been held in Jamaica on an immigration violation after surrendering there in October. He was among several suspects on the run after Moïse’s murder. One of the suspects, Haitian Palestinian businessman Samir Handal, was detained in Turkey after arriving in Istanbul from Miami while in transit to Jordan. His family in Miami says he is innocent and authorities knew his whereabouts all along. He is currently the subject of a Haitian government extradition request.


© 2022 Miami Herald
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