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Leader of notorious Haiti gang 400 Mawozo decides to plead guilty in middle of DC trial

Germine Joly, better known as "Yonyon," was transferred aboard a special FBI flight to the U.S. Joly is the leader of the gang 400 Mawozo, which was behind the 2021 kidnapping of 17 missionaries with Ohio-based Christian Aid Missionaries. (Haiti National Police/TNS)

The head of a notorious armed gang linked to the kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Haiti, including 16 missionaries, decided to plead guilty to federal weapons smuggling charges Tuesday while in the middle of his federal trial in Washington, D.C.

Lawyers for Germine Joly, known as Yonyon, informed U.S. District Judge John D. Bates late Tuesday of Joly’s change of plea just as prosecutors were preparing to rest their case after eight days of testimony. Their last witness: a federal agent who testified that while on the May 2022 extradition flight from Port-au-Prince to Washington, the head of Haiti’s 400 Mawozo gang admitted to being able to order the release of hostages and acknowledged the power he held in his volatile homeland.

“I know everything that the gang is doing because they respect me,” Zachary Harrison, an FBI special agent now assigned to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, testified that Joly told him and other investigators as they interrogated him on the three-hour flight.

Joly, who had waived his right to a jury trial, originally pleaded not guilty. But after kidnapping victims testified about their ordeal, federal agents testified about high-powered weapons the gang purchased and then shipped to Haiti, and co-defendant Walder St. Louis describe Joly’s political and police connections, his lawyer asked for a moment.

Joly met with his attorneys privately for an hour. When the proceedings resumed, his lawyer told the judge that Joly will change his plea.

Imprisoned in Haiti since 2018, Joly was handed over to U.S. authorities by the Haitian government after 17 missionaries with an Ohio-based charity, Christian Aid Ministries, were released by his 400 Mawozo gang after most of them spent 61 days in captivity. The abductions, which also involved a Canadian citizen, made international headlines and brought to light Haiti’s kidnapping-for-ransom epidemic and the power violent gangs were beginning to wield. FBI agents were initially stymied by the case before zeroing in on 400 Mawozo’s South Florida’s connections.

Though brought to the U.S. in connection with the missionaries’ kidnapping, Joly was put on trial on four dozen charges related to the smuggling of firearms to Haiti, a violation of U.S. export laws. The arms were purchased from licensed gun dealers in Florida with the help of three Florida based codefendants, who have also pleaded guilty.

In laying out the weapons-smuggling case against Joly, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Seifert described 400 Mawozo’s criminal business as a cycle of taking hostages for ransom, transferring the money to the U.S. to buy guns and then having them smuggled into Haiti. Those guns, often powerful enough to pierce walls and police vehicles, were used to grab more hostages and take control of more territory inside the impoverished country.

Harrison, the FBI agent, testified that Joly, 30, acknowledged to investigators that despite his incarceration in Haiti’s National Penitentiary he had his pulse on what was happening on the outside and held sway over 400 Mawozo. He also held sway among the prison’s guards and Haitian police officials, St. Louis had testified earlier after he was placed on the stand for a second day.

“If someone is persecuting me and I tell them to eliminate that person, they will kill that person,” Harrison said Joly told him and the other investigators. “If I need money, they will send me money, whatever it is that I ask them to do, they will do it.”

Asked if he had influence over the gang’s top three leaders outside of the prison’s walls and if he could order the release of hostages, he said, “I’ve done that before.”

Then he admitted to his role in the April 2021 kidnapping of seven Catholic clergy, including two French citizens.

“They kidnapped some nuns and I ordered them to let them go. They did,” Harrison said Joly told them.

The defense did not say why Joly decided to change his plea. The government, which did not know Tuesday what charges Joly will admit to, said it will inform the court on Wednesday whether prosecutors will accept the change in plea. The most serious of Joly’s 48 counts, violating U.S. export laws, carries up to 20 years in prison. However, it remains unclear how much time he could face.

The government has asked for life imprisonment for one of his codefendants, Eliande Tunis, who on the eve of the start of the federal trial also decided to plead guilty to the same 48 counts.


© 2024 Miami Herald

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