The deportation and arrest this week of Mario Palacios, one of the principal suspects in the assassination of Haiti’s president last summer, has jolted new life into the investigation into his death which had appeared to be going nowhere.
As has now been revealed in court documents, U.S. agents from the FBI and Homeland Security in Miami were actively working behind the scenes to build a case in the United States, rather than rely on the hopelessly under-funded and corrupt justice system in Haiti.
“I find it to be quite encouraging,” the former U.S. envoy to Haiti, Dan Foote, told The World, a public radio news broadcast. “Before, it was unclear whether U.S. law enforcement was fully engaged in an investigation. Now, they are. And this makes me feel as if we will eventually get to the bottom of this crime,” he added.
Foote and many others agree that Haiti is likely incapable of solving the murder. “The Haitians have been running an investigation. They don't have the resources or, frankly, the political will to get to the end,” said Foote. “Obviously, it's in the United States' interest to help solve a crime of a close neighbor that 600 miles from Miami with an enormous diaspora in the United States,” he added.
Palacios, 43, a decorated former Colombian soldier, was part of a team of about 20 retired military who was hired by a Miami security firm last year, supposedly to provide back up for a major development project that never was realized. Instead, the former soldiers were allegedly duped into carrying out the assassination, misled into believing they were acting with the blessing of U.S. government.
Palacios was the only member of the team to evade arrest in Haiti in the aftermath of the assassination last July. He escaped by boat to Jamaica where he was detained in October. U.S. officials immediately made contact with him and he provided them with voluntary statements, according to court documents.
Haiti had sought his extradition but that request appears to have been, perhaps deliberately, snarled up in bureaucratic red tape. Instead, Palacios was deported on Monday to Colombia, but ended up being detained during a stopover in Panama where U.S. officials were waiting for him.
“This is not something that developed over the weekend. This was a backdoor deal that had been negotiated and had simply been waiting for the right moment and the right place for quite some time,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, noting that court documents show the legal complaint was written, drafted and signed on November the 24th, which included information as he had already spoken with U.S. authorities.
Weinstein and others say they expect Palacios to enter a cooperation plea shortly to detail everything he knows about the assassination plot in order to help U.S. prosecutors build their case.
“He is going to be a cornerstone of whatever prosecution the U.S. is now going to undertake on behalf of, quite frankly, the Haitian people to hold somebody responsible for what happened here because the justice in Haiti is not going to be coming, if at all,” said Weinstein.
Univision was able to communicate with one of those jailed in Haiti who participated in the attack on the residence, and he said: "Everyone wants to come to the U.S.. No one wants to stay in Haiti."
U.S. officials say Palacios “agreed to travel” to Miami after he was detained in Panama, suggesting he was aware of a deal on the table. But his wife and legal team in Colombia told Univision they were taken by surprise by his decision as they waited to greet him at Bogota international airport.
Palacios was charged in federal court Tuesday with two counts of conspiracy to assassinate Moise, including knowledge of the plot and providing “material support”. The plot was originally to arrest Moise and install a new president, according to court documents. But an FBI agent said Palacios admitted that on July 6, the day before the fatal attack on Moise’s residence, “he was informed by some of the co-conspirators that the plan was to assassinate the Haitian president.”
In theory he is facing life in prison if found guilty but his cooperation could earn him a substantial reduction, perhaps as low as only a 10-year sentence, according to legal experts. If he provides valuable evidence, he could also be entitled to a special ‘S’ visa, allowing him to become a U.S. resident and remain in the United States after his release.
In an interview given while he was still in hiding, he insisted he had no knowledge of who killed Moïse, though he did admit he had entered Moïse’s house.
But he could hold valuable clues as to who were the masterminds behind the crime, including evidence implicating two Miami security firms, Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and CTU Federal Academy, as well as several Haitians, several of whom are still fugitives.
Palacios is one of 21 Colombians and two Haitian Americans accused of being members of the team, hired by CTU Federal Academy, that stormed the president’s private residence in the middle of the night claiming to be part of a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation.
One of the accused Haitian Americans, James Solages, was working for CTU Federal Academy, and allegedly traveled to South Florida in late June to seek assistance for the plan to overthrow Moise. CTU Federal Academy also supplied bullet-proof vests to the Colombians, possibly in violation of U.S. export laws which require a special permit for body armor.
That could result in a charge of conspiracy to provide “material support” for the assassination, similar to what Palacios is charged with.
The head of CTU, Antonio Intriago, is cooperating with investigators and has turned over his computer and phone records, which include whatsapp messages with the hit squad. His lawyers say he had no idea of the assassination plan and was caught by surprise while visiting relatives in Texas.
The whereabouts of his partner in CTU Federal Academy, Archangel Pretel, are unknown.