Haiti’s first lady asks why guards were nowhere to be seen when the president was assassinated
South Florida (CNN) — When Haiti’s president was brutally assassinated in his bedroom last month, just one witness was there to see it. She happened to know him better than anyone else.
Martine Moise, the first lady of Haiti, was found bleeding on the floor next to the body of her husband, Jovenel Moise, on July 7. But she survived the mysterious attack — and is now lighting a fire under the search to bring the killers to justice.
In an interview in South Florida on Sunday, Mrs. Moise — still in mourning black, her arm bandaged from wrist to shoulder — described chilling details of the attack to CNN and demanded the world’s help in solving the murder.
“Someone gave the order, and someone paid the money. Those are the people that we are searching for. I want the United Nations Security Council’s help to find those people,” she said.
Mrs. Moise is the only eyewitness to her husband’s assassination. She is also the only other known victim, her elbow and forearm shattered in a hail of bullets as attackers entered the presidential suite.
She first knew something was wrong that night when she and her husband heard automatic gunfire outside their home around 1 am. Once they realized that the gunmen had entered the house, they tried to hide on the floor behind their bed, she said.
Even then, however, Moise did not believe what was about to happen.
“At that time, I didn’t even think that they were going to be able to get into the room where we were, because we had about 30 or 50 security guards (at the house),” she said.
Yet they did, in a massive security failing that Haitian authorities still have not explained. At least two top security chiefs are currently in prison, including presidential security chief Dimitri Herard and coordinator of palace security Jean Laguel Civil.
From where she was lying on the ground, her arm broken and bleeding in multiple places, Moise says she could see only the intruders’ shoes. She estimated that around a dozen men entered the room, speaking Spanish, looking for something specific.
“They came to the room to find something, because I heard them saying, ‘No es eso, no es eso — eso es’ (in Spanish: ‘That’s not it, that’s not it — that’s it’). Which means they found what they were looking for.”
Only then did they turn their attention to the president on the floor and make a fatal phone call, she recalled with devastating calm.
“He was alive at the time. They said he was tall, skinny and Black, and maybe the person on the phone confirmed to the shooter that was him. Then they shot him on the floor.”
Her husband would be shot 12 times, with bullet holes found in his face, torso, legs and arms, according to an initial report by investigators.
The attackers never addressed the president directly, and Mr. Moise said nothing to them in the moments before his execution, according to his wife.
“Once they shot the president, that’s when I thought, ‘It’s over for both of us.’ And I closed my eyes, you know, I didn’t think about anything else. I thought, ‘It’s over. This our last day,'” she said.
But the attackers left without further bloodshed. Moise believes they mistook her for dead.
Even after the attack, the security guards charged with protecting Haiti’s first family never came. It was a maid who eventually found Mrs. Moise in the blood-drenched bedroom, and whom she asked to bring one of her husband’s ties to serve as a tourniquet for her arm, she said.
A team from the National Police eventually arrived to whisk her away, first to a local hospital she barely remembers and then by plane to a Miami hospital with her children.
As she left her home in the dark early morning, Moise said she was struck by the absence of any of the usual guards on the compound grounds. Dozens of guards are usually stationed at the house, she says, and their dormitories are in fact in the basement of the house, in order to ensure seamless shift rotations.
“The guards wouldn’t leave without an order. Maybe they received an order to leave — this is what I think,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how this could have happened.”
“It would have been 50 against 28, we had more security than them … I believe the president died with the hope that his security team would come,” she said.
Haitian authorities have previously said that not a single guard was injured as the attackers broke through the main gate, crossed the compound, breached the front door, and sought out the president’s bedroom.
What the presidential security guards know, saw, or did are central questions in the ongoing investigation.
At least 24 police officers are under investigation, according to Haiti Police Chief Leon Charles. Twelve have been arrested, and four have been accused of working closely with the group of alleged Colombian mercenaries suspected of carrying out the attack, according to National Police spokesperson Marie Michele Vernier.
But as CNN previously reported, judicial investigators have not been allowed to meet or take testimony from any guards who witnessed the attack.
Haitian authorities have no shortage of suspects in the murder plot — a total of at least 44 people are now in custody, including 18 Colombians and at least three US citizens. But despite the arrests of a Florida-based pastor and a local former Justice Ministry official who are accused of coordinating parts of the attack, no clear ringleader or motive has yet emerged. None of the suspects have even been formally charged.
Speaking quietly and precisely in Haitian Creole, French and English at turns, the first lady was composed and careful — a woman transformed from the empty-eyed hospital patient shown in photos tweeted by her official account in the days following the assassination.
Little emotion crossed her face as she recounted that bloody night — other than a short burst of ironic laughter at the suggestion that the assassination’s masterminds are among the dozens of suspects identified so far in Haitian authorities’ investigation.
The true masterminds are still at large, Mrs. Moise believes. “The people that they arrested are the people who pulled the trigger. They wouldn’t pull the trigger with no orders. So the main characters that we need are the people who paid for that. And the people that gave the order.”
She is not sure local authorities alone are capable of uncovering the truth. What the Haitian people need, she said, is an independent investigation run by the UN, and potentially for the case to one day reach the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Government agents from the US and Colombia are already supporting the ongoing investigation into the killing, and their involvement is widely cited in capital city Port-au-Prince as key to its credibility.
Nevertheless, the investigation is opaque, and several sources close to it have told CNN that they are uneasy with repeated protocol breaches, failures to protect investigators from death threats, and battles over access to key evidence.
“To plan for months to kill a president and no one around him knows about it is something terrible. This showed me that the security and the intelligence systems in my country need work. If these people have been there for months and we had a working intelligence system, the president would’ve known,” Moise said.
There also are more nefarious forces at play than incompetence, she believes.
“There are powerful people in Haiti. And because of their power, I’m not sure that the current investigation can find answers,” she said.
Her late husband was a controversial figure, accused by civil society leaders of attempting to consolidate power by refusing to hold elections, weakening democratic guardrails and turning a blind eye to gang violence.
He also made dangerous enemies among the country’s powerful oligarchs by attempting to end or rewrite lucrative state contracts, said his wife.
Speaking at the president’s funeral in the northern city of Cap Haitien last week, the first lady warned that bloodthirsty “raptors” were still at large in Haiti, hoping to scare off the next would-be reformers.
“Is it a crime to want to free the state from the clutches of corrupt oligarchs? Is this a great crime?” she said.
“Jovenel has shown us the way, he has opened our eyes, so let’s not let the blood of our president be shed in vain,” she added — one of several statements that have fueled rumors she might one day run for office.
Moise sidesteps questions about her own presidential ambitions with the grace of a veteran politician, but she doesn’t shy away from politically charged topics. She argued, for example, that the interim government must hurry to hold new elections as well as the constitutional referendum that her husband championed, which grants greater powers to the presidency.
Civil society leaders counter that polls will be neither free nor fair in the current climate of insecurity, which has seen widespread kidnapping and gang warfare in Port-au-Prince. Nevertheless, elections are currently scheduled for the end of September.
“I think that with the election that is coming, with the constitution that is changing too, we will have a better country,” Moise told CNN. “Not in five years, probably not in 10. But we have hope.”
For the immediate future, she insists her focus is on her children, her recovery and ensuring that the international community that has so often intervened in Haiti’s affairs now grants the Caribbean country an independent, world-class murder investigation.
Though dwarfed by her new entourage of burly American private security agents and facing a daunting series of medical procedures to restore use of her damaged arm, she’s ready to fight.
“That’s what hope gives you. You fight,” she said softly. “I will ask and ask and ask until I get.”
Reporting contributed by journalist Etant Dupain.