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Police say suspect in killing of Haiti’s Moïse planned to assume presidency

Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a powerful Haitian gang boss, urged protests of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 10, risking more chaos. (Video: Reuters)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Authorities said Sunday they have arrested a Haitian man suspected of playing a leading role in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, allegedly recruiting some of the assailants by telling them they would be his bodyguards.

Police said Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63, planned to assume the presidency and hire some of the men as his security team. Sanon is reportedly a doctor with long-standing ties to Florida.

The announcement of his arrest came as senior FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials arrived in Haiti Sunday to discuss how the United States might assist after Moïse’s killing last week.

National Police Chief Léon Charles said Sanon landed in Haiti on a private plane in early June with “political objectives” and recruited a team through a Venezuelan security firm based in the United States. The team’s mission changed when one member was presented with an arrest warrant for Moïse.

The president was shot to death July 7 by what authorities have described as a team of commandos at his home in Port-au-Prince.

Sporadic gunfire erupted in Port-au-Prince over the weekend, piercing the relative calm that followed Moïse’s killing as violent gangs threatened to fill the power vacuum in a country that now has no clear leader. One powerful gang leader called his followers to the streets as residents shuttered their doors against the possibility of more bloodshed in a city already terrorized by criminal violence.

In the mystery and confusion immediately after Moïse’s assassination, the gangs gave the city something of a reprieve from the torrent of gunfire that has killed hundreds this year. But while answers remain elusive — the motive for the president’s killing remains unclear, and at least four men have claimed they’re in charge now — the peace has now been broken.

The city’s most powerful gang leader, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, called followers into the streets in the coming days to demand “justice against this cowardly assassination carried out by foreign mercenaries in the country.” In a video message Saturday, the self-styled revolutionary asked other gang leaders to join him in the violence.

In Haiti, coronavirus and a man named Barbecue test the rule of law

One resident of the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant, a journalist in his 20s, spoke of fleeing if conditions worsen.

“Anyone who stays in Martissant can be a victim any time,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. Anyone who chooses to take the road knows there are three possibilities: Either you die, you’re wounded or you get home safe.”

The four men claiming leadership of the government include acting prime minister Claude Joseph and Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon whom Moïse appointed prime minister two days before his death. On Friday, members of the country’s nonfunctioning Senate voted to name the body’s leader, Joseph Lambert, as Haiti’s acting president. In February, one faction of the opposition declared Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis interim president.

In Haiti, rivals claw for power as crisis escalates after assassination

Joseph, who has been recognized internationally but challenged at home, has asked the United States and the United Nations to send troops to help provide security. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Sunday the request was under review.

“We’re analyzing it, just like we would any other request for assistance here at the Pentagon,” he told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace.

Asked by Wallace whether the events in Haiti are a matter of U.S. national security, he said: “I don’t know that we’re at a point now where we can say” that.

“But, clearly, we value our Haitian partners,” Kirby said. “We value stability and security in that country. And that’s why we want to send a team down there today to help them get their arms around exactly what happened and what’s the best way forward.”

U.S. officials have pressed Joseph to keep his pledge to hold elections scheduled for September. But many here argue that elections are impossible while the gangs still rule the streets.

Visual timeline: The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse

Cherizier and his alliance of gang leaders, called the G9 Family and Allies, say they’re engaged in a revolution to liberate Haiti from a corrupt wealthy and political class. Human rights organizations had accused Moïse of maintaining links to Cherizier.

In his video message, in which he appeared in fatigues before a Haitian flag, he targeted the country’s Syrian and Lebanese business owners, whom he said “hold this country and its economy hostage.” He said they should leave the country: “Today, it’s time that folks who looks like us own supermarkets in this country. It’s time that we own car dealerships and banks.”

He said his followers would “practice what we call legitimate violence.”

“If they shoot on us, you know what to do,” he said. “You are not children.”

Assassination of Haitian president becomes complex international web

Gangs controlling neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince have blocked roads to the southern part of Haiti and disrupted gasoline distribution and commerce across the nation. More than 13,000 people in the capital are thought to have fled their homes, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Some people and businesses are using boats to circumvent the Martissant area altogether.

On Saturday, hundreds of Haitian citizens held up passports in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tabarre to ask for asylum.

Earlier Saturday, an audio clip appeared on the Twitter account of first lady Martine Moïse, who was wounded in the attack that killed her husband and is now receiving treatment in Florida. It was described as a message from the first lady.

“In a blink of an eye, mercenaries entered my home and riddled my husband with bullets,” Moïse says in the recording. She urged Haitians to continue his fight for Haiti.

Haitian officials have described the assailants as a hit squad of 28 people, including Colombian former soldiers and their two Haitian American interpreters.

Sanon was identified by the Miami Herald as a longtime doctor in Florida who has registered more than a dozen businesses in the state. Police said two other people have been implicated in the alleged scheme as “intellectual authors” of the assassination, but did not name them. Police last week arrested two Haitian Americans who allegedly worked as translators for the team; they have now taken at least 21 people into custody, most of them Colombians.

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A U.S. government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, expressed doubt about the authenticity of the recording of the first lady.

“Given the injury she sustained and the timing of when the audio was released, it’s questionable whether she would have been in a medical state to record such an audio clip,” the official said.

But a Haitian government official told The Washington Post that he spoke with a member of the first lady’s security team at her Miami hospital to confirm the message’s authenticity.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of escalating the violence, said he worried about the days leading up to the president’s funeral, which has yet to be scheduled.

“At this moment, we’re trying to keep the country calm,” he said.

Schmidt reported from Washington. Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.

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