The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wives of alleged Haiti assassins left in the dark, desperate for word or to repatriate bodies

Suspects in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, detained at police headquarters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 8. (Joseph Odelyn/AP)

Giovanna Romero just wants her husband back. But she cannot even afford to ship his body home.

Mauricio Javier Romero was one of two former Colombian soldiers reported to have been killed in a shootout following the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. At least 17 other Colombian mercenaries have been detained in Haiti, accused of taking part in an international plot to gun down Moïse in his private residence.

Moïse’s assassination set off a power struggle in the violence- and poverty-stricken country.

The involvement of the Colombian mercenaries — who hired them and what they knew — has emerged as one of the key mysteries in a global investigation into the plan to kill the leader of the Caribbean nation, long beset by foreign meddling.

But for their wives, more immediate questions loom: What will become of their husbands? And how will those left behind afford to support their families?

Romero has not personally identified her husband’s body. Her daughter received video footage of a body that resembled his. It had a bullet wound in the back.

But Colombian authorities have said he is one of the deceased Colombian nationals and that, while they are trying to accelerate the repatriation of bodies, it could cost Romero’s family $10,000 to $20,000 to bring the body home.

“How, under these circumstances, are we going to pay something like that?” Romero said in an interview with The Washington Post.

She depends on her husband’s nearly $800-a-month retirement pension. But she cannot receive the money without a death certificate, which she cannot acquire until his body is returned. He never received any of the promised payment for his work in Haiti. And like others among the mercenaries, he did not think he was on an assignment to kill Haiti’s president, Romero said.

Adding to the stress is the lack of clarity around how he died, and what he was doing in Haiti in the first place.

“They are not here to defend themselves,” she told The Post. “Their story is gone; they took it with them when they died.”

Romero described her husband as “patient, happy” and a “wonderful” partner and father.

He thought he had stumbled into good fortune earlier in the summer when he was offered a job working abroad, his first since retiring from the military. He was not asked to take a physical or to send a résumé to any company, though he did need a negative coronavirus test, Romero said. Within two days, he was on a plane to the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti.

Such hires are common among former Colombian soldiers, who often look for work as bodyguards and in private security. Ex-soldiers from Colombia, which has faced decades of violence and warfare, are considered well-trained for such jobs. They are also often willing to work for low salaries, in international terms.

The men were tricked into signing up for an operation without knowing its ultimate purpose, several of their wives told The Post. Reporters have not been able to speak with the men or those who recruited them to get their side of the story.

My husband “was told an American company was hired for security purposes to help a very poor country in the region, but they never told him it was Haiti,” said Luz León, of the city of Sogamoso, in Boyacá.

León said her husband, John Jairo Ramírez, received a call on July 3 offering him the job, his first day after leaving the military.

He was offered $2,700 a month for a five-year security contract, she said. But once in Haiti, he told his wife that the people who hired him did not have the contracts ready.

“They were told to wait for a least a month before getting paid,” she said.

“We have debts,” she added. “We pay rent. His dream was to use the money to build a house and stay only a year.”

The chance never came. Ramírez has been detained in Haiti since July 7, and León has not heard from her husband since she missed his call that day.

“He left me a message in the morning saying he was fine,” she said. “He left me a message asking me to take care of the kids. He was agitated, but I knew that if something was wrong, he would never tell me.”

Colombian President Iván Duque told La FM radio on July 15 that a small group of the Colombians knew about the assassination, while the rest were sent under false pretenses.

Colombian police chief Jorge Vargas said Friday that a former Haitian justice ministry official, Joseph Felix Badio, had ordered Duberney Capador, one of the deceased Colombians, and Germán Rivera, one of the Colombians who remain in custody, to kill Moïse.

Capador’s wife, Paula Salazar, of Quindío province in Colombia, said her husband had not mentioned such plans. “Knowing my husband like I do, he would’ve never taken his friends, people he knew had family and children, if he knew about what was going to happen,” she said.

Her family is waiting for official information about the whereabouts of his body.

“We asked the [Colombian] Foreign Ministry and the Red Cross for help,” she said, “but they tell us the same thing: We have to wait.”

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that a consular mission is expected to arrive in Haiti on Sunday to inspect the conditions of those detained, “as well as to carry out steps for the repatriation of the bodies of the former military.”

Claudia Herrera, the founder of a nonprofit organization that helps families of former military members in Colombia, said a GoFundMe page had been launched to help with the costs of repatriation and support for families left behind.

“They worked for the state for 20 years, so it is not fair that at this moment they turn their back on us,” Salazar said. “The government should intervene not because they are military, but because they are Colombian.”

León said she has no information on whether her husband is being assisted by a lawyer.

“Nothing they can tell me will bring him back,” Romero said. But “we are looking for objective investigations to be carried out. Where due process is respected.”