He’s a physician and pastor who aspired to be Haiti’s president, amassing a small group of supporters who introduced him to key security contacts in South Florida who could help him acquire high-powered machine guns and silencers, men with military training and even financing.
But despite evidence that appeared like he was a ringleader in a coup to topple an embattled president in his Caribbean homeland, Christian Emmanuel Sanon was not charged in the kidnapping and assassination plot that led to Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s shocking July 7, 2021, death.
Singled out by Haitian authorities as the intellectual author of the crime that left Moïse dead after he was shot multiple times and his wife, Martine Moïse, seriously wounded, Sanon found himself in a Miami courtroom Wednesday facing the possibility of 20 years in prison as opposed to life, and charged with just export violations in a separate criminal complaint.
A Haitian American, Sanon was transferred to Miami on Tuesday from Port-au-Prince along with three other suspects in connection with the assassination. Two of them, James Solages, 37, and Joseph Vincent, 57, are Florida residents and dual citizens of Haiti and the United States. The third, Germán Rivera Garcia, 44, is a retired Colombian army officer who is alleged to be one of the leaders of the deadly attack.
During Wednesday’s Miami federal court hearing, each of the suspects said they did not have any job, income, assets or properties. As a result, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes appointed a lawyer for each. Solages is being represented by Jonathan Friedman; Vincent, by Ken Swartz; and Rivera, by Mark LeVine.
Sanon, who had family present in the courtroom, was assigned Zeljka Bozanic. No stranger to high-profile cases involving Haitian suspects, Bozanic previously represented Guy Philippe, a former police commander who eluded capture in Haiti for more than a decade even as he won a seat in the Haitian Senate, before being sentenced in 2017 to nine years in prison in Miami federal court.
All of the defendants, with the exception of Solages, whose lawyer wasn’t present, stipulated to pretrial detention and agreed to be detained before trial based on the recommendation of federal prosecutors Monica Castro and Andrea Goldbarg.
All the lawyers in the case declined to comment because they had just been appointed. Otazo-Reyes scheduled an arraignment for Feb. 15.
Solages, Vincent and Rivera are accused of helping coordinate the kidnapping of Moïse to remove him from office upon his return from a state visit to Turkey in June of 2021. The three men are also accused of conspiring to kill the president at his home in the upscale Pèlerin 5 neighborhood of the capital the following month.
In a separate criminal complaint, Sanon is accused of violating U.S. exports rules after sending bulletproof vests to Haiti ahead of the assassination. They are presumably the same vests that 22 former Colombian soldiers were wearing when they raided the president’s compound and allegedly killed Moïse.
Asked about her client’s lesser charge and whether it was an indication that he had been duped by his fellow suspects, Bozanic said, “I cannot comment because the case is at the very beginning.”
In a jailhouse interview with the Miami Herald last year, Sanon said he was not involved in either the plot to kidnap Moïse or kill him. He also distanced himself from the Doral-area security firm that provided the bodyguard services for him, saying that on one of his last trips to Haiti, company owner, Antonio “Tony” Intriago, didn’t alert him and had his own contacts to pick him up at the airport.
Intriago has not been charged and his attorney has maintained his innocence.
While the criminal complaint charging Sanon describes him as having played a key role in acquiring the military-style gear the Colombian commandos wore when they allegedly killed Moïse, it states that by mid-June, Sanon had gone from being an unlikely successor for the president to a man on the outs.
That successor role went to a former Supreme Court justice, Windelle Coq Thélot. Though Thélot isn’t named in the charges, a number of Haitians interviewed after the assassination told the Miami Herald that at some point Sanon had lost support as the president’s replacement and it had shifted to her. Thélot, a nemesis of the president who was known to the Colombians as “Diamante,” Diamond, Thélot had been fired by Moïse in February 2021 when she first emerged as a possible successor.
The shift to Thélot from Sanon shows there was chaos over who would lead Haiti after Moïse’s death. Even now, the question remains at the center of an ongoing political crisis in Haiti.
A Homeland Security Investigations agent noted in the complaint charging Sanon that “significant funding and support were provided in the efforts to remove President Moïse from power.” The complaint says Sanon and others worked together to ship 20 bulletproof vests to Haiti on June 10, 2021. The vests, marked as “medical X-ray vests,” were shipped without the required export license from the U.S. Department of Commerce and without the required export information, the complaint said.
Sanon faces charges that he conspired to defraud the United States by smuggling the vests from South Florida to Haiti while “providing unlawful export information” to the U.S. government.
In the months before Moise’s assassination, Sanon had emerged as an unlikely political candidate to replace him. Sanon had met with a group of Haitians, including a former Haiti senator, in South Florida to discuss security logistics for his quest to become Haiti’s next president.
That senator, John Joël Joseph, attended a meeting in South Florida with Sanon and others in April 2021 to discuss “Haitian regime change and support for Sanon’s own political candidacy,” according to the complaint written by the Homeland Security Investigations agent.
In mid-April, Joseph, who also goes by Joseph Joël John, sent a list of equipment and weapons needed for the “operation” to another meeting participant, who then forwarded that information to Sanon, the complaint said. The list included, among other things: ‘‘M4” rifles, “M-60” machine guns, “Kalashnikovs,” pistols, silencers, “hand grenade frags,’‘ a “gas mask,” “helmets,” “full bulletproof vests,” four rocket-propelled grenades, tear gas and more than $13,000 worth of ammunition.
Upon his arrest by U.S. investigators in Jamaica, where he fled to before being transferred to Miami, Joseph provided additional details about his involvement in the plot and described his goal as becoming prime minister under Moïse’s successor.
A group of about 20 former Colombian soldiers were being recruited to assist in the “operation,” the complaint said. “The Colombian nationals’ role included purportedly assisting in providing security for Sanon as Sanon sought a position of significant political power in Haiti.”
On May 17, 2021, Sanon contracted for equipment needed to support his “private military” forces, including the 20 vests for the Colombian recruits in Haiti, the complaint said.
According to the charges, on June 9, 2021, a conspirator texted Sanon about shipping the ballistic vests to Haiti, stating: ‘’These guys say they were ready and waiting for surgical instruments but no X-ray vests?”
Sanon replied: ‘‘What?’”
The conspirator responded: “(t)he X-ray vests that are coming tomorrow: seems like they needed these?”
Sanon replied: ‘‘Yes they do.”
That same day, the complaint said, a conspirator texted Sanon and another person regarding the logistics of shipping the ballistic vests to Haiti, stating: “Christian (Sanon) the plane arrives in Port-au-Prince at 2:30 PM tomorrow. I Assume (sic) that (a person in Haiti) will handle customs including any fees and the coordination of ultimate delivery of the supplies will be handled but (sic) you guys on the ground.”
The conspirator later texted Sanon to see if the vests had cleared customs in Haiti. Sanon replied ‘‘not yet.”
According to the complaint, a conspirator shipped 20 ballistic vests from South Florida to Haiti on June 10, 2021. “Sanon coordinated the customs processing and delivery of the vests to the Colombian nationals in Haiti,” the complaint said.
In the complaint, the agent noted that the shipping documents “falsely stated” that the items were “medical X-ray vests and school supplies,” that the vests were valued at $1,000, “significantly below their actual value,” that the export company was located in Florida, and that the person receiving the shipment in Haiti was a “medical services provider.”
On that same day, the complaint said, a conspirator texted Sanon copies of the June 10 shipment’s airway bill, the shipper’s letter of instruction and the commercial invoice with the false export information. In turn, Sanon gave that false information to another person to handle the customs processing when the vests arrived in Haiti, the complaint said.
At this same time, however, the plan was shifting under Sanon’s feet. Instead of kidnapping Moïse, some of the plotters decided to kill the president and to move from Sanon to someone else as a more viable contender to replace Moïse.
Four days before the assassination, Sanon made a frantic call to a friend in Florida saying that his Colombian bodyguards had abandoned him.
“My guards asked me for money. I didn’t have any. They said ‘if you don’t have money you can pray to God,’ “ the friend told the Herald in an interview.
But there was still a handful of soldiers with Sanon at least hours before the July 7 assassination. In an interview from Haiti’s National Penitentiary, retired Colombian Sgt. Edwin Blanquicet Rodríguez described being with Sanon when he received a call telling him to get ready with his team because an official from the Haitian National Police would pick them up.
After a pickup truck arrived, they were taken to a house in the hills. Blanquicet didn’t know exactly where the house was and Haitian Police initial described the attack as having launched from Pèlerin, the same neighborhood where the president lived. But the Herald, through phone records and information given by suspects to Haitian officials, have put several of the suspects at a house farther up the mountain in the Thomassin neighborhood.
“According to multiple witness interviews, on or about July 7, 2021, several individuals arrived outside President Moïse’s residence, some of whom were wearing the ballistic vests, and falsely announced to those inside the residence that the individuals were engaged in a ‘DEA Operation’ in an attempt to ensure compliance by President Moïse’s security and other civilians,” according to the complaint.
“The individuals entered the President’s home, and the President was subsequently killed.”
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