(WASHINGTON) — Haiti’s government has requested the U.S. send troops to help stabilize the country and secure critical infrastructure like oil reserves and its port and airport in the wake of the assassination of its president earlier this week, Haitian Elections Minister Mathias Pierre told ABC News Friday. The deployment of U.S. forces would mark a major escalation of U.S. involvement, one that it’s unclear President Joe Biden is interested in making.
The U.S. has agreed to send senior officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to Haiti to assist the government’s investigation of the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, the White House announced Friday.
The assistance comes after two U.S. citizens were among the 17 men arrested by Haitian authorities for the head of state’s shocking murder, which threatens to plunge Haiti further into chaos amid competing claims to power.
The political and security crises afflicting the Caribbean country are rivaled only by the coronavirus pandemic. Haiti is one of only a handful of countries in the world that has yet to distribute a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and that will once again be delayed because of the deep insecurity, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Seventeen suspects have been detained, according to interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph’s office, including two Americans and 15 Colombians.
Four other suspects were killed by police in a shootout late Wednesday, according to Haitian officials. Leon Charles, chief of Haiti’s National Police, said Thursday that eight other suspects were on the run, according to The Associated Press.
Four members of Moise’s security detail are also wanted for questioning, according to Haitian government commissioner Bed-Ford Claude, including the head of his security detail.
It’s unclear how the assailants were able to access the private presidential residence. The group said they were agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. Bocchit Edmond, a claim that the Haitian and U.S. governments have denied. It may have gotten them past some security, although Edmond told ABC News it’s “obvious” that the group of “international mercenaries,” as he called them, had “some internal help,” too.
One of the detained Americans has been identified as 35-year old James Solanges, according to Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s elections minister, who declined to name the other American.
On a website for his charity, Solanges, a Florida resident, described himself as a “certified diplomatic agent” and said he previously worked as a bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti — claims that ABC News could not independently verify.
“We are certainly aware of the arrest of the two U.S. citizens who are in Haiti and continue to closely monitor the situation,” State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said Friday, declining to comment further because of “privacy considerations” and referring questions to Haitian authorities leading the investigation.
The White House announced it would deploy senior officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to assess the situation and provide assistance to Haitian authorities.
The Haitian government had requested assistance from the FBI, saying it “can play a critical role in rendering justice,” and called for sanctions on “all perpetrators who are directly responsible or aided and abetted in the execution of the assassination of the President,” according to a letter from Edmond to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that was obtained by ABC News.
In addition, the government has asked for U.S. troops, according to Pierre, although it’s unclear whether that request has been made through formal channels. The State Department declined to address a question about Pierre’s comments during a press briefing Friday afternoon.
The U.S. is also being called upon to help calm the political turmoil, especially amid competing claims to power and the threat of gang violence erupting again on the streets.
Haiti’s line of succession had already been blurred by its political turmoil. Political opponents argued Moise’s five-year term ended in February, while he said the term ended in February 2022, five years after his 2017 inauguration — a claim backed by the U.S. and United Nations.
But who is in charge is further confused because Moise selected Ariel Henry, a surgeon and former minister, to serve as his new interim prime minister just days before his assassination. While Henry has told some local media outlets that he is the rightful leader, the U.S. is backing Joseph in his claim of legitimacy.
Because “Claude Joseph was the incumbent in the position … we continue to work with Claude Joseph as such,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday, adding that U.S. officials have been in touch with him and Henry and urging calm.
Joseph and Blinken spoke by phone Wednesday night — another boost of support — and the U.S. has backed his messages of stability and his calls for free and fair elections and national dialogue.
The transfer of power to Joseph is not in line with Haiti’s constitution, which says the president should be replaced by the head of the Supreme Court who is “invested temporarily with the duties of the president” by the National Assembly. But the country’s chief justice died from COVID-19 just two weeks ago, and the legislature has been disbanded since January 2020 after the country failed to hold legislative elections in October 2019.
Elections for the National Assembly and president have already been scheduled for late September, but many critics and political opposition leaders have said the country is not in position to hold them freely or fairly. It’s unclear if Joseph will push to move ahead with them, or even be able to, but the State Department said Thursday those elections should go ahead as planned.
One major hurdle to holding those contests is the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to rage in Haiti. Cases last month were as high as they were one year prior, and the country has yet to receive any doses from COVAX, the international program to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.
UNICEF was preparing to ship vaccines to Haiti as soon as this week, but because of the assassination and ensuing turmoil that no longer looks likely, a source familiar with the shipments told ABC News.
“Rising gang criminality and increased insecurity has hindered humanitarian operations in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince,” UNICEF said in a statement Friday, adding it has “stepped up its efforts to use more sophisticated logistics and consider alternative routes to bring assistance more effectively to children in need.”
U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison was able to return to the capital yesterday from Washington, where she was attending previously scheduled meetings — a sign, perhaps, that the embassy has no plans to evacuate American personnel. Price declined to comment on security there, except to say the embassy is “constantly evaluating” the situation and would remain closed to the public through Monday.
ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky, Victor Ordonez and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.