He was the translator for a group tasked with providing security for Haitian President Jovenel Moise, he said — but during an encounter at his private residence, “something terrible happened.”
“There’s loss of life but we didn’t do it,” he said.
The killing of Moise has sparked a sprawling investigation across multiple countries, supported by both the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and Colombian intelligence services. No public statements have been released by at least two dozen people who have been detained in relation to the case. However, new audio and video recordings from the day of the killing obtained by CNN may offer a glimpse into the mindset of those now implicated in the assassination.
While the unidentified caller was on Radio Mega, a local reporter happened to overhear him in person.
A reporter and his cameraman for Radio Television Caraibes, one of Haiti’s biggest radio stations, were driving up the hilly Route de Kenscoff on a motorbike toward the President’s private residence, on a mission to see what they could find out about the assassination.
Footage they filmed shows an apparently unsecured roadblock of two trucks, which they easily bypassed — the beginning of an extraordinary five minutes in the company of people who would soon be the most wanted men in Haiti.
Just up the hill, two men in balaclavas rose out of a ditch holding long guns and shouted. Malhaiko Senechal, the reporter, was unfazed. “I’m used to seeing men with guns in my work, when I’m driving around the city,” he said. “I thought they were helping the police who were responding to the murder.”
After 15 years of digging up news in Port-au-Prince, Senechal’s instinct was to stop and find out more. He saw more men standing under the shade of bushes and flowers overhanging a nearby wall. They looked watchful and a little restless, but not obviously hostile or upset, he told CNN. Three held guns and apparent protective vests, and a fourth was sitting down, speaking rapidly into his cellphone in Haitian Creole.
According to Senechal, the speaker described himself as a translator and insisted on the phone that he and his group had attempted to serve an arrest warrant to the President.
Meanwhile, Radio Mega listeners were hearing this live from the unidentified caller:
“This group is from the President’s own hand; it is a group that he let into the country to provide security for him. It turns out that the same group has been given a warrant to arrest the President.”
The same caller described the purported warrant in detail, and added, “Something terrible happened, although we were not expecting that to happen. I was only translating for them, though. When we tried to enter the gate to serve the warrant, the President’s entourage opened fire. Consequently, these agents opened fire in return to protect their lives.”
Standing a few feet away, Senechal called his boss, who confirmed his own growing suspicion — he was likely standing in the midst of those involved in the attack at the President’s house.
“When I heard the interpreter who was doing the interview with Radio Mega, I immediately knew that I was in danger, in danger because these were men that came and assassinated the President. If they can assassinate my President and I am just a simple citizen — well I was scared for my life,” Senechal said.
An arrest plan
That anyone would claim they were both hired to protect the President and instructed to arrest him appears at best contradictory. Yet it bears close resemblance to explanations already given by Haitian and Colombian authorities in the week since the President’s killing.
At least 39 people have been implicated in the killing of President Moise, and 26 of the suspects are Colombian, many of them ex-military. Citing Haitian authorities, Colombian police said Thursday that some of the Colombians were hired and brought to Haiti on the understanding their job was to detain the leader and hand him over to United States law enforcement.
The initial plan was to “arrest the president and put him on display for the (US Drug Enforcement Agency),” Colombian police chief General Jorge Vargas said at a press conference in Bogota on Thursday. Haitian police have also said the suspects allegedly carried a document purporting to be an arrest warrant. CNN has no evidence of the document’s authenticity.
Several suspects did have US ties — some had been informants for the DEA and FBI, while others had participated in US military training and education programs while serving in the Colombian military. However, there is no indication of the DEA’s direct involvement in the operation that killed President Moise, according to Vargas, and the agency has said that none of the attackers were operating on its behalf.
A number of suspected killers were likely deceived by their compatriots, Colombian President Ivan Duque told a local radio station on Thursday. Preliminary investigation suggests the Colombians were working in two groups, he said: A smaller group who knew of a “criminal” objective and were aware the bigger operation was a cover-up, and a larger group that had been kept in the dark.
“An important group was taken there to work on a supposed private security mission, for protection. But there was a smaller group who apparently had detailed knowledge that the outcome of the mission was to be a criminal one,” Duque said, without offering further evidence.
Whether that outcome was meant to be a presidential assassination is not clear, he added.
Two former Colombian military officers, Dubernay Capador and German Rivera, have been accused of leading the operation. The pair previously met with Christian Emmanuel Sanon, the Florida-based pastor whom Haitian authorities allege coordinated the military operation in hopes of seizing power for himself, according to Vargas, the Colombian police chief. Sanon has denied all knowledge of the operation and insisted on his innocence, according to a source close to the investigation who cannot be named because they are not authorized to discuss the affair.
A Colombian security guard for an oil company in Bogota, Matias Gutierrez, also said that Capador attempted to recruit him to travel to Haiti in early May, describing a job “as private security in Haiti. Security for the President of Haiti, who was believed to be under death threat.”
Three more of the known suspects are Haitian-Americans, of which two are believed to have been hired as translators for the group. Based on photos released after their arrest, Senechal believes that the man he spoke to — and who called into Radio Mega — was one of them.
Haitian Chief of National Police Leon Charles has declined to comment on whether any of the suspects have been formally charged or have legal representation, citing the ongoing investigation.
Capador and least two other Colombians were killed by Haitian authorities responding to the assassination.
Search turns up more questions
Arrests continue in Haiti amid the search for a local mastermind — or several — capable of bringing in, arming, and moving around dozens of foreign mercenaries. Several police officers and heads of security units have been put under “precautionary measures,” which are typically intended to limit movements, according to Haitian police. Four have been put in isolation, including the head of national palace security Dimitri Herard.
“I also believe this has been a much bigger plot and that the authorities will have to clarify many aspects. Who pushed for changing the outcome of the operation? Why all the people involved end up in the same place and not in two places? Who was in charge of protecting the President? These are all things we need to answer and we’re working with Haitian authorities so that they lead to the instigators of this assassination,” Duque, the Colombian President, said on Thursday.
But much of the investigation remains opaque, leaving plenty of fertile ground for conspiracy theory, speculation and rumor. Several key pieces of information remain undisclosed, including CCTV footage from inside the President’s residence, and the account of Haiti’s most prominent potential witness, First Lady Martine Moise, who was injured during last week’s attack. Her official Twitter account has released multiple statements reflecting on her husband’s death and thanking medical staff in Miami, where she is hospitalized, but has not commented on what happened.
Without the testimony of the suspects themselves, yet to be explained is why they apparently allowed Senechal and his cameraman to get so close and also to depart, asking only whether the pair had seen army or police troops at the bottom of the hill. The two journalists had not noticed any security forces on their way up the hill, Senechal says, though around 20 armed security officers could be seen coming from the nearby Place Saint Pierre as he left, about five minutes later.
Which raises one more question: Why Haitian authorities might have left a key roadblock unattended in front of the suspected assassins, even briefly. A spokeswoman for the Haitian police did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.