PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The attackers raided the private compound of Haiti’s president before dawn, yelling “DEA operation!” and wielding high-caliber weapons. They tied up a maid and houseboy and ransacked Jovenel Moïse’s office and bedroom.
When it was over, Moïse lay sprawled on his bedroom floor. He had been shot in the forehead, chest, hip and stomach, and his left eye was gouged.
By the time the sun rose, the suspects had scattered by car and foot, leaving this country of more than 11 million in shock. People tuned into radio stations, some still in disbelief until gruesome photos began to circulate on social media.
“I’m not saying he was a good person, but he didn’t deserve death,” said a woman named Sandra, who lived across the street from the president’s mansion. She and her son and husband squeezed into a shower in the back of their home when they heard gunshots echoing through the Pelerin neighborhood.
Sandra, who declined to give her last name for fear of being killed, thought it was Haitian gang members who had been threatening to take over the area until she heard someone yell in English: “Go! Go! Go!”
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said the July 7 attack was carried out by a highly trained and heavily armed group. Details have been scarce, but Associated Press interviews with investigators and witnesses give a sense of the terror and chaos of that night.
So far, police have detained more than 20 suspects they say were directly involved in the killing, including a contingent of former Colombian special forces soldiers. Other suspects were killed by authorities as they closed in.
None of the president’s security guards were hurt. The president’s daughter hid in her brother’s bedroom and survived, Carl Henry Destin, a deputy peace justice, told the AP as he confirmed details of that night.
Shortly after the slaying, several of the Colombians hid in a two-story business that once sold furniture on a narrow, hilly road just a few minutes’ drive from Moïse’s house.
One of the Colombians texted his sister from the business around 6:30 a.m. “Things had gotten complicated,” Duberney Capador wrote to Yenny Capador.
Half an hour later, her phone beeped with another message: “We are under attack.”
She said Capador told her police were firing at them and that they were trying to talk to authorities and turn themselves in. Then he went silent for several hours and later turned up dead, his body badly bruised.
At least three soldiers were killed in the shootout that blew out all the store’s windows.
Among those killed was Mauricio Javier Romero. His wife, Giovanna Romero, told the AP that she last spoke to him at 9:30 p.m. on July 6, just hours before the attack on the president. She told him that she and their son were putting on their pajamas and getting ready for bed. He responded that they didn’t have power or internet and that they had turned on a generator. So he took advantage of the electricity and called her.
“He then told me, ‘Say hi to the boy. I love you very much. A kiss. We’ll talk as soon as I can,'” she said. “That was it.”
The suspects who survived the gunfire are believed to have fled through the back part of the building. They climbed more than 40 stairs, stepped through a small garbage dump and scaled a towering wall of concrete blocks. On the other side, just a short distance down a road in an high-end community, they found another potential hideout: the Taiwanese Embassy.
Taiwanese diplomats were working from home at the time, and embassy security guards alerted Haitian police that a group of armed suspects were breaking through some doors and windows. Eleven suspects were arrested, officials said.
The remaining suspects fled to nearby areas, some hiding in bushes and other places until a group of Haitians found them and roughed them up, in some cases slapping them. In one neighborhood, civilians bound the suspects’ arms with rope and forced them to walk while someone yelled “Move! Move!” until they reached a spot where police arrived and arrested them.
In another nearby community, a crowd chased after two suspects and detained them. The AP observed police taking the pair away in the back of a pickup truck, and how some in the crowd followed to the police station and demanded that the attackers be given back to them.
“They killed the president!” they chanted. “Give them to us. We’re going to burn them!”
The crowd later set fire to a couple of cars riddled with bullet holes that they believed the suspects had abandoned at the business where the shootout occurred. The government decried their actions, saying they were destroying valuable evidence. The cars did not have license plates and inside one of them was some water and an empty box of bullets.
Watching the scene unfold from above was Giovanni, who declined to give his full name out of fear for his life. He sleeps and works in an abandoned building where he makes furniture.
At around 7 a.m., he said he saw a group of white foreigners wielding large weapons and stopping cars along the road that leads to the president’s house and the business where the shootout occurred. He said they were speaking Spanish, but he could not understand what they were saying.
“They had control of the area,” he said, adding that some later fled in different directions in the hills above the store. He said he also saw Haitian police arrest the suspects after embassy officials gave them access to the yard.
Joanne Massillon, a 45-year-old mother of three who lives nearby, said she heard police shouting: “There’s the white guy! The white guy! The white guy!” She said she didn’t dare venture out at that moment.
“If you hear ‘Boom! Boom!’ you stay inside,” she said.
Other men are also accused of helping plot the assassination, including a former rebel leader who rose to prominence following a 2004 coup and a Haitian man who is a physician and church pastor. Associates told the AP they believe he was duped.
Haiti’s government is holding high-ranking officials in isolation, including the head of the president’s security detail. In addition, police have said that a Venezuelan businessman who owns a Florida-based security company that paid airfares for some of the Colombian soldiers is a person of interest because he flew to Haiti several times and signed a contract during a trip before the assassination.
Colombian authorities have said that at least 26 former soldiers were involved. Other suspects include a former Haitian senator, a fired government official and an informant for the U.S. government.
Back at the president’s home, debris including shattered glass, a broken side mirror and a barrier arm snapped in two cluttered one side of the entrance for about a week until it was removed. A wall near the entrance where an avocado tree grows is pockmarked with several bullet holes. Guards continue to stand near a massive bright blue iron gate topped with spikes and pocked with bullet holes circled in red as evidence.
Moïse’s wife, who was critically wounded in the attack, is recovering at a Miami hospital.
On Twitter, she said she still cannot believe that her husband was killed before her eyes “without saying a last word.”
“This pain,” she wrote, “will never pass.”
Associated Press writers Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Astrid Suárez in Bucaramanga, Colombia, contributed to this report.