Presidential security chief implicated in Haiti assassination has chequered past, subject of two U.S. law enforcement investigations
Crédito: Tony Sales / Shipspotting.com / Facebook / Michel Martelly / David Maris / Univision
In April 2015, a ship carrying sugar from Colombia docked in Haiti and was being unloaded by stevedores when a package of drugs burst open on the dock, leading to the discovery of a massive shipment of cocaine and heroin.
On board the ship, hidden under bags of sugar, agents suspected was more than 700 kilos of cocaine and 300 kilos of heroin, worth more than $100 million dollars, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
But most of the drugs were never found. After a 28-day search of the Manzanares by the DEA and the U.S. Coast Guard, only a fraction of the drugs were recovered, about 107 kilos of cocaine and 13 kilos of heroin were recovered.
It would later emerge that some of the drugs had been whisked away by vehicles with presidential palace license plates, overseen by local police, according to witnesses.
One of the suspects was a fast-rising police officer, Dimitri Hérard, who would later rise to be head of the president’s elite security detail, the General Security Unit of the National Palace Guard, or USGPN.
Hérard is now sitting in jail in Haiti, suspected of involvement in the assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse. A team of Colombian former soldiers broke into the president’s residence on July 7, mysteriously encountering little or no resistance from the palace guard.
It turns out, Hérard had been under investigation by U.S. officials for years, according to a DEA whistleblower who is speaking out about corruption in Haiti and within the DEA itself. “Hérard was a significant person in the Manzanares case,” former DEA agent, Keith McNichols, told Univision in a two-hour interview.
McNichols said he interviewed Hérard at last two times at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. Another former Haitian law enforcement official in Haiti told Univision that Hérard’s home was searched and his parents briefly detained by Haitian antinarcotics police. “He knew he was a target of the investigation,” the source said.
Hérard was also a subject of a separate U.S. investigation related to arms trafficking in Haiti, according to a report by Jake Johnston, a senior researcher with the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington DC, who cited multiple sources both inside Haiti and the United States. On top of that he earned an unfavorable mention in a 2019 State Department human rights report.
Yet, somehow, none of this seemed to hurt Hérard’s career.
"If it turns out that any of those involved in the assassination were already the target of US law enforcement, this investigation has the chance to blowback on the US in really negative ways," said Johnston.
At least 44 people, including 18 Colombian former soldiers and several Haitian police were arrested after the murder. The motive for his killing is still unclear, and mystery also surrounds who the intellectual authors were. Agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are helping in the investigation.
Besides the failure of the president’s security guards to protect him, other allegations of evidence incriminating Hérard have also emerged.
On the night of the assassination, Moise reportedly called Hérard desperately seeking backup as the residence came under attack from the Colombian commandos. Hérard said he would bring reinforcements, but ne never reached the residence and was later that night seen casually talking to drivers at a police roadblock near the residence, according to witnesses.
Instead, Hérard was allegedly in “constant communication” with some of those plotting the assassination and helped provide weapons, according to Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, (RNDDH), which published its own report last weekend based on interviews with some of the suspects under arrest, as well as interviews with the Haitian Judicial Police (DCPJ).
Hérard “was responsible for supplying weapons and ammunition to the [Colombian] commando members including assault rifles, tear gas canisters, hand grenades and power saws,” RNDDH said. The report did not specify where the evidence came from. One of the authors of the report, Pierre Esperance, said it was based on “multiple sources.”
Hérard’s lawyer, Jean Patrick Vandal, told Univision that he couldn’t comment on the case and hasn’t had a chance to meet yet with his client after his arrest.
A source who spoke to Hérard in jail described him as nervous, fearful that U.S. agents investigating the murder might use the Manzanares case to pressure him to confess to involvement in the assassination.
Hérard was sent to Ecuador in 2011 to train for three years as a cadet at the Eloy Alfaro Military School, specializing in intelligence. After his return from Ecuador he entered the president’s palace guard, becoming head of the USGPN in February 2017, soon after the inauguration of president Moïse.
Still only in his mid-30s, he rose fast in the police ranks, in part because he was a rare breed in Haiti: a trained military officer in a country with no Army. But Esperance, and others, suspect he also enjoyed high level political protection.
"He's a really, really smart guy. I doubt he's involved," said Luc Edwin Ceide, who graduated from the same military academy a few years before Hérard and is now mayor of Saint Louis du Sud, one of the towns worst hit by the August 14 earthquake in southern Haiti.
While serving in the police Hérard was also been implicated in human rights abuses. The State Department’s 2019 human rights report mentioned that Herard “shot and wounded two civilians” in Port-au-Prince on June 10. Following the incident, several witnesses pursued Herard’s vehicle upon which he and other police officers “opened fire on the group of civilians, resulting in two others being wounded.”
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Hérard and his sister own companies together with Carl Martin, a Haitian-American and former US Navy officer according to a detailed report by Johnston for CEPR. They were also seeking to manufacture weapons and ammunition in Haiti.
Martin, received a $73,000 State Department contract in November 2019 to provide “riot gear kit” for a crowd control unit of the Haitian National Police, according to the US government’s contracting database.
Hérard and Martin were “operating one of the most lucrative arms dealerships in the country,” Johnston reported, citing a knowledgeable source.
Martin declined to comment when contacted by Univision.
A State Department official confirmed that its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) issued the contract for X-International to Martin in 2019. But it said that INL “does not provide assistance” to the palace security guards and was “unaware of any association” between Martin and Herard.
It is not known if the investigation into the president’s assassination is linked in any way to the Manzanares case, though many observers suspect drugs could have played a role in the motive, especially if any of those involved feared that arrests – and extradition to the United States – were imminent.
Herard is the only suspect in the Manzanares case who is also under arrest for his alleged role in the assassination.
The DEA whistleblowers allege "rampant corruption and misconduct" at the DEA office in Haiti - involving bribes and collusion with drug traffickers - that contributed to the failure to prosecute those responsible for the Manzanares shipment.
The DEA office in Haiti is one of the busiest in the Caribbean due to the history of drug traffickers exploiting its weak police capability and notoriously corrupt justice system. Agents say Haiti is one of the agency's toughest postings, due to lack of trustworthy law enforcement capacity there.
On April 5, 2015, McNichols said he got a call in his office from his counterpart at the BLTS, Haiti’s antinarcotics police. “This vessel had come and there were drugs,” McNichols told Univision. “I immediately went down to the port. A parcel of drugs had burst open and there was a big frenzy with the stevedores … One guy got shot and killed,” he added.
In the confusion, men dressed in presidential guard and police uniforms arrived at the port terminal, picking up some of the bags of cocaine and heroin, before driving away, witnesses say. Among those allegedly giving orders was Hérard.
Hérard admitted to being present at the terminal, but said he was there to meet one of the owners to discuss starting a firearm and security business, according to an official familiar with the investigation. He denied any involvement with the drugs.
Investigators suspect that the Manzanares made at least two previous undetected drug shipments from Colombia to Haiti.
Among those arrested in the aftermath were several Haitians belonging to two of the country’s wealthiest families, but a Haitian judge later released them, as well as the crew of the Manzanares.
The commander of the Haiti anti-drug unit, Joris Mergelus, also came under suspicion of taking bribes and trying to protect the drug traffickers. Mergelus strongly denied any links to drug
traffickers in an interview with The Miami Herald.
In 2017 he was removed from his post and June 2019 he flew to the United States where he requested asylum. His request was denied and he was deported back to Haiti a month later where he was promptly fired from the police, according to documents obtained by Univision.
The only person who was charged in the case was a Haitian stevedore, Gregory George. After spending four years in jail in Haiti, George was extradited to the United States where he was sentenced to time served and released.
At his sentencing in June last year, his lawyer and prosecutors said he deserved a break for his cooperation with U.S. officials, suggesting he had faced death threats in Haiti.
“There were several attempts on his life, including attempts while he was cooperating with the United States while he was incarcerated in Haiti,” prosecutor Kurt Lunkenheimer said. “Because of those attempts on his life … the United States decided that it was time to get him out of there for his own safety because we feared for his life, so we indicted him and had him extradited/expelled from Haiti to face these charges,” he said.
Since he arrived in the U.S., George continued to cooperate with prosecutors investigating the Manzanares, he added.
Blowing the whistle
Hérard's promotion to head the palace guards despite his spotty record is one of many puzzling elements in the investigation of the Moise assassination.
"In Haiti the more corrupt you are the more you can be trusted. It's the reverse of any civil society," said Mike Vigil, the DEA's former chief of Caribbean operations.
McNichols says he fails to understand why more charges were not filed and his reports ignored by his superiors. After arriving in Haiti in 2014, McNichols and another DEA. agent, George Greco, say they discovered that other agents were stealing operational funds in cahoots with Haitian counternarcotics officers.
"A DEA supervisor was engaged in a lot of activities that I view as illegal and unethical,” McNichols said.
They documented a total of $160,000 in kickbacks, and McNichols estimates it could add up to $1.2 million, “maybe more.” “I audited the BLTS books. They used fake receipts. I documented numerous payments,” he said, even creating a spreadsheet which he submitted to his superiors.
At the same time, the agents were making headway in the Manzanares investigation, successfully flipping a number of useful informants. However, he says he was not getting the support from his managers in the DEA Caribbean Division. “To them, it was like I was opening up an ants’ nest. They felt I was a troublemaker and made my life hell,” he said.
McNichols and another DEA agent filed several whistleblower complaints with the help of a group called the Government Accountability Project, focused on the improper conduct they say they witnessed in Haiti.
An investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), found that the DEA office in Haiti “failed to properly conduct its investigation” of the drug seizure and that “a DEA official conspired with Haitian law enforcement to destroy drug evidence seized from the Manzanares.”
In a letter to the White House on July 30, the Special Counsel largely rejected the DEA’s defense of its Haiti office and urged the DEA “to more closely review its operations in Haiti and … improve its effectiveness.”
A DEA spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations. The OSC letter states that DEA rejected the allegations, saying it "did not find sufficient evidence ... that DEA denied resources for the Manzanares investigation."
The DEA continues to investigate the Manzanares seizure and prosecutors are still examining potential criminal charges, the OSC letter stated. It does not mention Hérard’s name of any other targets of the investigation.
McNichols retired from the DEA after 23 years, but says he plans to continue his fight to get to the bottom of the Manzanares case
“I want to tell my story to make things better for my former colleagues at DEA and for future whistleblowers,” he said.