On May 1, 2000, a wealthy Haitian businessman Rodolphe Jaar was stopped by United States Customs agents while he was driving in South Florida.
Agents searched his rental car and seized a large amount of U.S. currency. But the agents did not arrest or charge Jaar with any crime, despite the fact that he was under investigation for alleged money laundering, according to court documents.
Jaar, the owner of an import and export business in Haiti, would go on to be one of Haiti’s most prolific drug traffickers, helping smuggle at least seven tons of Colombian cocaine into the country, destined mostly for the United States between 1998 and 2012, according to court records. He went by the alias ‘Whiskey’ according to his 2013 indictment.
To save his skin, he became a U.S. government informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA, though he eventually landed in jail in 2013, pleading guilty to stealing 50 kilos of the cocaine he was supposed to be helping agents seize, worth around $1 million.
After his release from jail in 2016, Jaar returned to Haiti where his name has surfaced as one of the suspects in the plot to assassinate Haitian president, Jovenel Moise, gunned down in his bedroom on July 7.
A bizarre meeting
A month earlier, Jaar allegedly attended a bizarre meeting in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where a plan was discussed, with supposed U.S. government backing, to detain 34 Haitian businessmen and government officials involved in drug trafficking and money laundering, using Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
U.S. officials deny any such plan existed and Haitian police say the nine participants were actually involved in the plot to kill the president. Most are in detention, except for Jaar who is a fugitive and two other Haitians, a justice ministry official who was fired this year for corruption and a former senator.
“There is absolutely no truth to the allegations that the Department of State, FBI, DEA or any other U.S. Government entity was involved in this plot,” a State Department spokesperson told Univision late Friday.
It remains unclear what Jaar’s role was in the meeting, what was actually discussed and whether it had anything to do with assassination of Moise. It is also unknown if Jaar was still working as a DEA informant after he returned to Haiti. The DEA declined to comment about his status in response to several requests from Univision.
The DEA has previously acknowledged that one of the other participants now in detention was working as a “confidential source.” The DEA did not name the person but said that following the assassination the informant reached out to his contacts at the DEA and later surrendered to local authorities, along with one other.
The DEA has also strongly denied any involvement in the assassination during which some assassins yelled "DEA" during the attack on the president's residence. “These individuals were not acting on behalf of DEA,” it said.
Experts from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) are now working with Haitian authorities to try and solve the murder which has baffled Haitians and outside observers for almost a month, threatening to further destabilize the impoverished Caribbean nation of 11 million.
The meeting attended by Jaar could hold vital clues and has important links with other elements in the plot. It’s timing coincided with the arrival in Haiti of a group of former Colombian soldiers who are also in detention suspected of participating in the killing.
Two of the participants in the meeting, both Haitian-Americans, James Solages and Joseph Vincent, have alleged confessed to working with the Colombians, supposedly as translators. It is widely believed that one of them, Vincent, is the unidentified DEA informant. Few details have emerged about Vincent's life in the United States. The Miami Herald reported that Vincent, 55, became a DEA informant after being arrested more than 20 years ago for filing false information on a U.S. passport application.
The Jaar family
A lot more is known about Jaar, the 49-year-old black sheep of an otherwise reputable family at the top of the country’s business elite. Palestinian emigres from Bethlehem, the Jaar family own the Coca-Cola bottling license in Haiti as well as a brewery in Canada and investments in electricity. But they are largely estranged from Rodolphe who has a reputation as a big spender who mysteriously disappeared from Haiti for long periods.
His participation in the June 8 meeting was described in a letter delivered to prosecutors by a lawyer for one of the detained men, Reynaldo Corvington, the owner of a security company who hosted the gathering.
The June 8 meeting
According to the letter by Corvington’s attorney, Samuel Madistin, the 6pm meeting was requested by Joseph Felix Badio, a former Justice Ministry official who was fired in May from an anti-corruption unit for “serious breaches” of ethical rules.
Madistin told Univision in a phone interview that Badio worked as a consultant for Corvington’s firm, Corvington Courier & Security Service, which has held several U.S. government contracts in the 1990s, including providing guards for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.
Badio and Corvington have known eachother for 20 years when Badio worked for an anti-drug unit in the Justice Ministry and Corvington’s firm had a security contract for a government warehouse were seized drugs were held.
Badio had called Corvington earlier in the day to say that “an FBI officer and a DEA official wished to meet with him and asked him if he could receive them at his home,” according to Madistin’s letter.
Badio showed up with a former senator John Joel Joseph as well as a Colombian man who spoke only Spanish. Jaar arrived a few minutes later, but the 49-year-old businessman never spoke during the meeting. “I don’t know why he was there,” said Madistin.
The meeting wound up after about one hour. Corvington was unimpressed by Badio’s presentation of the supposed anti-money laundering and drug trafficking operation, according to Madistin.
Madistin said he expected his client would soon be released as “he had nothing to do with the assassination. Nothing at all.”
What happened over the next four weeks is a mystery. On the night of July 7 armed men entered the president’s residence, with almost no resistance from Moise’s 40-men security team.
According his wife, First Lady Martine Moise, none of the assassins spoke Creole or French, she has said. The men spoke only Spanish and communicated with someone on the phone as they searched the room. They appeared to find what they wanted on a shelf where her husband kept his files, she told The New York Times.
“They were looking for something in the room, and they found it,” she said. She said she did not know what it was.
There remain more questions than answers, both for Haitian authorities and the United States.
“Who has the US, and the DEA specifically, been working with in Haiti? To what end?” asked Jake Johnson, a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
“Have those relationships compromised the agency’s ability to do its job and actually undermined security and stability in Haiti?” he asked. “More directly, given previous investigations and arrests, what evidence of high-level government and private sector corruption or criminality does the US possess? And could that be, in any way, related to the assassination of the president?" he added.
Jaar “was a very high-profile (U.S. government) informant,” said Vigil.
It’s likely that Jaar’s role as a DEA informant ended in 2016 after he left jail, as by then he had been exposed in court, and the media, as having, as one judge put it “a checkered history”, of double dealing with traffickers and the DEA.
“He has too much garbage, too much baggage by then,” said Albert Levin, a Miami attorney who represented a Haitian police commander, Claude Thelemaque, who helped provide security for Jaar’s drug shipments.
A fluent English speaker with a degree in business administration, Jaar, was considered by DEA to be a valuable “snitch” as he helped authorities disrupt the longstanding cocaine connection between Colombia, Venezuela and Haiti. Jaar would pay off local cops to protect the cocaine loads flown in on planes that landed at night on dirt strips protected by local police who guided the pilots by radio, according to court records.
Thelemaque was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in jail in 2016 for his role in a 425-kilo shipment of cocaine coordinated by Jaar, who stole 50 kilos from the shipment behind the DEA’s back.
“In this case you have a situation where a man was presumably cooperating and at the same time double dealing; in essence working both sides of the fence,” said Levin.
Jaar was facing life in prison but because he was a DEA informant he received a prison sentence of less than four years. Jaar’s lawyer, Richard Dansoh, did not answer several requests for comment.
At his sentencing in 2014, Jaar asked the judge for forgiveness. “Your Honor, I have accepted full responsibility from the beginning, and I have cooperated with the government,” he said.
“I admit I made a big mistake, in my cooperation. I can assure you that I will never make this mistake again,” he added.
Thelemaque is still is jail and is not due to be released until May 22, 2023, according to federal prison records.
Jaar’s lawyer at the time, Richard Dansoh, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Leader of the band"
Two years later, at Thelemaque’s trial, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Judge Williams expressed her own disquiet. “Jaar got a huge break here, and it has to be acknowledged,” she told the court.
His double dealing “so fatally impaired” his credibility that prosecutors decided not to have him testify against Thelemaque at trial, Williams noted, according to the 2016 trial transcript.
Jaar also helped convict a Haitian policeman and his codefendant Olgaire Francois, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in the same kilo shipment.
“I was shocked to learn that Mr Jaar was given rewards notwithstanding the fact that it had been discovered that he had been a double agent and had actually stolen part of the cocaine that he was working with the DEA to have seized,” Francois’ lawyer, Curt Obront, told Univision.
“You can only make so many deals with the devil,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who handled several Haitian drug cases.
“After a while you have stop making those deals and use another way to go after the big fish,” he added.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneosly quoted Claude Thelemaque's lawyer, Albert Levin, as saying that his client was recruited by Rodolphe Jaar. It was the prosecutors who said Thelemaque was recuited by Jaar. Levin says his client was innocent and never participated in the drug shipment.